My writing has taken a back seat over the last 6months or so. Firstly, due to major challenges in my family and personal life, but also professionally. It’s taken me quite a while to be able to articulate why. One of the frustrations experienced was questioning my role in the sector. Did I want to be known as the accessibility expert or, as I can say clearly now, did I want to be known as a disabled artist in my own right.
To set the context – over the past few years, I have been to a fair few access meetings. At the time it always felt like we were being listened to, but now I found myself questioning how far accessibility conversations go towards enabling disabled people to have the opportunities to tell our stories on our own terms.
Our community is often called on to help established groups, professionals and organisations who are being paid to deliver on projects and funding. Often this is done in the vain hope that this will go some way to influence a pathway to creative opportunities in return (I’d be interested to find out if anyone has had any success with this). We are in the room, at the table so to speak, but how much influence we have on creative opportunities – leaves you feeling like you are still knocking on the door.
Then the pandemic hit.
Ironically, the online space, that has enabled us disabled people to share our lived experiences for years, was suddenly well and truly occupied by non-disabled people, who became very appreciative of how technologies can keep us connected.
I wasn’t the only one who mutter that it felt like we were going to be drowned out in another space once again.
FUNDING FOR NON-PLACE-BASED PROJECTS
On top of this, funding, that pre-pandemic predominantly centred on placed-based activities, suddenly became available. We had the opportunity to be able to create and run projects in ways that adapted to our circumstances rather than trying to squash ourselves into funder requirements.
Creative projects included disability groups that met and created work online from across the country or region. Commissions were received, and the setting up of virtual galleries meant we could interact with art and share our lived experience without worrying about stares, accessible parking and buildings. Some said it was revolutionary… we’ve been asking to be able to work this way for years.
Another access meeting, more disillusionment
Along with a turnabout in funding opportunities – there was a lot of discussions about making sure certain groups were not left behind.
While it was great to hear these conversations being had by people who would not ordinarily do so. Or at least the awareness of the need for these types of conversations about what we thought needed to be done. The thing is though, there came a point over this period where I became very disillusioned with these conversations. It’s frustrating to sit in a zoom meeting where significant influencers talk about inclusion and then you realise you’re the only physically disabled person in attendance.
There was something incredibly familiar about the situation.
The same conversations over and over again – that we disabled people have been involved with well before the pandemic hit.
You begin to question who are these conversations really benefitting? You begin to wonder whether there would ever be real change – and what that would actually look like.
I agree, yes, there are some amazing organisations out there that are attempting change and inclusion. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in some of them.
From conversations with fellow disabled people, we understand that people might not get these attempts right the first time or have the language to be able to articulate change. That there are genuine attempts to have disabled people involved in arts and cultural settings.
So where does this quandary leave the conversation? With both sides fatigued?
I cannot speak for organisations, yet when taking time for my own self-reflection, I realised my disillusionment stems primarily from us disabled people being expected to provide the answers and not seeing any inherent or systemic change at levels that can.
Exhausted with having conversations with people who have the power to include
This disillusionment, along with a general crisis in confidence, came to a head earlier in the year.
And that is when it hit me, I am exhausted with attempting to have conversations about inclusion with people who have the power to include.
Exhausted from having conversations that benefit those whose job it is to know.
Exhausted of giving advice and direction and time and lived experience for nought.
Exhausted of being expected to provide answers and solutions.
As one lockdown melted into another, all I kept thinking was this:
I am tired of trading on my trauma to be allowed in the room.
Read that sentence again and let that sink in.
I am exhausted from trading on my trauma to gain access to cultural spaces and standing.
It feels like we are still waiting at the back of a very long queue for space and place. Or to put it another way… our stories are still yet to been seen or told in any significant way once we are inside the damn building.
We want access to your walls and spaces to create… and at the very least a portion of the platforming, you are well aware various groups need. You need to be proactive, not reactive to groups that are banging on your door.
Let’s change the conversation
It’s great that you are so concerned about enabling disabled people to access a building. Or to have that project room that you can invite disabled groups to work with artists (though I would like to reiterate, we are artists too, not projects!).
Yet by doing this, you are taking away time, space and energy that disabled creatives could and should be focusing on developing our creative practice.
It is taking us (and you!) away from the really exciting conversations about how and when and where you can facilitate the platforming of our lived experiences and providing genuine funding opportunities that enable us to deliver work on terms that fit us.
It’s all well and good making sure disabled people can get into a space, imperative – yes, but it still feels isolating not to see our lived experiences on the gallery walls or creative spaces and projects reflected back at us once we are there.
Thankfully, my disillusionment has started to fade somewhat. I’m writing again, which is a positive sign. My frustration is probably more related to my own journey of trying to figure out where I sit (or stand) with my work and within the sector I stumbled into.
What I do know, is that we are all coming through a period of intense reflection. What I know now, is that I am very aware, personally, and professionally, of what conversations I am willing and not so willing to join.
Mostly, I would like to suggest that the direction of conversations around disability access and arts and culture needs to fundamentally change.
Away from the ‘how can we get you in the building?’ to ‘how can we enable you to feel included and reflected in this space and help all of us moving the conversations on even further?‘.
Otherwise, I’ll still be here in 10 years time wondering when disabled people will see our lived experiences reflected back at them in an accessible building.