Disability Activism from Welsh perspectives

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Earlier this month as part of a program of online talks, Disability Arts Cymru ran an event led by Sara Beer with photographer and journalist, Natasha Hirst, discussing welsh culture and disability. Review by Alice Eklund

Headshot of a white woman, facing the camera

Mared Jarman

As someone with a long-term chronic illness, I’ve found it difficult to label myself and see how I fit in the disabled community. Often it can be extremely frustrating when trying to open up a conversation with employers, colleagues and peers about being disabled and the access and support needed for disabled people when presenting as ‘able-bodied’.

This last year has given me the time and space to explore what being a creative freelancer dealing with a disability means to me. What does giving yourself access support as a self-employed person mean? How do you ensure the work that you do from home is still in keeping with the support that you would normally get from in-person contact or from a building? Often as people living with these barriers we’re asked what we need and what we can’t do, as opposed to what we can.

Going to the Disability Arts Cymru ‘Crip Talk: The Importance of the Welsh Language to Disability and Deaf Empowerment’ I felt like two really important aspects of my career were finally coming together. Something that Dr Elin Haf Gruffydd Jones said about the Welsh language “We shouldn’t need to be congratulated for succeeding” rung true for multiple reasons as someone working through the medium of Welsh and living with an invisible disability.

Getting told that I “don’t look disabled” or “it’ll get better one day” isn’t helpful, which I’m sure is common for a lot of people living with a disability. I’ve consistently felt a pressure when dealing with a flare up or working through a down day to push through and act ‘normal’, rather than get the support I’m entitled to, congratulating my body on the days that I can manage. But it’s not about that. It’s about understanding and overcoming the pressure of needing support.

I think there’s too much focus on getting the world and those who inhabit it to all read from the same page. But what we need is curated and tailored support, guidance and access for each need. To be heard in spaces and invited into them. Reforming and reimagining our spaces and practice to allow anyone to thrive with support and without judgement. This doesn’t go just for disability, it goes for bilingual people, people of colour, members of the LGBTQ+ community. Steps have been taken and some ground work made to ensure support and access in our spaces, but as Sarah Lawrence explained as a D/deaf person looking to access the Welsh language and large parts of Welsh culture through sign language, there are still large barriers. Watching Sarah sign the Welsh national anthem, brought an overwhelming sense of pride to the Zoom call. She wonderfully put it as “it’s about language, not about hearing”. It’s about being able to feel included in your own country’s culture even when you can’t access it in the same way as others.

I felt comfort in asking questions about accessing support through the Welsh language and being really empowered in particular by Mared Jarman and her insight into living with a disability through the medium of Welsh. “You reach a point in life where you ask yourself, what education do I choose?”, when Mared spoke about her experience of deciding whether to go to a school that provided access support or to further her Welsh medium education, I thought back to the disability support I received upon starting university; being handed a dictaphone and transcription software that only worked in English for my Welsh medium degree.

Deciding that meant pursuing my degree without extra support because I deserved to study in my first language. We need more opportunities and support for disabled people through the medium of Welsh or we lose the creatives and the language. It was wonderful to hear about the steps that Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru are taking with their new bursaries; actively seeking disabled/ neurodiverse applicants for paid opportunities to create. Supporting people through the Welsh language at any level. Understanding that taking away a language barrier allows them to grow and integrate the language within the work of the participants.

However, although I found joy and empathy in the voices that I heard on this panel, I was acutely aware that even with diversity in terms of disability, there was a distinct lack of diversity in terms of race and gender. As a cis white woman, I am already in a more privileged position to access support from my industry. We need to hear from other marginalised voices to ensure that we are actively working towards inclusion in it’s widest sense, and not just for a specific demographic.

Language and the arts should be open to all, no matter what you’re dealing with. Integration of access in theatre and performing arts should be a regular practice and not a tick-box exercise. Ask for insight from disabled people and pay them for their time. Develop with people, not just for them.