Just What is the New Normal?
This is the third in a series of Crucial Conversations with disabled artists. The first crucial conversation was with arts venues and organisations, presenting them with the Cultural Shift model of disabled-led practice in mainstream venues. We held a conversation about the role Access Riders can play in both easing the continued labour expected of disabled artists to explain and re-explain their access requirements to partners, venues, and commissioners. The more access riders we create, the more familiar the concept becomes to everyone, with a ripple effect towards increased accessibility in the arts. They can’t do that alone of course, but they can bring influence on the bigger picture. We also held a conversation co-hosted by legendary playwright Mark Ravenhill about the lack of legacy in print. News about that soon.
All the Crucial Conversations have connecting points, and ultimately have created a space for disabled artists from all communities to talk about key matters of the inequalities and exclusion we still experience, compounded by a ‘return’ to the real world during a global pandemic.
This is the report of a 90 minute conversation and is quite long.
Why do we need to talk?
So why is this conversation about the ‘new normal’ happening? As someone who has been shielding for two years, along with millions of other people, I have protected myself and others. However, the way the arts sector is behaving when the pandemic is still raging is just not normal. The arts are facing some of the biggest moral dilemmas in living history. Attempting to work in art and culture before the pandemic, we were a long way from reaching anything like equality for disabled practitioners.
There seem to be other layers of things to consider now to avoid a two-tier arts sector. Spaces aren’t being created on big enough platforms for these conversations, with many disabled people saying that they feel silenced, ignored, guilty and worried about it affecting their careers if they speak out, so we are getting together anyway.
You can still get involved
This conversation is just a beginning and if you couldn’t make it along to the session it doesn’t mean you can’t contribute or get involved. You are invited to contribute responses to the questions asked during the zoom. There is more information on this here
A call for allyship
The responsibility is largely falling yet again onto the shoulders of disabled people to make our case. Aware of the emotional labour involved in talking about these matters in solution focussed ways, we decided to approach this conversation as reportage. And very much with a view to sharing this blog about the conversation with the wider arts world with an expectation of acknowledgement and action from publicly funded arts organisations.
**Cue** – acknowledgement and action please.
1. Share this blog with a comment of support on social media,
2. Get in touch to arrange a bigger conversation,
3. Take affirmative action supported by disabled people, and
4. See this as both a learning opportunity and an opportunity to create something ground-breaking for arts and culture as we move forward.
Joined up thinking strategies
We need a national plan of action with suitable support for venues and organisations to develop their understanding of disability equality in practice, and to pay, largely freelance, disabled artists and practitioners for their time and expertise. We need some joined up thinking and to develop some models of excellence not exclusion!
We saw for a while how the arts sector could adapt to new ways of working, learn new and relevant language, and respond to the needs of people in the pandemic. It even went a long way towards creating accessible opportunities online and disabled artists had access to people, events, and opportunities that they might not have had before. It was still far from perfect, but equality and access appeared to be finally on the agenda in many places. The voices of disabled campaigners were being heard in places that hadn’t previously listened.
The return to real world events has been gradual, many venues offering social distancing and insisting on mask wearing, a handful continue to offer work online and there has been much talk of ‘new hybrid’ ways of working.
And then what happened?
Suddenly the ‘pandemic is over’ and we have to ‘live with it’. Millions of people are still shielding, many silenced and shouted down, many afraid to speak out as the times feel hostile to disabled people. We feel written off by the language around inevitability and we are being left behind. Many disabled people have no choice but to return to unsafe environments for financial survival or have to fight hard for safer environments.
The moral dilemmas in facing the return need open discussion. There are legal obligations too.
Provocation - Just what is it going to take to have an egalitarian cultural sector with the equal involvement of disabled people, reflecting our pluralistic nation?
The conversation reportage
The following four questions were posed for our conversation and you can read the points raised below each one. Although the comments are anonymised, it was important to us that they remain in the voices of those in the conversation. They are not exhaustive but strongly indicate that the arts sector cannot brush us into the dust under the carpet.
Everything has been gathered under headings and are presented as bullet points. It’s not scientific research but these conversations are important, and these voices need to be heard, with due consideration to the requirements of a whole community.
1. What was the old normal like for disabled artists?
2. How would you characterise the last two years (the pandemic) in terms of disabled artists experiences of the arts? What changes did you experience?
Changes in access
Funding and Financial Sustainability
3. What moral (and legal) dilemmas are the arts facing, or not facing, up to?
Returning during a pandemic
4. What do we need to fully participate – disabled audiences, participants, artists, leaders? The question is what should arts funders, decision makers and artists be thinking about to make sure those shielding and living with Long Covid can be included?
Acknowledgements – this online meeting took place on Friday 11 March 2022. A massive thank you to the disabled artists who attended this conversation: Sue, Austin, Mandy Colleran, Gareth Cutter, Honor Flaherty, Pauline Heath, Steph Robson and Tommy Watkin. Thank you to Black Robin for their separate comments for inclusion in the blog.
Thank you to all the disabled practitioners having conversations like this across the country and campaigning for an equal return to the arts for disabled artists, audiences, participants and staff.
Funded by Arts Council England and supported by ARC Stockton.
FROM LITTLE COG
Cultural Shift – Ideas for your venue and disabled people
A Guide to Developing Access Riders
Accessible Online Meetings
Social Model, Disability Equality Ethos, Crip-Taking
A guide to including disabled people in the performing arts.
FROM SUE AUSTIN – Multimedia, performance and installation artist
You can find out more about Sue’s work here:
Review written by Aruna D’Souza having seen ‘Creating the Spectacle!’ exhibited during Radical Love Exhibition, (The Ford Institute, New York, June to August 2019):
Featured TED speaker - Ted talk presented at Talk of The Day on TED.com: