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Do you think your organisation treats Deaf and disabled artists equally? Laura Guthrie says the sector’s outdated structures and traditions make that nearly impossible.

Two people reading lines

© Becky Bailey

Graeae recently launched Beyond, a new artist development programme designed to ensure Deaf and disabled theatre makers can realise their creative ambitions and transform their careers. Offering development support, advice, training, mentoring and space, Beyond is delivered in collaboration with eight leading regional venues armed with all the resources and expertise to make a real difference.

Not an added extra

Much has improved since Graeae was created 40 years ago. We have the Equality Act 2010, a myriad of incredible Deaf and disabled led theatre companies, initiatives challenging the status quo, Deaf and disabled artists in drama schools, and major national companies casting Deaf and disabled performers. But we still do not have true equality of access beyond the front door. Why? Because we are still considered as ‘other’. Consistently, Deaf and disabled artists are seen as an added extra, a way to tick a box – and an expensive one at that. 21% of the working age population in England identify as disabled according to the Office for National Statistics and although we have seen an increase, only 6% of permanent, contractual and voluntary staff in National Portfolio Organisations identify as disabled. Of these, just 6% work in theatre.1
Throughout the pandemic it has fallen on the shoulders of Deaf and disabled creatives to shout loudly for our basic human rights to safety and equity. #WeShallNotBeRemoved started in the spring as a movement by and for disabled people truly afraid for their health and survival. Within the arts there was a real fear we would lose the foothold we worked for so long to achieve. Our fears were confirmed by the sad loss of three giants: David Toole, Sian Vasey and Geoff Armstrong. These pioneers of disability arts used their skills, wit and intelligence to fight for our right to be recognised and were significant contributors and makers of culture. The latest campaign, #DisabilityOptIn, arose in response to a national casting agency launching a format which gave active permission not to cast Deaf or disabled actors. It is a necessary response to challenge the further eradication of Deaf and disabled artists and again make our point: we are positive contributors to culture.

Outdated and unfair

The main barrier facing Deaf and disabled creatives in 2020 is, sadly, relatively unchanged from decades ago: society’s attitudes and preconceptions about us. Graeae’s working practices, like many other disabled led organisations, are underpinned by the social model of disability, the belief that people are disabled by barriers within society, rather than being ‘victims’ of their impairments or conditions. To challenge this mindset, we need to see more intersectional Deaf and disabled creatives in leadership positions and on our stages and screens. Importantly, these need to be roles that do not reinforce negative stereotypes, dehumanise, belittle or patronise. 

We still regularly see artists who are denied access to traditional training and employment routes within the arts. Every interview, audition, or call out that does not provide accessible processes is another barrier to our inclusion and progression through the industry. For a disabled artist to be seen as anything other than “emerging” takes an immense amount of commitment, persistence, and energy – getting past this status remains a real hurdle.    

We need a change in the attitude of theatres and production companies that casting Deaf or disabled actors is somehow radical. In 2020 this just shouldn’t be the case. Our industry’s outdated traditions and structures are inherently disabling. Long, inflexible working days, inaccessible rehearsal spaces, and call outs which go no further than a company’s own address book all create a sense that we and our work are not seen as equal, and that we are not welcome.

Beyond the barriers

The Beyond programme is a new way of working for Graeae, providing pathways for artists to our partners across the regions and creating a national network of disability confident venues. It is as much about providing crucial links with regional venues as it is about the venues themselves strengthening their relationships with Deaf and disabled creatives while providing bespoke support to remove barriers and elevate these creatives’ artistic vision. 

Many Deaf and disabled performers are shielding and many more have lost months of work. In response, Graeae refocused its energies to ensure that individual artists and small organisations can create from home. We have provided technical equipment, made industry-wide meetings accessible, and are teaching the workforce the skills they need to branch out into other areas of performance. A major part of this is creating a body of case study videos, ‘how to’ guides, and links to funding sources that will be available for Deaf and disabled artists far beyond the time when theatres reopen to the public again.

Alongside our partners, colleagues, and collaborators within disability arts, we continue to strive for a place where all venues, producers, and arts leaders recognise the invaluable contribution Deaf and disabled artists make. The industry needs to recognise the changes that must take place to ensure our culture is not just inclusive but as equal and as brilliant as it can be. We hope that Beyond opens up the arts so Deaf and disabled creatives can take their place centre stage.

Laura Guthrie is Graeae’s Artist Development Manager

1Stats quoted from Arts Council England’s Diversity Report unless otherwise stated.

Amendment: removed a twitter handle that was in no way associated with the author of the article.

Link to Author(s): 
Laura Guthrie