The Creative Doodle Book project explores the impact of digital spaces such as zoom when working with disabled people. Matthew Reason of York St John University writes about some of the findings from the research being run in partnership with Mind the Gap and Totally Inclusive People.
Before Covid-19 a perhaps unspoken but core belief of inclusive and community arts practitioners was the benefits of doing things together, at the same time, in the same room. If this was unspoken, it was because it was so obvious. The presumption would have been that any online alternative would always be a very distant second best.
The lockdowns that have accompanied the Covid-19 pandemic have disrupted many things, not least our opportunities to work together physically. Inclusive arts delivery has had to adapt and move online. While many eagerly await the moment when we can once more safely be together in the same space, this article reflects on some of the benefits and unforeseen rewards of our collective discovery of various kinds of online practice. It doesn’t argue that online is better, but that it is different, including in a number of positive, more inclusive differences. These reflections emerge from the Creative Doodle Book project, as part of which we have been working with people with learning disabilities or autism to explore how we might conduct inclusive community arts in digital spaces during social distancing.
It is also vital to note that online practice is not accessible to all, with a variety of barriers sometimes described as the ‘digital divide’ including lack of equipment, poor internet connections and lack of home support. For others the barriers might be attitudinal or due directly to the nature of an individual’s disability. For a spectrum of these reasons, Claire Reda of Indepen-dance in Glasgow suggests that up to half of their members haven’t joined their online activities, with the majority being older members. While Vicky Ackroyd of Totally Inclusive People notes that there are a small number of people with learning disability that she had previously worked with whom, due to a range of barriers, she has not seen for approaching a year.
Again, therefore, it is worth stressing that online spaces do not work for everybody and are not accessible to all. However, what is interesting is that once online, our lockdown-enforced experience of digital practice has produced different and new kinds of inclusivity. Here I’m going to talk about three, relating to equity, autonomous creativity and access.
When asked about working with people with learning disabilities online, Jo Frater of Confi-dance suggests that once people have managed to get connected ‘There’s a sort of equity with zoom.’ The factors that contribute to this new equity are individually small, often practical, but they multiply to create something meaningful. They include the ability to use online tools to address access needs, with some practitioners for example finding that hearing difficulties have become less of an issue. They include the partly symbolic but also quite impactful sense that online we all have equal amount of screen space, all existing in the same size little boxes in a way that reduces hierarchies. And they include the development of clear and accepted forms of turn taking – we are all very familiar with the importance and personal control of the mute button. On this last point Josh Green of The Lawnmowers states that he has felt a new form of inclusive practice has developed from ‘the different skills that zoom requires in how you orchestrate conversation and include people. In some ways it sort of simplifies inclusive practice. Techniques for turn taking make sure people are included.’
Directly emerging from this equity of the digital space have been the experience that online engagement also encourages and facilitates greater creative autonomy. While we all enjoy and miss the sense of togetherness this is possible when working in the same physical space, nobody would argue that group dynamics are without difficulties – not least concerning group think, peer influence, distracting behaviour and copying. For Jo Frater one advantage of working with the Creative Doodle Book online is that:
Everyone’s got their own space, no one’s comparing themselves to anyone else. They’re able to have their privacy and their art time and creativity in a really private way. And then they get to share it in this really nice, communal way. And it really fits with the technological advancement of zoom.
Digital spaces, therefore, have maintained that sense of communality of doing something together, but encouraged a greater creative independence. Other practitioners affirm this, including Claire Reda talking about inclusive dance: ‘I think we are seeing more creativity. When you’re in a studio a lot of our guys would follow or copy and now they want to give you their own moves.’ Or Josh Green who said that ‘I guess it’s people doing tasks more autonomously. People, being in their own space, going off and doing things and bringing them back and showing different sides of themselves.’
One of the objectives of the Creative Doodle Book project has been to facilitate ways for people to be creative within their own homes, while still doing so in a communal and collective manner. The indispensable benefit of online spaces has been precisely that ability to do things together, while apart.
As noted above there are some access challenges with working online, including significant barriers to getting online in the first place. However, there are some noticeable access benefits as well.
Vicky Ackroyd relates how one participant in a group activity stated that they hadn’t been feeling too well that morning, suffering from physical and mental fatigue. If they had needed to travel to the workshop they would not have left the house and missed out entirely. They were, however, able to turn their computer on even when feeling rough or down. In other words, the barriers to participating online are lower, and for people with learning disabilities that also removes barriers in terms of independent travel and cost.
Our recent enforced dependency on online delivery has also required that we all increase our familiarity with online working, and both facilitators and practitioners have gained greater technological know-how – often learning together at the same time. Josh Green notes this benefit of ‘learning the skills of using the technology, I think has been really empowering for some people.’ This mirrors findings from an Open University report, Keeping Well and Staying Connected, which suggests that ‘Using technologies to support people with learning disabilities during lockdown has highlighted the technological capabilities of people with learning disabilities and the potential of new support practices.’
It is this potential of new support practices that should be truly celebrated, recognising how our newly refreshed ability to work online has not insignificant benefits to enhanced equity, creative autonomy and accessibility. When we are able to return to physical spaces, it is vital that the creative and skilled online provision that inclusive arts practitioners have developed during Covid-19 is maintained. Not at the expense of physical togetherness, but as beneficial legacy of social distancing.
The Creative Doodle Book project is a collaboration between Matthew Reason of York St John University, Mind the Gap Theatre Company and Vicky Ackroyd of Totally Inclusive People. Together we have been working with groups across the country to delivery an innovative model for digital community arts during physical distancing. The Creative Doodle Book project has received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council as their Covid-19 funding and the Erasmus Programme of the European Union.