It's Easy For You To Say: Rowan James and the emergence of 'impairment-laden' work by disabled artists
I recently caught an ITV news item celebrating the “ordinary heroes of Britain.” An eight-year-old disabled child was put on the spot for being ‘inspirational’ for completing a triathlon. It was notable because the lad was much too sharp to be fooled by media patronising bollocks: “I don’t even know why I’ve won an award. Anyone could do it.” His response caused immediate embarrassment to the news presenter and to the boy's father and he was promptly put in his place. [He was true Laurence Clark in the making.]
It seems that the tragic but brave stereotype just won’t go away. Meanwhile for many of us – especially those of us with invisible impairments – the need to shape up and prove our disability status is growing.
At the end of August I saw Rowan James's excellent spoken word piece ‘Easy For You To Say’. An antidote to the plethora of confessional-style, impairment-fixated work in Edinburgh; it is a raging comment on what a short distance we’ve travelled in our attempts to be a more inclusive society. It begins as a meditation on normality: “What do you need to be ‘normal’, a 3-piece suite, a subscription to Netflix, a body that’s perfect…”
With a combination of beatbox and rap the performance rises to a crescendo, ranting on the exigencies of labeling. Rowan’s generation have grown up with the tick-box system. It’s refrain is clearly anathema – an excuse for bureaucracies to dodge any real, effective inclusion of disabled people (or for that matter women, people from black or minority ethnic racial backgrounds, or gay people) by replacing the needs of individuals with the self-satisfaction of meaningless statistics – certainly within the education system.
But then with poor statistics for inclusion in every sector, you wonder what’s going on? It can seem as if the point of equality forms is to advertise a failure of society to do anything but marginalise people with ‘protected characteristics’: even the Equality Act (2010) term reeks of kindergarten.
The essential piece of equipment – the ‘necessary evil’ – in the game of tick-box is the ‘Equality Monitoring Form’. Rowan asks his audience to respond to the categories before going on to self-define: what labels would we choose for ourselves and for each other?
There’s a level of basic dignity and respect that is tested as soon as you are asked to identify as one thing or another. The caveat ‘prefer not to say’, seems to say everything about the context of what the form really means.
The question is where do we draw the lines? How do we build a context for meaningful inclusion: “where’s the line and whose line is it anyway?”
In her recent blog Sophie Partridge raised the question of why disabled artists seem more impelled to “'spill the beans' about impairment?” Even a decade ago, entering into ‘Medical Model’ territory, was actively discouraged by the sector. There is so much prodding and poking and the question of ownership of one’s body and the right to say ‘fuck off’ to non-disabled people who assume they’ve a right to a piece of you, is an issue.
But equally, if you present as a non-disabled person, and there are edges, then you will be judged and will be the object of discrimination. Unless that is, you go through the obstacle course of explaining your impairment issues. And so perhaps a reason for artists like Jess Thom to hand out medical details is to counteract the ill-advised, if not downright ignorant assumptions about what it means to have a particular impairment or illness.
And lastly there have been a lot of advances in technology, which has meant that for many, the medical model has presented the possibility of adaptation, rather than the mantra of ‘cure at all costs’, which was the stance a decade ago. It seems as if research into assistive technologies is broadening the scope to make music, perform, write, drive, achieve a host of functions, which would have been impossible even a decade ago.
The problem with the Medical Model approach has always been to do with the distribution of power… our lives in the hands of ‘professionals’ whose understanding is based on their prejudices rather than our needs. But the question is, has the Medical Model changed in the last ten years of emphasis on facilitating adaptation, rather than working to effect ‘cure’?
In order to get the access (to education, to work, to transport, to health etc. etc.) we need, we have to explain ourselves… and there is still the risk that what we say will be judged negatively; that our attempts to explain will still be patronised. From my own experience I know that making work about mental health issues always elicits responses of fear and loathing. It seems to go with the territory, no matter that the context for expression is a challenge to the taboos, it seems inevitable that it will be misunderstood.
There isn’t a conclusion, except to say it is more understandable for artists to talk about impairment in the current climate where key obstacles are less about the oppression of being subject to cure, and more how to survive.
