Unlimited: The Generation Gap

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Unlimited Trainee Simon Overington-Hickford curated a series of provocations and discussions centred around the question of whether the cultural sector is succeeding in meeting the ambitions of young disabled people, featuring speakers Kate Lovell, Justin Sight, John R. Wilkinson, Laura Dajao, Tom Wentworth and Kim Simpson. The Generation Gap took place at Southbank Centre on 9 September 2016.

Justin stands against a wall covered in graffiti. He is holding a deck of playing cards.

Justin Sight. Photography by Brianna Myers.

A point often mooted is that the young people of today will be some of the first generations to be worse off than those that preceded them. This is pretty much unprecedented in living memory. But can the same be said in the arts, and for disabled artists in particular? Judging by the consensus amongst the speakers and panelists at The Generation Gap, perhaps not.

Aside from the old gremlins of physical and psychological access – both of which ironically are areas where things have most improved in recent years – and the lingering stigmas around disability, the panelists were refreshingly upbeat about prospects. So often these events are talking shops that descend into a vortex of negativity, which though valid, is not always the most productive.

A common thread for most of the event’s participants was an acknowledgment that when opportunities are limited, you sometimes have to make them for yourself. Justin Sight gave a fascinating personal account of just that. When his dead-end job was drying up he took to the streets of New York to pursue his lifelong passion of magic, armed with nothing but an empty hat. “Sometimes you just have to swing the bat”. He wasn’t the only panellist to cite his own fears as the biggest barriers to his success.

Director John R. Wilkinson credited improved formal prospects on the invaluable ground-work that has been laid; this generation are standing (or sitting) on the shoulders of giants such as Graeae who have made it possible for disabled theatre-makers to enter the industry via more ‘mainstream’ channels.

Kate Lovell, Agent for Change at Theatre Royal Stratford East delivered a rousing, articulate and deeply insightful opening speech. She asserted that ‘young’ should refer to the state of an artist’s career rather than their numerical age, especially for disabled artists who are often “late bloomers” due to all of the extra impairment and disability issues, which they have to navigate. How can we support those late-blooming disabled artists who fall through the cracks when the majority of opportunities aimed at ‘emerging artists’ have an age limit of 26 years, or younger?

But rather than being about a gap in terms of opportunity, this panel discussion perhaps highlighted that the biggest ‘generation gap’ in the sector is one of interpretations of disability politics and identity. When quizzed, all three of the Unlimited Impact-backed panellists (Wilkinson, theatre-maker Tom Wentworth and dancer/choreographer Laura Dajao) said they did not naturally identify as disabled artists; or they only did temporarily when they felt they could gain opportunities from it. Panel-chair Kim Simpson who is the associate producer for Tramway’s Unlimited Festival was the exception.

This is of course a deeply personal choice, to be respected. But if it is indicative of a general trend for young artists who “happen to be disabled,” it raises serious questions about the future of disability arts as a distinct artistic movement. It also seems to point to a fault line between the younger generation and some of the battle-hardened old heads of the disability arts world, whose social and political engagement with disability has helped make their work so unique and powerful.

Equally missing from the conversation in the room was a mention of actual young people (as in the next generation who are yet to take up any opportunities, are still at art school, are part of underground arts scenes not publicly funded… and where we go to find them and engage them in the debates about disability and impairment.

When asked about whether it was useful to have festivals such as Unlimited and DaDaFest that frame work in a disability context the panel’s consensus was overwhelmingly that they still have a place. Wilkinson described them as “the best trade fairs,” but other than the British Council bringing delegates, I do wonder how many ‘mainstream’ producers and programmers come along to discover new talent.

All three panel members stressed that they just wanted to make ‘good work’ and that disability needn’t come in to it. Dajao expressed fatigue with works about disability by disabled artists and wanted more work about “simply being human”. It’s certainly true that we need more instances of incidental disability and impairment in mainstream work i.e. where it’s not the focus or the plot point but just one facet of the human condition.

However, the reality is the amount of work being produced about disability − as a social and political system of oppression – as opposed to impairment, is actually minimal, and if anything, dwindling, as Colin Hambrook argued in his round up of 2015.

And if a new generation of artists dispense altogether with disability as an identity, informed by a proper understanding of the social model, I fear the rights of disabled artists, so bitterly fought for may be jeopardised going forward. The wider arts sector will be poorer for not having that unique and diverse voice a disability identity engenders.

With the positivity and do-it-yourself attitude of the younger, and perspective informed by a social, political identification of disability of the older, it seems the generations still have much to teach each other. And if they can, maybe there are reasons to be cheerful.