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As one of Arts Council England’s cohort of Change Makers, Andrew Miller reflects on why he accepted the opportunity and what might change as a result.

Photo of woman in wheelchair and two people with sticks

In 2015 Arts Council England (ACE) recognised there was a diversity deficit within the leadership of national portfolio organisations (NPOs) and major partner museums. It invested £2.5m to develop a cohort of leaders who are black, minority ethnic or disabled – the Change Makers.

Twenty of us were funded after an open application process, working in different artforms for NPOs across England. Some of us already had senior leadership experience, while others didn’t. Some have already completed our placements, while others carry on through into this year.

There’s no question that we are now in the midst of another breakthrough moment here in the arts

I am delighted to have been one of the first Change Makers, working with Royal & Derngate theatres in Northampton and The Core at Corby Cube. I believe we both, organisation and individual, learned from each other and there will be long-lasting impact.

If you are disabled, change making goes with your territory as you constantly have to make less-than-ideal circumstances work. So as a wheelchair-user, change making has been a mainstay of my own career. But I’ve learnt that to have impact, timing needs to be on your side. So, when this opportunity presented itself, despite having already operated at a senior level in the arts, I knew I had to grasp it. Why? Because I’ve been here before.

The first breakthrough

Let me take you back to the late 1980s, the first breakthrough moment for disabled people in this country. This was the time when political correctness entered our national vocabulary, but it ushered in an all-too-brief moment of change.

I found myself presenting a television programme called Boom! for Channel 4. It was produced by Anne Wood, the Teletubbies creator, who wanted to make an inclusive programme for children, disabled or otherwise. In this aspect it was ground-breaking and popular too. The series ran for two years receiving weekly audiences of 2 million, and led to my first career in broadcasting as one of the very few disabled presenters of mainstream British television.

In 1993, I was auditioned to replace John Leslie as presenter of Blue Peter. The feedback wasn’t about my presentation skills, rather that the BBC believed the Blue Peter audience wasn’t yet ready for a disabled presenter. The moment of change had evaporated, the door had firmly closed.

In truth, the BBC and other broadcasters thought that they’d done disability, fixed it and moved on. Their complacency meant it would be another 20 years before we began to see disabled people regularly on mainstream TV again.

Employment opportunities

There’s no question that we are now in the midst of another breakthrough moment here in the arts, as we are witnessing disabled artists and disabled-led organisations being mainstreamed and the levels of participation and disabled audiences reach record levels. There has never been a better time to be disabled in the arts. That’s why it’s perhaps an apt moment to reflect on why there are so few of us working in the arts, never mind leading the sector.

All the UK arts councils report dismal disability employment and governance statistics. These figures hover around 4% despite disabled people making up almost 20% of the population. The numbers are worryingly low when set against comparable sectors such as education and broadcasting.

ACE recently published its Equality & Diversity Data Report for 2016/17. Of the 108 funded arts organisations and museums that employ more than 50 people, 27% declared they have no disabled employees. At nearly a third of our largest organisations, this is a major embarrassment. But we have to understand why it is.

Limited access

Non-declaration may be an issue for sure, with employees reticent to disclose a hidden disability or mental health issue. But I would suggest the causes are more likely to be focused on poor access, limited training opportunities and enduring discrimination.

While nearly all our performance venues, museums and galleries are now accessible to disabled audiences, I would estimate that up to 30% of NPO premises, stages and offices are inaccessible, and thereby denying disabled people employment opportunities.

That was the state of play when I arrived at Royal & Derngate and it was Change Makers funding that facilitated a capital transformation to make the offices accessible to me (and I hope many others). But from Oxford Playhouse to the Norwich & Norfolk Festival, many arts organisations operate in non-accessible premises.

I have therefore called on ACE to undertake an access audit of NPO’s premises to ensure the public investment going into supporting disabled people’s careers in the arts can be fully realised. The arts as a highly subsidised public sector has a duty to lead by example and not to hide behind the law of ‘reasonable adjustment’.

The talent pipeline is also problematic. Having blithely sidelined disability for many years, the Clore Leadership Programme is now actively supporting disabled fellows. Yet conservatoires and drama schools have not prioritised supporting young disabled artists. Not all college premises are fully accessible and some might cling to the outmoded idea that disabled artists won’t be able to sustain a career. Yet the industry itself is demanding greater diversity in the artists it employs, with some arts organisations committing themselves to significant diverse staff and performer quotas.

Future expectations

Even in 2018, I am all too aware my career options remain limited by preconceptions about disability and poor access. This is why I have recently accepted the UK Government’s challenge to become Disability Champion for the Arts and Cultural sector. It offers the opportunity to actually do something about all these issues. Whatever the outcomes, I am committed to further change-making to ensure the arts remains a fertile environment for inclusivity.

In this I am inspired by fellow Change Makers, gifted individuals like curator Sara Wajid, theatre-maker Javaad Alipoor, performance artist and activist Jess Thom and choreographer Hakeem Onibudo. It has been my privilege to get to know the cohort over the past year, and the future of the arts is safe in their hands.

You don’t need a Change Maker or Champion title to make change. We all need to demonstrate leadership by ensuring that discrimination, poor training and rubbish access for disabled people in all areas of our operations are banished to the past. Life experience as a disabled person provides one with a range of different abilities – and isn’t that what the arts thrive on? We are in the midst of a fleeting moment of change and it’s vital we grasp all its opportunities before the door closes again.

Andrew Miller is a National Council member of both Arts Council England and The Arts Council of Wales. He is also a non-executive director of UK digital arts agency, The Space.

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