UK disabled artists are currently seen as leading the world but, after a long history of social and civic struggle for equality and legislation, it’s been a hard fought place to reach. Yet now, we seem to be throwing it all away and treating disabled artists worse than before. Why?
Arts organisations and companies such as Graeae, Heart n Soul, Candoco Dance Company, Shape Arts and NDACA, the Disability Arts Collection and Archive, have spent decades advocating for disabled artists. The opening ceremony of London 2012 Paralympics put disabled artists in the spotlight on a global stage for all the world’s media and international audiences to see. Disabled artists take over Europe’s largest centre for the arts, Southbank Centre, every two years for the Unlimited Festival. Since 2013, Unlimited, the disability arts programme that I work on, has given over £2.8 million to projects involving disabled artists, producers and companies so they have the financial, practical and emotional support to create new work and tour across the UK and internationally.
UK disabled artists are fierce and bold; the work they create ambitious and varied. But their work and the reputation of the UK as leaders in disability arts are currently on a knife edge.
The British arts scene is squeezed by decreasing public funds but it’s worse, oh, so much worse for disabled artists. Why? The transfer of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to the unworkable Personal Independence Payments (PIP); new rules and caps on Access to Work (ATW), which should enable disabled people to work as equals; the new Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) squeeze on Working Tax credits; the insistence on Universal Credit and the constant reduction of care support from local authorities. You don’t have to understand the ins and outs of every benefit to grasp the fact that disabled people have been hit the hardest by austerity measures.
All of this is now dictating which disabled people can work as artists and which can’t. And that’s not fair. At Unlimited, we commission art by disabled artists. We believe that any disabled person with talent and ambition has the right to create work and realise their artistic potential. We believe that their art work can spark life-enhancing shifts and perception change in the cultural sector and in audiences – as the very best art always does.
Like the work of Kaite O’Reilly, a disabled playwright from Wales whose latest play And Suddenly I Disappear, exploring the experience of disability in the UK and Singapore, premieres in Singapore this month. Or Kai Syng Tan’s incredible Magic Carpet tapestry celebrating ADHD. Or the Paraorchestra, the world’s first large-scale professional ensemble of disabled musicians, which performs new work The Nature Of Why in Bristol this month.
Unlimited is part of Arts Council England’s strategic diversity initiatives. They recognise that disabled artists don’t yet get a fair deal within the cultural sector and that many venues and programmers still fail to see the talent beneath their noses. It is these perceptions that Unlimited is seeking to change, but it’s becoming harder to do so.
The UN has described the government welfare cuts as creating a “human catastrophe” for disabled people in the UK. We know of artists who’ve had to reduce their work hours because of the lower levels of access they have been offered through Access to Work. Artists have been told they must wear adult nappies at night rather than have care support that provides dignified toileting. Artists have chosen to stop producing work rather than face a new mountain of forms every time the DWP change the rules. Artists live in fear of being placed in care homes. Artists too are amongst those who have died.
We want disabled artists to be able to fulfil their creative potential – and that’s all disabled artists, not just a narrow selection of those who need less support or adjustment. We want all disabled artists to be seen and supported as artists, and recognised for the national and international impact they have, but we can’t do that alone.
Jo Verrent is senior producer for Unlimited, the UK’s commissioning programme for disabled artists (weareunlimited.org.uk, @weareunltd)