Stories from within BURSTING OUT! Bringing NDACA to life with new insights…


In October, Disability Arts Online brought together eight of its regular writers, from a range of different backgrounds, to explore the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (NDACA) wing at Buckinghamshire New University, High Wycome. Observations by Emma Robdale.

Group of people sitting around a table

Introductions at NDACA

“Here, the worlds of politics and arts collide,” said NDACA Archivist, Alex Cowan. Sitting around pre-selected objects such as Jon Adam’s ‘Emergency Alphabet’ (a square made out of alphabet pieces, but with the ‘U’(you) left out), and ‘Bored to Death’ (a sketch of a girl in a wheelchair disinterested in wicker basket making, by Steve Jones), we huddled around Cowan as he introduced the archive. He explained how much of the collection was from artists with physical impairments, and its core works from 1980-1995 … I’d anticipated this, and though I was interested in broadening my knowledge, my main interest is in Neurodivergence, so was determined to see what I could dig up!

The event was an excellent place to network. As we did a round of introductions, I realized that there were three other ND journalists!!! And as we spoke, it became clear that many of my own private revelations about the climate of Neurodiversity were shared. One being that organisations who represent disability can often leave-out ND individuals; branding them ‘too able’… however, the ‘catch 22’ is that non-disability-led organisations find their processing/anxiety/communication difficulties ‘too disabling’, leaving many ND people in a no-man’s land. Though it was nice to have this solidarity about these matters, it was saddening to discover that others, from a range of UK locations, had similarly harrowing experiences.

Woman with ginger hair standing in front of a display board

Emma Robdale in front of one of the display boards at NDACA

One journalist spoke about how they run ‘Magical Woman’, a place where women with ADHD can express themselves artistically. Its ethos had been made into zine, which it was suggested could be donated to the archive to expand upon its ND material! It was my turn to introduce myself, and I was very nervous. Though I have written articles about a lot of disabled artists and events, I tend to duck out of the spotlight about my own experiences. I spoke about my own research in Neurodivergence and Creative Writing. It pricked interest. A possible Neurodivergent aesthetic had been recognised by others! Hurrah! One artist and journalist voiced that he felt his working methods were more fractured because that is the way he thinks and perceives. And another believed she could tell when she was reading the work of a person with ADHD/autism, because it had a, “very visual style and a logic that speaks to me”.

After introductions, we were taken to the repository – a room filled with shelves of boxes and walls of posters. Cowan commented that, “The UK is quite unique for having an established Disability Movement.” This was the heart of the archive, and we were told that many boxes had not yet been sorted… so we could discover something completely new if we delved!

Pulled out from the shelves was a project, ‘A Day in the Life’; a photographic collection detailing disabled people in a residential home. I was fascinated by these sneak peeks of day-to-day experiences showing disabled people from a different decade; unlike ‘pity pictures’ often fed by the media, these ‘selfies’, painted a relaxed and very ordinary outlook to these people’s lives. The group was asked to pick out work which intrigued them. They were to concentrate their energies on it for the next few hours.

Collection of books, notebooks and clippings

Emma Robdale’s ‘Squirrel-hoard’ of items

I was very pleasantly surprised to find material relevant to Neurodivergence! Including a box of Survivor’s Poetry. After taking it back to my squirrel hoard of things, I came to the realization that much of it had been written by ND individuals, who also had mental health problems. Though it covered a huge range of subjects: sexual abuse, institutional abuse, childhood, bullying, anger, medication, depression, death… I felt connected to many of the voices. Others agreed that Survivor’s Poetry was intrinsically linked to the plights of Neurodivergent individuals,

“It’s universal and personal at the same time….the power to say new words, reclaim your perception, your brain! They are stories of ND people who have survived the system of psychiatry, survived diagnosis, and survived abuse. Who gets to decide what and who is ill anyway?”

After having time to examine the artefacts, including a box of feminist magazines, a letter from Liz Carr asking Graeae advice as to whether she should be a lawyer or a comedian/actor, and a large selection of newspaper clippings, the group had a final conversation. With minds freshly fertilized with the bounty from the archive, debate was instigated – the space buzzed with discussion about the direction of the evolving world of disability.

A question arose “Why are there less historic works by ND people?” I thought that it could be because of powerful stigmas associated with Neurodivergence, meaning that many people historically (and also now!) aren’t ‘out’. Another suggestion given was that they are simply ‘less visual’, and that we live in a very visual culture; so, a demonstration where a man rolls his wheelchair in front of a bus could make a visually strong political statement, that wouldn’t have the same graphic appeal if a dyslexic person did the same. I noted to myself not to put myself in the way of public transport when striving for change!

People sitting around a table in debate

Group discussion at NDACA

Something that I hadn’t considered previously was that the principles for the social model arose from the ‘Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation’, and did not necessarily have ND input. Given the social model’s influence on the Disability Rights movement and the eventual Disability Discrimination Act (1995), what does this mean for ND communities today? Are their very specific difficulties considered appropriately?

Something else that really struck me in the discussion was a comment on the nature of disabled artists; What would they create if they weren’t disabled? Did disability fuel and spur their art?… Or, did it get in the way of what would have been more natural interests? I’m not sure if we can really know. We are all shaped and moulded intellectually and artistically by lived experiences (disabled or non-disabled) and I reason this strengthens and gives value to art. But then, it may be possible that less future artists will feel a drive to create work directly on ‘disability’, because it (hopefully) won’t be such a contested issue in their lifetime.

After a lot of very poignant, but sometimes painful talk about politics and exclusion, it was beautiful to hear James Zatka-Haas bring up his interest of Love and Disability. He commented, “Through osmosis, whether we managed to read or see it, through talking here today, the experiences of other disabled people have touched us and made us stronger.”

Alex Cowan summed up the day, “Everyone, disabled/non-disabled, they love stories. That is why we have to turn lives into stories.”

This rang very true. Not just for his archive but for ‘us’ as journalists/writers who need to be aware of not only what is going on around us regarding the vastness of disability-led art, but also how to let it unfold into engaging articles. With our attentiveness, ingenuity, and trained ear, we can raise attention to the varied and often political works of Disabled and ND artists, one story at a time!

Explore the NDACA online archive for yourself

You can visit the NDACA Wing at Buckinghamshire New University, High Wycome, by booking a session