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To define or not to define: the dirty 'disability' word

A stimulating discussion unfolded on Dao’s FB group last week in response to the Shape Open Exhibition, which was launched at Shape’s Gallery in Westfield Shopping Centre, Stratford last week.

The call-out for Shape’s annual Open Exhibition was for the third year opened out to disabled and to non-disabled artists specifically asking for work on the theme of [in]visible.

The question posed was whether Shape should be supporting work by artists who didn’t necessarily see themselves as disabled people?

When I got into Disability Arts in the 1990s there was a massive energy from disabled artists making work that was based on real-life situations. I was attracted by the fact that disabled artists were making work that had a correlation with the reality of stuff that happens in everyday life.

In the 1990s there was a swell of activism by disabled artists. Indeed Shape’s CEO Tony Heaton was at the centre of an agit-prop Art protest that received massive media attention.  Shaken Not Stirred had a knock-on impact on ITVs telethon and indeed that particular charity fundraiser defining disabled people as poor, needy objects of pity, was abandonned.

In the 1990s there was a lot of action by disabled people against the charities that are supposed to represent us, who largely – then as now – are very adept at playing the ‘worthy cause’ card to fundraise, but actually do little in the way of providing the kinds of services we actually need or to even employ disabled people within their workforce.

The Social Model defined ‘disability’ as the problem society has with accommodating anyone different from the ‘norm’; and it was key to a collective politicised will for change. Then around the year 2000 the climate went through a dramatic transformation.

The Disability Arts Movement had been very effective in drawing disabled people to it and creating opportunities for disabled people to take part. Disability Arts had largely been about disabled people entertaining other disabled people. In the 1990s there had been a thriving scene of Disability Arts cabaret, which gave disabled performers an opportunity to talk about discrimination. The DDA came in and the Capital Lottery Fund (with massive insistence from people like Paddy Masefield) had disability access provision enshrined into planning as a rule for any public building looking for money for new build or refurbishment.

Disability Arts was largely seen as Community Arts and key funding bodies like the Arts Council who had supported Disability Arts changed tack towards what was termed ‘excellence’ in the arts. And disabled-led organisations that had been incredibly effective in supporting and empowering disabled people were suddenly put into the position of having to think of ways to ‘mainstream’ the disabled artists they worked with, in order to survive. There was a bid to get curators and producers from wider arts organisations to recognise the ‘quality’ of the work that they were supporting.

Paul Darke saw the writing on the wall back in the late 90s when he wrote a dissertation called Now I Know Why Disability Art Is Drowning in the River Lethe He realised that the political will for Disability Arts to follow the Social Model and to subvert the idea of being ‘normal’, was being overturned by the idea of inclusion: that disabled people could become part of the fabric of society with a move towards an enlightened dismantling of the physical and attitudinal barriers backed by access provision.

And so a message went out that the job was done and the majority of disabled-led arts forums fell by the wayside. Shape has survived by stealth. Tony Heaton, Shape’s CEO, inspired by Adam Reynolds, saw the potential for Disability Arts to rise out of the ghetto and to take a more ‘mainstream’ focus. 

Part of Shape's aims are about getting the work of disabled artists into mainstream galleries and through programmes like Unlimited, supporting a new wave of Disability Arts that is focused on the Art and which perhaps expresses disability politics in more subtle ways. [Or less subtle, perhaps if you consider the recent Adam Reynolds bursary winner Carmen Papalia using the services of a brass band to announce his access needs.]

But there is another strain of thought of behind the principles of the Shape Open. There has always been a real difficulty in promoting the understanding that ‘disability’ is constructed by society. A significant number of disabled people have always resisted defining themselves as disabled people because of the stigma that comes with that identity. My own father, who is ageing rapidly and has become severely impaired, won’t see himself as a disabled person, because he sees it as ‘giving in’. He can’t be persuaded to use a wheelchair, because although it would obviously give him more independence and quality of life, he sees using a wheelchair as immediately defining him as ‘dependent’, as ‘less’ or as ‘other’.

And so by making the Shape Open available to disabled and non-disabled artists, there is an attempt by Shape to allow entry for artists who might define as disabled people, but are uncomfortable with framing their Art within that definition. By asking artists to respond to what [in]visible means to them, there is an opportunity to attract work that expresses what ‘disability’ means within a broad parameters and so at least to get people thinking about it.

Whatever you think of the idea of society becoming more inclusive and the agenda for inclusivity, it is perhaps the sole idea that remains – and that only in a very piecemeal way from what was a thriving movement. Unless there is a new surge of energy to organise and make some noise that rattles the cage of the status quo, then disabled peoples rights will continue to rapidly diminish, as they have done in the last four years.

By Colin Hambrook

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 27 October 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 29 October 2014