Disability Arts Cymru recently launched ‘Ni Chawn ein Dileu’ – We shall not be Erased’ – a pan-European initiative to bring together disabled/Deaf people from across our nations to discuss and explore the impact of Covid -19 on our lives, captured though debate, sharing and arts commissions. On 10th March presentations were heard from partners from Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Wales/UK and Sweden, annotated by key note speakers on the issues surounding the pandemic. Review by Natasha Sutton-Williams
In the UK, 60% of people who have died from Covid-19 have been disabled, yet mainstream news outlets have not been reporting this fact. As a response to the government’s lack of concern and care towards disabled people, the ‘Ni Chawn Ein Dileu’ (We Shall Not Be Erased) initiative was born.
Spearheaded by Disability Arts Cymru, ‘We Shall Not Be Erased’ has gathered a range of disability-led arts organisations from across Europe to inspire disability advocates to come together as a community and push to be included in the vital conversations being had on how we move out of this pandemic together as a global society. ‘We Shall Not Be Erased’ held an inaugural public event to celebrate the union of these disability-led arts organisations and find out more about what these companies stand for.
Cope Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation based in Cork, Ireland. The organisation supports over 2,300 children and adults with an intellectual disability and/or autism. They have 70 locations across the County of Cork. They develop arts and educational projects with a focus on implementing the UNCRPD (United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities).
Eion Nash from the Cope Foundation was the first speaker for the event. Nash stated that, “We’re here to support the ‘We Will Not Be Erased’ initiative by bringing our creative, strategic, practical and networking experience to the team. We will continue to support the project and want to work collaboratively on disability rights throughout the arts.”
Next up was Maria Vlachou, director of Acesso Cultura based in Portugal. Acesso Cultura is a not-for-profit organization that promotes physical and intellectual access. Vlachou discussed the importance of ‘We Shall Not Be Erased’ being created during this global disruption, “The pandemic has obliged many of us to reconsider the way we live our lives and the way we do our work. It has made it obvious to even those more distracted that this situation does not have the same impact on everyone’s life. Some existing inequalities have become more intense and urgent to deal with. We wish to deal with them respectfully and creatively and this is what this project means to us.”
Write4word is a company based in Wales that focuses on literature and spoken word. Their aim is to develop writers and use writing to develop people. They are involved in multiple creative projects that employ creativity to support wellbeing, as well as striving to extend the idea of what a literary performance is. Write4word’s co-founder Dominic Williams introduced award-winning poet Catherine Davies, who read her poem ‘Nursery Rhyme’, expressing the absurdity of the UK government’s response to the pandemic using a simple nursery rhyme format. With a resounding deadpan tone, Davies recited:
“Slogans on the billboards
Slogans on our lips
All stay in, go out, stay in
Four, five, six”
Kultivera is an organization based in Tromso, Sweden, that works artists specialising in poetry, spoken word, contemporary visual arts, and dance. They are best known from hosting the Tromso Fringe Festival. Their focus is in exploring multiple disciplines, backgrounds and cultures, paving the way for unexpected experiences, and collaborating with professional artists, disabled audiences and the public to generate the foundation necessary for creating art.
Colm Ò Ciarnáin, director of Kultivera, offered a provocation for artists who advocate for change: “‘Most regions consist of small towns where ‘normality’ stands: these attitudes, thoughts and behaviours shape our daily lives. Artists with a local outlook can use this perspective to review global art forms and to understand our cultural heritage. Every day we experience oppression and resistance in relation to our governments, neighbours and even ourselves. Despite these pressures, how can we remain strong and fight with new expressions?”
The event grew to a climax when guest speaker Vici Wreford-Sinnot took the floor. Intrepid activist that she is, she gave a no-holds-barred account of the importance of never apologising for being disabled in an ableist world, and where hope lies for the disabled community as we slowly start to creep out of the pandemic.
“When challenged about why more disabled people are not visible in public life, we hear, ‘But I don’t know any disabled people’. Yet there are so many of us, disability is family,” states Wreford-Sinnot. “The World Health Organisation estimates there are over 135 million disabled people living in Europe. In some of our local areas, 22 to 25% of the population are disabled. That is a lot of people. We know disabled people. But perhaps that gap comes when we don’t recognise the people that we know and value in that negative picture of disabled people where we are presented as the deficit version of the human being. It has a distancing, dehumanising effect. The people we know don’t fit that mould. But equally this mysterious homogenous group of people is presented as passive recipients with meaningless lives. As a result of that gap in understanding, it’s possible to continue with the myth of broken people and justify inconsequential deaths in a pandemic.”
Wreford-Sinnot continued, “If culture is a site of oppression, culture is also the site of liberation. We fight for that in what we say and what we craft. Disabled artists have made a huge difference to the discussion about Disability Rights. Disabled people have come together to reclaim culture and to celebrate our identities and communities in the most creative ways. We have continued to make work to protest and stay visible. Networks give us solidarity. There have been amazing examples of created work, new platforms, and we have all gone DIY in how we share our work. We are making our own opportunities.”
She ended with a thunderous call to action, “We are not community without everyone. No one must be left behind. We have created guidelines and principles of inclusion. We have a stake. We have been consistently breaking the mould. We are speaking out, raising the roof and lighting fires. We are demanding change. Culture is about who we are as humanity. It’s time to change the stories, who tells them, and how they are told. Together we can build a new wave of cultural activism that refuses to accept second best. We will paint, write, sing, and play music. We have to look beyond what has gone before. Art and culture matter in the fight for equality. Disability is family. We are family.”