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In a survey of disabled arts professionals, Unlimited found 87% had been asked to do something for nothing. Lucy Peters asks Jo Verrent: When will the sector stop exploiting disabled creatives and acknowledge their value?

Pull Up sharing by Delson Weeks, Blink Dance Theatre
Pull Up sharing by Delson Weeks, Blink Dance Theatre

Rachel Cherry

When we created our survey, Something for Nothing, we knew we’d hear from disabled people in the arts about unfair working practices. We work in a sector where unpaid labour is normalised or seen as a necessary part of your career path. But the responses to our survey painted a shocking picture. 

Of the 314 people we surveyed, 87% had been asked to work for nothing, and only 2% never did so. In a typical response, cartoonist Dave Lupton commented that, throughout his career, “I must have given away thousands of hours of my time and skills”. We interviewed artists who described receiving endless sweetly worded requests to contribute to projects without any return. 

“Instead of being asked to work for free, I’d like to be asked to work for money. You know, like you would if you were asking a professional accountant, doctor or plumber for professional advice or services,” observed visual and performance artist Lady Kitt

Theatre practitioner Porcelain Delaney talked about being asked to provide access consultancy, specialist knowledge, and help marketing to, or recruiting, disabled people - again without being paid. “This often comes from bigger organisations who have so much more finance and resources than me and are not willing to invest any of that into accessibility or inclusion, yet they expect me, a freelancer in a much less steady position, to be able to do exactly that.”

Opportunities to network

For some disabled arts professionals, there’s one clear reason why they are working for nothing. For those who receive some types of disability benefits, being paid more than £152 each week means that they lose their access to support. (The £152 must be for Permitted Work for which they have to get permission from the Department of Work and Pensions). 

In contrast, there’s no limit on the number of hours of voluntary work permitted. It’s no surprise then that 14% of respondents said that they worked in a voluntary capacity to avoid complexities with benefits. 

57% of survey respondents who have worked unpaid said they did so to network: because they wanted to make a link with a venue, project or person. Freelance creative Chris Pavlakis explained: “If it’s a nice project with someone I admire, and it turns out well, chances are it will probably pay off somehow in the long run.”

However, 37% of those who worked unpaid said it was because they felt they should. We heard about organisations putting pressure on disabled creatives to offer their time, skills and knowledge to ensure creative projects were accessible to other disabled people.

Disabled creatives need to get something

Many disabled arts workers highlighted the work they were asked to do for nothing centred on access. When they raised their access requirements with organisers, they were told that they should take the time, unpaid, to organise what they needed by themselves. 

“For one conference I was presenting at, the organisers said they would arrange accommodation. I flagged up the need for accessible accommodation and they said I’d have to organise it,” commented visual artist Damien Robinson

In the past, she has been asked to set up a loop system - despite the fact she doesn’t use them - read Braille, set up textphone systems and find BSL interpreter teams for conferences. “Do people think I have some kind of interpreter Narnia at home, where I open my wardrobe door and a herd of interpreters rush into the room?” 

When we asked disabled creatives what they wanted, 85% said that they would rather be paid an appropriate rate. 41% said that they would be happy to exchange their skills and experience for opportunities or support. For example, voluntary and community organisations could make sure unpaid creatives get something – mentorship, access to resources or a letter of recommendation. 

Nothing for nothing

At Unlimited, we want the cultural sector to stop exploiting disabled creatives. That’s why we’re asking cultural organisations to sign up to our Nothing for Nothing pledge. This is a promise that if you ask disabled artists and cultural workers to give you their labour (or time, knowledge or skills), you will offer them something in return. 

It makes sense that some exchanges will still be on a volunteer basis. Some disabled artists have told us that, sometimes, they would prefer to volunteer, to make connections, avoid complexities with their benefits and deal with issues around access, health or fatigue. However, we think volunteering should involve some benefits to the volunteer. If your organisation can’t offer money, what can you offer instead? 

Change must come from organisations not individuals. From today (Monday 17 April) we’re sharing resources, case studies and guidance on how to change practices - for organisations and individuals. And on Thursday 20 April we will be hosting an event when we’ll share more of our findings. We are even paying freelancers and small organisations for their time to attend. 

Artists and workers struggle to advocate for themselves when their ability to work may depend on clients seeing them as likeable, committed and easygoing. But as visual and performance artist Rhine Bernadino told us: “This can’t be the narrative we keep carrying with us into the future. I’m tired, and I’m really over it.”

Jo Verrent is Director at Unlimited.
Lucy Peters is a freelance copywriter.
 @weareunltd | @joverrent | @lcyptrs

This article, sponsored and contributed by Unlimited is part of a series to engage the cultural sector and change perceptions of disability.

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Jo smiles at the camera. She is a woman with multi coloured hair, wearing spectacles and a blue top.
Lucy smiles at the camera. She is a blonde woman wearing a yellow cardigan.