Due to premiere in January 2020 at The Art House in Wakefield, Justin Edgar’s exhibition (supported by Unlimited) documents a group of disabled activists calling themselves Reasonable Adjustment (RAD), promising to raise questions about society’s attitudes towards disability. The artist talks to Colin Hambrook about the installation which brings together artefacts collected over a 30 year period.
Justin Edgar is Creative Director of 104 films, a production and training company specialising in disability and film. Their credits include BAFTA nominated films such as the Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Notes on Blindness and Oscar shortlisted documentary Unseen. In a surprising undertaking, given his previous credits, Edgar has turned his attention to producing a visual arts exhibition of photographs, posters, flyers, weapons and a 1991 television documentary chronicling Reasonable Adjustment (RAD) – a collective of disabled activists who fought for disability rights during the 1980s and 1990s. The filmmaker felt the narrative structure of film is not always the best way to tell certain stories and when the opportunity came along with funding for him to develop this as a visual arts exhibition, he felt this was the right medium to tell the story of the movement as a whole.
Disabled people were a marginalised and ignored group during the Thatcherite era. The exhibition gives a context to why RAD did what they did, relaying what happened as plainly and factually as possible, in a way that leaves the audience to make up their own mind. Disabled people have always been at the bottom of the pile in society, with less power, money and influence. In response Edgar reflects on the motives of the disability activists who took part in RAD: “I think disabled people have a sense of injustice thrust upon them from birth. For anyone who commits extreme acts of violence in the name of protest or belief, there is something else driving them. It’s not just about the cause; a lot of drive and anger comes from childhood – perhaps a sense of not being listened to and getting angry about that.”
Reading Frances Ryan’s Crippled: Austerity and the Welfare State gave Edgar a sense that history is repeating itself, with the current division and conflict the UK is grappling with. He felt that now is an important moment to introduce the public to a forgotten disability rights group who led the way in the early 1990s in bringing the disability agenda to the fore, challenging an oppressive medical establishment to gain rights.
Disabled people have born the brunt of ten years of austerity. As the government offers platitudes that we must put Brexit behind us and move forward as a nation, it remains clear that 48% of the nation are angrily opposed to Brexit. The next five years will bring further divisions with promises of deeper more savage cuts affecting disability communities across the country. Edgar poses his exhibition as a response to lessons learned from past experience: “I lived through the sharp end of the Thatcher era in the 1980s – a similarly divisive era of British politics. There are going to be a lot more RADs in the next few years, as we see more sectarian violence rearing its head as a result of Brexit.”
The filmmaker first began documenting RAD as part of a student photography project when he was at Art College in Portsmouth in 1993 when he first came across RAD and their activity: “When we were set a task of documenting an element of the environment around us, I began taking photographs recording RAD graffiti I saw around the city for a visual awareness project.” Edgar began to see more anti-establishment RAD graffiti in underpasses in his home-town of Birmingham, Sheffield and other urban areas. He was intrigued and the photographs led him to research RAD more, and that’s when he began collecting the items audiences will see in the exhibition.
Although Reasonable Adjustment presents disabled radicals promoting violence as a response to discrimination, Edgar comes from a long line of pacifists – his grandad was a conscientious objector in World War One and his mum sold white poppies for the Peace Pledge Union on the streets of Birmingham. As a child he would go with her and witness abuse from people who thought she was polluting the message of Remembrance Day: “It’s a great irony how people are angered by the notion of peace and non-violence, just witness all the hatred and ridicule of Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear disarmament – I find that very strange.” Edgar doesn’t condone the violent actions of RAD, but understands the frustration of disabled activists compelled to fight back: “All of us have anger inside but its whether or not we choose, or are even able, to suppress it that makes the difference.”
As well Edgar’s early photographs of the RAD movement, the exhibition will include a 1991 Television documentary, which reported on Reasonable Adjustment’s activities including the bombing of Euston station. Originally thought lost, this copy was recovered from the collection of World in Action enthusiast Michael Craven, who recorded every weekly episode on a Betamax VCR from 1977 until his death in 1995: “We don’t know who the presenter was as parts of the end credits are missing and in the style of the current affairs program at that time the presenter was largely off-camera.”
Reasonable Adjustment – The Disabled Armed Resistance is a statement about how dogma embedded within political factions can lead to tribalism and violence. Dave McCauley was an activist with cerebral palsy in RAD who became an icon for the movement following his tragic death in 1991. The exhibition includes photographs taken by news photographer, Phil Dexter of McCauley and the remains of his wheelchair at the moment he accidentally dropped a lit molotov cocktail on himself.
Edgar met McCauley’s family originally, for a documentary strand called The Slot which he directed for Channel 4 in 1999. This was a five-minute programme that went out directly after the Channel 4 news. The item was never broadcast, but the filmmaker stayed in touch with McCauley’s family over the years and tried and failed to get funding to make a feature film about the activist. When it came to pulling the exhibition together he talked to McCauley’s family about using images of the wheelchair he died in: “it was a difficult conversation, but they understood what I was trying to do and gave their blessing. He was a deeply driven man and seeing his chair in the exhibition is a very powerful image. He would have loved it.”
Another reason for Edgar to bring this exhibition together is that little evidence of the RAD movement has been archived, unlike the coverage given to non-violent protest group the Direct Action Network (DAN). DANs actions contributed directly to the establishment of the Disability Discrimination Act, and as a result is a disability studies subject in its own right. The lack of knowledge about RAD is symptomatic of a more general apathy and disinterest by society and the press in disability rights. Another factor is that the early 1990s, like today, was a time when a plethora of different protest groups were operating. By the time RAD emerged there was little appetite in the news media for coverage of yet another group. Try finding coverage of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and even the poll tax rioters – little documentation remains.
Edgar responds: “History belongs to the hegemony and a lot of groups who attack the system end up written out of it. Anyone remember the Walsall Anarchists of the 1890s for example? That’s one of the reasons I wanted to mount this exhibition, to make known an important piece of history that is being forgotten. In the light of nine years of austerity cuts to disabled people, some might say it’s as though RAD never happened at all.”
Reasonable Adjustment – The Disabled Armed Resistance Movement premieres at The Art House in Wakefield from 29 January to 4 March. The exhibition will tour to the Attenborough Arts Centre in Leicester and the Worcester Arts Workshop, later in 2020.
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