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Ten years on from London 2012, disability arts programmes continue to impact artists and audiences around the globe. Tim Wheeler reports on the British Council's work in disability arts.

A female wheelchair-using dancer rests on her back, another female dancer balances on her head using the wheelchair for support
Mixed doubles / Fine Lines

Tilo Stengal

“What the British Council has done is not just any movement; it’s a revolutionary movement,” says artist Rabbi Mia about the British Council’s disability arts programme in Bangladesh. 

Although it feels awkward talking about such success in times like these, disability-led arts are a UK success story – something we do well and something people worldwide want to learn from. 

But there is still so much wrong with the way disabled people are treated in the UK. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures provide a stark reminder of how the pandemic has disproportionately impacted disabled people in the UK, accounting for 6 in 10 (59.5%) Covid deaths. 

UK D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent artists have championed the social model of disability, which says people are disabled by societal barriers and not impairments or differences. Such a simple inversion can have a profound effect – a revolutionary idea indeed.

Power and control are central

Fighting against discrimination is nothing new; the UK disability arts practice was forged in the crucible of oppression and social injustice. What is new is the willingness for the UK arts and cultural sector to engage in a more nuanced conversation. 

Organisations like the British Council help amplify this work and build international alliances. This is less of a ‘soft power’ play and more a ‘power with’ role, facilitating a dialogue of knowledge and expertise. 

Questions of power and control are central to the work of disabled artists. Once our work was dismissed as poor quality and irrelevant. Now, it talks directly to Arts Council England’s Inclusion and Relevance investment principle. Prospective National Portfolio Organisations take note!

Reflecting on change

The Reflecting on Change report focuses on the British Council’s global D/deaf and disability arts and inclusive arts activity between 2012 and 2020. In commissioning the report, the British Council wanted to better understand the breadth and impact of its work at an individual, institutional and policy level. The resulting report is aimed at current and future policymakers, funders, researchers, organisations and practitioners. 

The report recognises the positive impact of the British Council’s work in disability arts by raising the profile of UK practitioners, platforming international practitioners, and supporting disability arts events worldwide. It broadened the engagement for audiences, arts professionals and policymakers as well as providing opportunities for innovation, such as a UK/Rwanda project exploring disabled perspectives in fashion.

Reflecting on Change highlights the British Council’s role in brokering international connections through the support of cultural players. These include Southbank Centre's Unlimited Festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and IETM – International Network for the Performing Arts. These programmes fostered cross-country collaborations, such as Graeae theatre company’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest for the Tokyo 2021 Olympics with organisations and artists in Bangladesh, Japan and the UK. 

New companies were also set up in Armenia, Bangladesh and Indonesia. This work, a legacy of London 2012, also supports more equitable policies which will prioritise disabled artists and access to the arts to a €2.44 billion EU cultural fund.

Overall, the research included evidence from 54 countries reporting on more than 350 projects and programmes developed with British Council offices. There were in-depth interviews with 44 artists and organisational representatives - 73% of whom identified as D/deaf, disabled or neurodivergent; three deep-dive case studies on Bangladesh, South Korea and Indonesia; a review of work in Europe through desk research and interviews with British Council staff; and a literature review on disability arts and inclusive practice.

Steps towards greater inclusivity

However, the report acknowledges there is still much work to do, by the British Council and the cultural sector at large, to truly develop an inclusive future, and recommends an increased focus on eight areas: 

  1. Extending reach. The British Council’s work with disability arts could be expanded to more countries, and the organisation should continue advising governments on disability arts platforms alongside the Paralympics. 
  2. Equal relationships. The British Council could build more trust amongst UK artists by helping them exchange skills and inspiration with their peers in other countries and by placing less emphasis on the UK as a model of best practice. 
  3. Culture and development. The UK could learn a lot from D/deaf and disabled artists who can marry their socially engaged work with their commercial practice. 
  4. Research and knowledge. The British Council could support more research-based work and knowledge exchange between academics and practitioners. 
  5. Evaluation. There should be more opportunities for artists, practitioners and evaluators to work together to develop new ways of evaluating the impact of cultural projects. 
  6. Hybrid connections. The British Council, and the cultural sector in general, could consider supporting more disabled artists to develop an international community that blends digital and in-person practice. 
  7. Leadership and governance. Building on its support for leadership training, the British Council could help develop disabled people’s engagement in management, disability arts and inclusive practice, and the wider cultural sector. 
  8. Disabled artists in mainstream programmes. The British Council could support more disabled artists in its mainstream arts programmes, in addition to disability centred programmes. 

It’s time to act now. In the 1990’s, pioneers such as disabled artists and activists Johnny Crescendo and Barbara Lisicki used the arts to fight discrimination. In 2022 their story is shared in the upcoming TV film Then Barbara Met Alan, written by Jack Thorne and Genevieve Barr. Has enough changed in the 20 or so years between the two? No. 

The disability arts sector is trying to push for change. Jenny Sealey and Andrew Miller created and promoted the Covid-inspired campaign #WeShallNotBeRemoved. They also developed the Seven Principles to Ensure an Inclusive Recovery guidance to ensure increased digital access to arts and culture is not lost as we start to snap-back to an in-person world full of obstacles and barriers. But in the constantly changing Covid landscape, are enough people taking notice?

Tim Wheeler is an independent arts consultant, award-winning performance maker, and senior lecturer at Worcester University. 

 t.wheeler@worc.ac.uk | timwheelerarts@gmail.com

Tim Wheeler is currently researching how to best support D/deaf and disabled people to take up governance roles within the cultural sector. If you are in a leadership role, please complete this short survey

Read the full Reflecting on Change report here.

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