Let’s Discuss Disability – an exhibition aimed at opening up a conversation with a community


Let’s Discuss Disability is on exhibition at the Thought Foundation from 2 May to 15 June. The group exhibition gives artists Kev Howard, Lisette Auton, Hello Little Lady, Deborah Humm and Simon Mckeown space to explore their own experience with disability through various mediums, including photography, spoken word and even an ‘Invalid Carriage’. Review by Tom Smith

a group of people look up at a series of black line drawings on glass

A collection of drawings by artist Deborah Humes are suspended on glass – an exploration of her body movements through line drawings

The Thought Foundation is the brainchild of Leanne and Gareth Billinghurst and set in a wonderful space in Birtley. When I was there, there were lots of children enjoying the sand-filled play area at the front of the building, whilst the parents enjoyed the café inside. But it’s so much more than a place that brings the community together; they showcase artists, produce exhibitions and host events. They’re always looking to expand and build their audience and welcome anyone along.

Their first exhibition to receive funding from Arts Council England is Let’s Discuss Disability, but it did not come without its concerns for Leanne.

“Disability is contentious. You don’t want to offend anyone, but we’ve been honest, which is important. We’re not saying we’re covering all aspects of disability.”

A light blue NHS invalid carriage is pictured in a gallery space with large photogrpahs on the wall behind it

Featured 1970’s NHS invalid carriage part of a collection owned by artist Simon McKeown

The exhibition includes artwork from artists with varying impairments and aims to explore own disability through creative practice. It has been curated beautifully and considering the diverse subject matter and disparate artistic disciplines this was not an easy feat.

The Story of Invalid Carriages shows us how disabled people were treated in the past and is represented by photographs of various contraptions that once passed for wheelchairs, an ‘Invalid Carriage’ and a video. The video tells the story of artist Simon McKeown’s grandfather. He was unable to walk due to brittle bones disease and his only means of getting around was in a ‘Bath Chair’ (a cumbersome wicker or leather carriage with either 3 or 4 wheels). It was too big to fit in the house, forcing him to crawl around on the floor, until a homemade wheelchair, of sorts, was made with a dining chair and pram wheels.

“To go from sitting on the floor to sitting with everyone else must have been a huge thing psychologically,” his granddaughter said.

Artist Danni Gilbert and illustration student Aaron Lambert worked with a small group of autistic young people, working with them to provide an opportunity for self-expression. The resulting artwork includes placards with such messages as “If I had a magic wand I would change how autistic people are treated,” sketchbooks, fabric hangings and an old television, showing an animated film with quotes from the young people and facts about autism.

At the opening of the exhibition the ‘Autism Activists’ held their placards up high as a montage of people with autism played on the screen, with Heather Small’s Proud scoring the film. Leanne said it was a moving experience for a lot of the audience members. “The kids were puffed up with pride,” she told me.

Placards, posters and brightly coloured artworks hanging on a frame are pictured in a gallery space

Artwork from a project by young people from the North East Autism sociaity supported by artist Danni Gilbert

What holds Let’s Discuss Disability above other exhibitions that deal with disability is that this is a two-way street. No more so apparent than on Saturday 8th June when there will be a symposium where the artists involved will talk about their work and open it up for discussion with an audience. This is important because you cannot affect anyone’s mindset by simply telling them to change it.

The exhibition has already affected the Thought Foundation, “We’re more aware of being inclusive. We want to use it as part and parcel of what we do and not make it a big deal,” Leanne said.

One step they’ve made is to buy a bundle of books with disability themes for the childrens’ Read and Play group.

The piece that spoke to me the most was Lisette Auton’s 6 Pieces of Protest Poetry, which is spoken word on a loop. I see-saw between pride and shame when dealing with my own disability so listening to Lisette’s pride is inspiring.

All of the poems offer something different, but I am particularly impressed by Roll up! Roll up! where Lisette turns the figurative into the real. All of her pieces could have been bleak, given the subject matter, but Lisette has fun with them, and makes you laugh along with her.

The main thread of the show is the past, present and going forward with a discussion about disability. The artists do not tell you what is negative or what is positive about their experiences, they merely present it for what it is. This is done well, and has produced a fantastic jumping off point for us all to discuss disability.

Let’s Discuss Disability is on exhibition until 14 June at The Thought Foundation, Birtley. For more information visit www.thoughtfoundation.co.uk