As cultural organisations attempt to coax reluctant individuals back into the habit of live cultural attendance, now’s the time to break down once and for all the attitudinal and physical barriers that exclude D/deaf and disabled people. Andrew Miller explains why – and how.
There is a strange equality in lockdown for disabled people. Right now all of us are experiencing life in broadly the same restricted way. And in this moment, the differences between our being disabled and non-disabled are significantly reduced.
Nevertheless, D/deaf and disabled people in the UK are facing a threat of a magnitude that none of us have ever experienced before or even thought possible: to our health, our livelihoods and our civil rights. Due to the high risk posed to us by Coronavirus, it's likely that many disabled people will need to continue shielding long after restrictions on the general population begin to ease. That moment of near equality will quickly pass.
Consequently disabled people’s ability to engage physically in wider society and in cultural life will be reduced for an unknowable period of time. The pandemic threatens not just our physical health, but also the viability of our independent living, bringing with it the risk of invisibility.
Disabled people have spent the last five decades emerging proudly out of the medical model of disability and into the social model, actively contributing to society in myriad ways and dismantling disabling barriers placed in our way. Overnight that progressive trajectory has been reversed alongside the unwelcome imposition of a state-sponsored language of “vulnerability” and “underlying health conditions” which catapult perceptions of disability back forty years.
UK arts are also facing an existential threat. In the immediate term everything’s closed; public funding is under unprecedented pressure with the vast reprioritisation of development funds to the emergency response, and there is real risk of familiar cultural brands being lost to the crisis.
In the mid-term, economic recession threatens future public funding and National Lottery income. And we don't know how audiences will respond when venues eventually reopen whilst the loss of public confidence in large gatherings may continue for years to come.
Individually any of these factors would be of concern. Combined, we are looking at a radically transformed arts landscape, which threatens the progress of disability arts that until March seemed unstoppable. In my mind the futures of both the arts and that of disabled people are now inextricably fused. Yes, a vaccine might solve all our woes but that doesn't look likely to happen anytime soon.
It would be all too easy to demand that the cultural recovery must promise to be more inclusive. Of course we would all like that. But taking into account the poor state of inclusivity in the arts before the crisis and the massive reconstruction our industry now faces, I believe nothing less than a complete resetting of the dial will be good enough.
In lockdown we have time to think about how our sector can evolve. And our thinking needs to be radical. The industry that closed down on 16 March 2020 institutionally excluded many of us attitudinally and physically. Whilst solid progress was underway, the sector was always one step behind what funders wanted and even further behind the needs of disabled creative practitioners to fully thrive.
But now that non-disabled people have experienced the restricted life of lockdown, there can be less excuse for not addressing the frustrations of disabled people who have lived with limits and exclusion all our lives. Equality must be central to the new model of cultural life that will inevitably emerge across the arts, museums, television and film.
Shaping the recovery
That work must start now. Get us around your virtual tables, on your Zoom and Teams meetings, ensure we are part of your recovery planning. Across the UK network of disability arts organisations and disabled freelancers, there is a rich resource of knowledge and experience to draw on and we are ready to support you. A group of us are already exploring how we can assist shaping the recovery, inform cultural policy and ensure inclusive principles remain at the heart of public funding strategies to benefit the next generation of D/deaf and disabled talent.
Nothing beats the authenticity of lived experience but it comes with a lifetime’s cost, so don’t forget to pay us, employ us and invite us onto your boards. February’s Arts Council England NPO diversity statistics revealed huge disparity when it comes to disability, with only 5% of chairs, 6% employees and 7% board members out of a national disabled population of 21%. A huge part of our cultural reset will be to address this staggering inequality.
Post-pandemic, one of the major challenges will be to re-engage disabled people back into society after a lengthy period of shielding. Incentives will be needed and what better than remove all the remaining barriers?
I have long advocated for a National Arts Access Scheme for disabled audiences and believe recovery planning offers the ideal opportunity to ensure ease of access to our arts venues and museums to coax, perhaps reluctant individuals, back into the habit of live cultural attendance.
Equally I want to see more arts organisations explore Battersea Arts Centre’s unique relaxed venue model to support neurodivergent audiences developed by artist & activist Jess Thom. Government too has a big role in supporting disabled people in the long term. I welcome the announcement of a National Disability Strategy and have been lobbying hard for the inclusion of cultural policy alongside wider societal reform. The Strategy must take into account the distressing experience of disabled people during the pandemic and ensure that we are comprehensively consulted and involved in all areas of the recovery to come.
Time to listen
As it emerges from disaster management, I hope the Government will be in listening mode. I was recently impressed at the speed at which DCMS officials reached out to understand the issues disabled artists were experiencing at the onset of the crisis and which has subsequently shaped their own response and that of Arts Council England.
Because on the other side, once recovery is underway, it will never have been more vital for our culture to engage positively with disabled people. We will all have been through too much to allow anything as trivial as self-created barriers to stop us.
Andrew Miller is a cultural consultant and broadcaster and is UK Government Disability Champion for Arts & Culture