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Angry at the continuing discrimination against disabled people as well as the inadequate access in many venues, Andrew Miller reflects on the challenges disabled people need to overcome to make it in the arts.

Photo of disabled sign in paint tub

Nick Holloway via flickr.com (CC BY-SA 2.0)

On paper there should never have been a better time to be disabled and working in the arts. There are more initiatives to engage disabled artists, participants and audiences than ever. Most arts buildings are accessible. Disability-led arts organisations are galvanising creativity across the country, and disabled artists are being offered opportunities to work in the mainstream in ways never before possible.

Yet my own experience suggests that disabled people are still perceived as employment risks

According to Arts Council England’s (ACE) figures for 2014-15, in its report Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case, just 2% of the arts workforce is disabled, despite making up 18% of the national workforce. These figures (replicated dismally across the UK nations) are surprisingly low set against comparable employment sectors such as broadcasting and education. Surprising, because as a heavily subsidised sector, the arts simply don’t reflect society.

So in the midst of an apparent breakthrough moment, it’s apt to reflect on the challenges disabled individuals need to overcome to make it in the arts and to consider why there are so few of us.

Driving change

From my perspective as a mid-career professional with experience as a producer, funder and programmer, there are three reasons for this: limited training opportunities, often appallingly poor access and enduring discrimination. All of these factors I would suggest actively discourage disabled people from pursuing a career in the arts.

I wrote about my own experience of discrimination in 2014 in AP. Two years on, the mood music is changing: discrimination (of all varieties) is now being regularly called out; the mainstream sector is beginning to seriously engage with disability, recognising the paucity of disabled voices in the arts as a problem; and funding is being prioritised to address it. And ACE deserves major credit here for driving these changes.

Perceived risk

However, discrimination against disabled people goes way beyond the arts. Its societal and for me, partly a linguistic problem. There is no word for it. There’s no emotive equivalent to ‘homophobic’, ‘misogynistic’ or ‘racist’. The impact of this missing word is illustrated by society’s slowness to dismantle physical barriers, in recognising those barriers as discrimination at all, as well as the common abuse of essential existing concessions.

Yet life experience as a disabled person provides you with a range of different abilities. It’s likely you will be super-resilient, solve problems differently, will be collaborative and communicative as you’ll often need other people’s help. And above all, you will actively manage a range of different priorities such as health, mobility and logistics, for which there is no manual.

And that’s all before you actually start working. But you will be able to meet the full range of qualities sought in many senior arts job specifications. Yet my own experience suggests that disabled people are still perceived as employment risks by senior management, headhunters and particularly by the boards of arts organisations – often conservative and risk-averse bodies.

Change Makers programme

This inherent discrimination is now being challenged by ACE’s Change Makers programme which aims to support disabled artists and professionals into leadership roles – something that existing training providers and the sector itself have singularly failed to achieve. The scheme operates on the principle that only by having under-represented groups embedded in the decision-making end of organisations will meaningful change occur.

It was interesting to note in AP’s Pulse Surveys of attitudes to diversity in the arts that feelings for such interventions on disability representation remain ambivalent. Quotas scare people because they suggest you actually have to proactively do something, but can change occur without them? Many of those discriminated against don’t think so (read another recent article in AP).

Change makers is undoubtedly an exercise in positive discrimination, a phrase that is now unfashionable, and yes, it’s investing in the quotas of the future. But the dismal disability statistics speak for themselves and change-making is needed to make the arts sector representative of the people they serve and who fund them.

I’m delighted to have been chosen as one of the first change makers, working in partnership with the Royal & Derngate Theatres in Northampton. We have a year-long journey mapped out which we believe will provide benefits and learning for both parties. The application process and criteria were pleasantly unprescriptive beyond ensuring that all prospective change makers were either from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background or disabled, acknowledging that ACE’s role here is to facilitate the space where change can happen.

No equality of experience

Change-making has been a mainstay of my own career, but as a disabled person that goes with the territory. It was positive discrimination that gave me my start in the early days of Channel 4 television as part of the first wave of ‘role model’ presenters in the 1980s, which led me to arts programme production and a subsequent career in the arts. Back then if you were disabled, there were no public role models, no specialist support and no mentoring.

But publicly funded arts venues and broadcasters were the first bodies to champion accessibility and I was naturally attracted by that access. But somewhere along the way, access has stalled. Disabled people are allowed through the gateways of the arts but once you’re in, all too often there is little equality of experience.

I recently highlighted here in AP the access issues I faced at the Theatre 2016 conference. But bad practice isn’t restricted to London’s West End. Attending performances all over the country is part of my job. It should be the best bit, but as a wheelchair-user I’m often dumped on the end of front or back rows with frightful sightlines.

As a wheelchair-user I’m often dumped on the end of front or back rows with frightful sightlines

Within weeks of Theatre 2016, I endured third-rate experiences at a number of venues ranging from the Royal Albert Hall to Warwick Arts Centre – not because the shows were poor but because their auditoriums have not been adapted well enough to accommodate wheelchairs. And this happens to disabled audiences all the time. Surely in 2016 our gateways to the arts can do better than this?

Real change

Managers – the gatekeepers of the arts – need to give greater consideration to the quality of experience they offer their disabled customers. After all, we pay the same ticket price. And indeed, they need to go a step further by asking themselves if their building could accommodate a disabled employee.

Arts organisations get prickly when their access deficiencies are exposed. Restrictions on adapting historic buildings, health and safety issues and ‘reasonable adjustment’ are often cited as reasons not to make access improvements. Well, I was at Buckingham Palace recently and the authorities there have fully understood the need for it to welcome all members of society, and quite daring access adaptations have been made to its fabric.

Inclusion is not an issue that’s going to go away for the arts. Just look at the BBC’s recent charter renewal requirement to increase representation of the whole nation. And look at what they are doing to achieve this: quota-driven apprenticeships made exclusively available for BAME and disabled people aimed at long-term retention. While there are working models already in place elsewhere, we in the arts need to be doing much more to dismantle our own barriers to really make some change.

Andrew Miller is Head of Creative Programming at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama and will shortly become Executive Associate of Royal & Derngate Theatre Northampton. He is a board member of the Arts Council of Wales and of the UK digital arts agency, The Space.

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