“I’m a disabled artist.” Let’s look at that statement for a minute – what is a ‘disabled artist’?
We have a very set cultural perception of what someone who is disabled looks like; they’re usually in a wheelchair or at least have some visual clue to their impairment, allowing us to adjust our expectations and respond accordingly.
But many disabilities are actually invisible. I don’t look disabled, yet I am – so you could say that I’m a disabled artist.
I bristle at that description, though. I’m not a disabled artist, I’m an artist who has additional needs. By calling myself a disabled artist I put the focus on an aspect of myself that has no bearing on my finished work. You can’t tell I’m disabled by looking at my art – it stands alongside the work of non-disabled artists on its own merits.
This is why my heart sinks when I see projects for disabled artists being promoted as the way forward. It allows the arts sector to congratulate itself that it’s doing all it can, whilst segregating and defining an entire group of people according to something which usually has no relevance to their artistic outputs.
By creating separate opportunities for artists with impairments we reinforce the notion of disability as ‘other’; something that happens ‘over there’. It’s the very opposite of what we should be striving for as a sector – which is inclusion.
Disability is one of the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010; the legislative framework by which people are safeguarded from unfair treatment and given access to equal opportunities. Judging by the number of opportunities that are inaccessible to me for want of the smallest adjustments in perception and provision, it seems this legislation has passed the arts sector by.
I frequently encounter this issue. A recent residential workshop I was interested in applying for appeared to have so many barriers to inclusion that I got in touch to see whether adjustments could be made to allow for my disabilities.
These weren’t major things like installing ramps and winches – just rest stops on communal walks, an awareness that not everyone is able to share a bedroom (and is happy to pay for separate accommodation), an understanding that some folk struggle with large tranches of text and would cope better with course materials in other formats.
Such considerations need to be made at the planning stage – it’s fundamental to ensuring equal opportunities. As I write, I’ve yet to receive an answer to my queries.
None of this is to belittle the excellent work that is being done by groups like Unlimited who work solely to promote disabled artists. There are artists for whom disability informs the bulk of their work and they may be grateful for a dedicated platform to showcase it.
It shouldn’t be the only option though, and it certainly shouldn’t be held up as the best option for all artists with impairments. Most of the artists I’ve spoken to just want to be included in the ordinary, everyday opportunities, not be shown under a neon sign flashing ‘DISABLED!’
So, what needs to change? Well, arts organisations, galleries, charities, artist-led groups, etc, all need to gain a fundamental knowledge of equality and diversity and start applying it to the opportunities they provide.
Making opportunities accessible to a broader range of people can only enrich the visual arts. Small, reasonable adjustments and an understanding that not everyone has the same resources can make a huge difference to the number of artists who can apply for opportunities, and that can only be mutually beneficial.
No doubt it will take the industry time to adjust, but adjust it must if we are to embrace inclusion and eschew segregation.