From Shakespeare’s Richard III to Charles Dickens’ Tiny Tim, disabled people have often been portrayed by artists as villains or martyrs, while disability has been the subject of cheap jokes. In recent years, disabled artists have grabbed the narrative from non-disabled hands and created art that reflects their experiences and addresses the issues they face, not those imagined by the able-bodied.
In 2016 at Southbank Centre, a selection of differently abled artists offer a peek into their world. Learn how tying shoelaces is more complicated than it looks and watch pieces that investigate how our bodies are perceived by society. It’s not all serious: there’s comedy from Lee Ridley and a new show by Touretteshero Jess Thom. Here, the artists explain how their experience of being disabled is entwined with their work.
To me, as a disabled woman, disability isn’t taboo or dark; it’s my life and my experiences of living in a disabling world. My creative work is really just me talking about what I know best: my life. I think it’s important to laugh at all the messy and difficult aspects of being human, including disability.
Obstacles to work are becoming increasingly tough to overcome – cuts to the fund that provides employment support for disabled people, and increased rationing of social care budgets means many don’t have assistance to get out of the house. Cuts to the arts mean fewer grants and venues less willing to take risks, preferring instead big names that are guaranteed seat fillers. There’s less appetite in many ways for new work and work by unknown or emerging artists – and this impacts on many of us, including disabled people.
I’ve always seen the funny side of my disability, mainly because if I didn’t laugh about it, I would most definitely cry! I think I’ve also used it to remove the stigma from my situation. As long as I joke about it, no one else can get in first and take the mickey out of me. From a general point of view, I think that laughing about taboo subjects is a good way of approaching something you might feel awkward about.
I realise that I’m sometimes people’s first experience of disability, so I hope I change their perceptions a bit and show them that disabled people are just like anyone else. It probably helps educate them because they are forced to think about topics that maybe they wouldn’t normally, whilst enjoying themselves.
I want audiences to question how much their perceptions or opinions might be couched in notions of privilege or of one way being better than another, or of simply not recognising the presumptions they have made about the world. I want to raise questions of experiences not being better or worse than each other but rather just being different.
There needs to be more work to create accessible training and performance – ‘integrated’ opportunities. Creatively embedding access into artistic processes offers incredibly rich material for artists, if more would recognise that it offers them not only new ways of thinking, but also wider audiences.
I would also like to see more bespoke training: a recognition of the specific skills that disabled artists bring and cultivate, and spaces where disabled dance artists could train emerging disabled artists in the specifics of that acquired knowledge – for example, in manual wheelchair techniques, power chairs, crutch technique and training specifically between sensory impaired artists.
I get all sorts of questions after my set and they’re nearly always welcome. In particular I’d hope to make audiences feel more comfortable with talking about difference and I’d like some questions about the benefits of lamp-posts vs cats.
Visibility of disabled people within arts and media is crucial for building a more inclusive society. But this needs to focus on people with real lived experience of disability at all stages of the production process, and not on someone who’s jumped into a wheelchair in the hopes of winning an Oscar. When hard-won equalities are being disastrously dismantled, now is a pivotal point for disabled and non-disabled performers and artists to speak out.
With Demonstrating the World, I want to portray various activities that might be banal to non-disabled people – climbing steps, removing a jacket, sitting, lifting, tying a shoelace, etc. – as a reflection upon the fact that, for disabled people, many aspects of the everyday world may not be transparent or easy.
It is certainly one of the obstacles to disabled artists. Since we are now leaving the EU, we will become even more isolated as there will be no protection against the stripping back of human rights generally, which will ultimately impact earmarked arts commissioning for marginalised communities. Another, perhaps more long-term problem that disability artists face is the reluctance of the mainstream art world to commission and represent disabled people.