Over the last 20 to 25 years the disability rights movement has been gathering pace, with demands for better access to the arts, culture and opportunities for expression and independence still a fundamental element. Steve Mannix asks whether in fact quite enough has changed for disabled and deaf people over the past two decades.
It can?t have escaped your notice that the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) will be coming into force from January 1 2004. For the very first time in UK history disabled people will have legal protection against discrimination. If you provide goods or services (and we all do in the arts), then you will have to ensure that you have made reasonable adjustment for disabled and deaf people ? as artists, audiences, employees or board members. The act hasn?t gone as far as many had hoped and doesn?t include some key areas like public transport, but it is a start. In the USA similar legislation has been in place for a decade!
For those of us who have lived through past policies in the arts, such as Glory of the Garden or the National Arts and Media Strategy, it?s never been so good. There have been questions in the House of Lords and the DCMS Pat 10 Report actually mentioned disabled people. These are wonderful opportunities for disabled and deaf people ? real civil rights and empowerment. Alongside these important pieces of legislation and government reports, the Special Education Needs Act is being introduced this month offering inclusive education for all 16 to 19 year olds (and over the next few years this will extend across all age groups). Special needs education as we know it today will disappear.
This will be a challenging time for mainstream arts provision ? for those running venues and theatre companies as well as artists working in education, those providing workshops or other learning opportunities. But thankfully, there are disabled people in the arts and the time has come to start to work together to ensure that the arts are truly inclusive.
Achievements and reservations
Over the past 20 years or so, disabled people in the arts have made significant achievements ? companies such as Graeae, Heart n Soul, Mind the Gap, Strathcona and CandoCo have gained revenue funding for the first time. The arts funding system has invested in local Disability Arts Forums in key regions across the country and other project initiatives. Tate Modern, Tate Britain and other galleries across the UK have commissioned disabled and deaf artists. Disabled writers have won significant mainstream prizes and have even started to appear on television and in film.
However, it is sad to note that according to the Arts Council of England?s own statistics disabled people still only make up 2% of the total workforce in the arts. Under the Disability Discrimination Act guidelines, it will be recommended that small to medium-sized enterprises (which the majority of arts organisations are) should have in the region of 10 to 15%. So there?s still a long way to go. Don?t forget that there are just under 9 million disabled and deaf people in the UK and they are twice as likely than their able-bodied counterparts to be unemployed.
There has been much change in the arts for disabled people ? the Lottery has started to make a difference to the physical access to a lot of buildings and new audiences have really started to emerge. However, I recently discovered that a newly funded Lottery building with approximately £20m worth of investment was wonderfully accessible for the audience but forget it if you ever want to perform there! Backstage, rehearsal and office space have not been given the same attention as front of house.
Many years ago I worked in a venue where the box office staff used to jump up in horror if the minicom ever rang. Things are changing and lots of people now do know how to use one. But a few months ago I was undertaking some research and rang seven venues using a minicom to try and book tickets. No one replied despite five attempts at different times of the day ? potentially some very unhappy customers. According to RADAR, the disabled population in the UK has a spending power of just over £40 billion ? not insignificant when compared to other social groups.
A year of celebration
Next year is European Year of Disabled People and the theme across Europe will be ?Rights and participation?. The UK leads Europe in disability arts and so as you start to plan your programme for next year think of the dynamic partnerships that you could create. There is a whole year to celebrate, include and most of all have fun! Although it saddens me to say that you might have to do this on your own, since despite many representations, ?the powers that be? at the Arts Council of England have so far refused to create a funding programme to support the year or offer any other focus or national platform. We all wait to see what happens in the next few months but don?t hold your breath. Meanwhile, other national and local government departments are going for it. There will be local and regional events throughout the country. You could work in partnership with local disabled artists or organisations of disabled or deaf people to create an event, performance or workshop. Forget the ?ramp culture? as a colleague of mine puts it. We all know that real social inclusion is going to take time; but once you get going you?ll never look back. 2003 will, we hope be one hell of a year.
Steve Mannix is Chief Executive of Shape.
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