Definitive article

Janet Charlewsorth's Article 19, part of Levy Fringe Arts Festival, compares Victorian views of disability with our own

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Living with a disability in modern-day Britain involves endless bureaucracy and a constant sense of having to justify oneself.

That is the experience of artist Janet Charlesworth (pictured), who has tried to capture some of these feelings in her latest piece, Article 19.

The Salford artist – a founder member of Proud and Loud Arts – has a lifetime’s worth of frustrations about the way society views and treats people with disabilities. But it was two news articles from 2019 that enraged her so much that she had to create something in response.

First, she read that a London council was considering forcing people with disabilities to live in residential care in order to cut costs. Then she learned how a non-verbal disabled woman’s overnight care was being replaced with technology. She would be locked in her flat, unable to go to the toilet or get a drink during those hours, and monitored by cameras.

Charlesworth was outraged. “Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities states that people with disabilities have the right to choose where they live and who they live with, and have the right to be included in the community,” she says.

“I think it’s really important people know this. If people don’t know their rights, they won’t be able to stand up for themselves. I had to respond.”

Founded in 2000, Proud and Loud supports its nine member artists to develop work and helps breaks down barriers and access issues so their work can be seen. Some of this work reflects on the issue of disability, but much of it does not. The organisation encourages artists to work collaboratively with other creatives across Greater Manchester and beyond.

Charlesworth took the news articles to the group and asked others for their thoughts. She then looked into how society treated people with disabilities in the past. The resulting part-multimedia, part-live show aims to get audiences thinking about the similarities and differences between Victorian prejudice and modern-day attitudes.

In it, Charlesworth shares personal experiences and reflections, which are layered onto a soundscape, while actors react to what is being said. The work will be broadcast during Levy Fringe Arts Festival, on 22-31 October. Most of the festival programme is taking place online this year.

Why, in the 21st century, am I met with surprise when I say I live on my own?

Charlesworth, who had to use her bathroom with an assessor present and then go through an appeals process in order to get the funding needed to cover a daily shower, says: “During the Victorian era, people with disabilities had to choose between the workhouse, begging on the streets or joining a freak show.

“Even today we have the medical model of disability, which sees the disability rather than the person, the wheelchair rather than the person in it. It blames us for being disabled when it’s society that causes our inability to do things. Why, in the 21st century, am I met with surprise when I say I live on my own? Why do I then feel the need to justify it by saying, as if to put their mind at rest, that I have carers coming in?”

Tom Hogan, artistic director at Proud and Loud, says: “In supporting Janet to bring this to life, we tried to capture an experience of dealing with the bureaucracy and the hoops and the barriers and this constant sense of having to justify yourself over and over and over again.

“The piece moves from incarceration to a sense of freedom, of being able to participate within community and society without these structural bodies bearing down, watching, looking at, medicalising, assessing, governing, and whatever other words you want to use. In the end we decided to throw it together randomly and see what meaning comes out of it. What came out is really beautiful but also challenging and complex.”

Article 19 will be broadcast at 7.30pm on YouTube on 30 Oct. Tickets cost £4.50 and can be booked through Levy Fringe Arts Festival. For more info see the festival programme

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