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Turtle Key Arts has been involved in arts projects with disabled people in many countries. Alison King reflects on the attitudes and approaches of the people she has met.

Photo of girl on a trapeze

In January, as part of Circus City at the Sydney Festival, I was invited to a panel discussion about access for people with disabilities in the circus arts. I was there with Turtle Key Arts as we produce the circus company Ockham’s Razor, which was performing at the festival. While in Sydney we ran an inclusive aerial workshop open to people who identified as deaf or disabled.

It became apparent quite quickly that circus is a truly liberating and accessible artform and so more needs to be done to encourage and include disabled artists

Through the discussions it transpired that in the UK we currently have a stronger focus on disability arts than in Australia, with more disabled-led companies and opportunities for disabled artists to create work. Australia, though, is clearly committed to improving this situation, and I can see progress even since my last visit in 2013.

The panel conversations were lively and wide-ranging. It became apparent quite quickly that circus is a truly liberating and accessible artform, and so more needs to be done to encourage and include disabled artists, and provide the necessary access and training.

Workshop feedback

The workshop we ran with Ockham’s Razor was tailored to the individual needs within the group. There was an opportunity to experience trapeze, rope, pole, acro-balancing and counterweighting with a harness. The workshop attracted people from age 11 through to their mid-thirties, with a wide range of disabilities.

Julie, a parent of a participant, wrote in her blog named ‘Have wheelchair, will travel’: “When we arrived, I wasn’t sure how BJ could be included. He was the only wheelchair-user, but the performers and facilitators were encouraging and had a can-do attitude that gave me confidence. I hope we see more of these opportunities in the future for people of all abilities… While we now know BJ won’t be wheeling off to join the circus, at least he had the opportunity to see if it was for him. Life should be about opportunity.”

These comments got me thinking about the work we have done over the years promoting access for all and the impact these projects have had.

Overseas experiences

We have created many models of working to provide opportunities for disabled artists and participants, working in Europe, Egypt, Sri Lanka, America and Japan. We have created shows with local groups, helping them stage full productions, sometimes with over 80 people from across many communities. We have helped establish and train companies and their support teams, often with English as the second language, to tour their work professionally. We have always tried to pass on our experience through lectures, being part of seminars, running workshops and residencies.

Once, when in Cairo with the integrated company Amici, we were staying in the best hotel the British Council could identify as accessible, as we had Bill, a wheelchair-user, with us. All the staff were helpful but the hotel, which was relatively new, had clearly never thought about wheelchair access before.

With a ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’ attitude, they built a series of wooden ramps giving Bill access around the building. There were many examples like that in Cairo on that visit and I think in just a small way it left a legacy about looking at the accessibility of spaces.

When we were in Sri Lanka I witnessed true tolerance, acceptance and the integration of people. We worked with the tsunami survivors, professional actors, Tamil and Sinhalese communities and a school of young deaf children. They all come together to tell their stories and to create and tour a show that had a powerful message for a devastated country.

We shocked and nearly bankrupted a festival in Germany by taking 67 of Amici’s integrated performers to stage a circus production. It was an achievement, despite or perhaps because of the difficulties, that the festival regards as its proudest.

There’s always a way

We have continued to break down barriers. I believe there is always a way and a solution; an ethos that our companies share. There is much more work to be done here in the UK and internationally, but through all my travels and work over the past 20 years I have met some genuinely committed, passionate people determined to overcome the barriers that some people face when accessing the arts and creative opportunities.

Writing this article in the present climate feels especially poignant. It is essential for arts individuals and organisations to keep going with their pioneering work and be at the vanguard of more accessible ways of viewing the world, a ‘call to arms’ if you will.

The arts in the UK often lead the way where others will hopefully follow. At Turtle Key Arts we will continue to do all we can.

Alison King is Chief Executive of Turtle Key Arts.

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Photo of Alison King