Rowan James ended his piece on a note of hope and restitution. Equality is subject to cynicism, but equally, it’s an ideal worth holding on to. “Our quirks make us real… our commonality, solidarity… We steer our own lives through good times and bad nights… all people are equal. It may not be easy for us to say, we are the same.”
Unveiled in the same week that the UK government scrapped the Independent Living Fund (ILF), a debate about the artistic merit of Damien Hirst’s 'Charity' (2003 - 2004) ignited on Dao’s FB group.
A 22-foot painted bronze likeness of a Spastics Society (Scope) charity collection box from the 1960's-1970’s depicting a sad disabled child, the press lauded it as a statement about disability rights and exclusion. Why? Because in Hirst’s depiction, the giant charity box has been prized open with a crow bar and it's contents stolen. It's lazy art for lazy people lacking imagination or any understanding of disability representation.
As Mark Harrison commented on FB: “Art business & disability business - match made in heaven... both making money from crips.”
In response artists Katherine Araniello and Simon Raven decided to set up a fake artisan pickled gherkin stall, 'The Golden Gherkin', beside the 'Charity' sculpture installed next to 'The Gherkin' building in central London.
“Come and get your juicy, cheeky gherkin, all in the name of charity… spastic disabled gherkins made on Damien Hirst’s disabled farm…. Free. Dig down deep. £78… Hard to stomach.. Free gherkins.”
You can see edited highlights below. The joke is clearly lost on most city workers who walk past in a hurry. To my mind the dark humour here sums up the cynicism of the city and the corporate art it supports.
Although apparently one man did donate a pound, so maybe all is not lost.
Logging on to Dao’s FB group can be a reminder that we are living in a regressive period where Disability Politics is concerned. It can often feel as though the Social Model understanding of our lives as disabled people has taken several steps backwards.
The Dao FB group has grown to nearly 3,700 members, increasingly attracting individuals from every corner of the globe. It’s an open forum with an increasing number of posts, linking to journals and blogs that present a dilemma in advocating stories of ‘overcoming’ disability or ‘normalising’ disability.
Two recent examples, Beyond Disability and The Department of Ability represent some of the flotsam attracted to the group to promote stories about ‘triumphing over tragedy’ and being a ‘super-crip’ who just likes to have fun.
These people are well-meaning with good intentions. They are often non-disabled people who have a close relationship to disabled people. Personally I am fed up to the back teeth of being moulded in the image of someone who has triumphed over adversity. Is the expectation that you can be ‘more than’, any less oppressive than the expectation that you are ‘less than’?
Both extremes (pathetic victim/ supercrip) are all pervasive disability stereotypes that deserve, and need to be challenged. In his thesis ‘Does anybody like being disabled?’ Dr Colin Cameron quotes Charles Riley (2005): “the sadcrip/supercrip are two sides of the same coin, signifying impairment as a tragedy that needs to be overcome.”
Cameron goes on to say that “While the narratives of pathetic victim and plucky struggler appear superficially to be doing different things they are part of a single discourse identifying impairment as tragedy.”
The point is that impairment is ordinary, not special. Dealing with the difficulties that having an impairment brings is enough without having to negotiate a world which shuts you out by judging against definitions of what is ‘normal’.
I loved the work for DaDaFest exhibition, Niet Normaal that Andrew Tunney made with Laurence Clark a few years back. Super-Crip lampoons the image of the disabled hero confronting the ridiculousness of being so special with his power to switch impairment at will, playing on the stereotype that the loss of one sense, means the heightening of other senses.
Firstly I’d like to wish a Happy New Year to all Dao’s readers and contributors. Last year we got out and about a fair bit, spreading the word about the disabled artists who engage with the disability arts sector through being a part of events, over and above the usual work we do of reporting on events and supporting artists through networking.
Firstly last June there was DaisyFest in Guildford, which featured two of Dao’s writers Penny Pepper and Allan Sutherland. Both Penny’s intimate Lost in Spaces - a poetic, musical journey through a personal history of the Disability Arts Movement and Allan’s extract from Neglected Voices: Proud were examples of the importance of persisting to assert the human rights element of our art form.
Later that month I gave a presentation of Dao's work at the Senseability conference organised by Tanvir Bush at Bath Spa University. It was a great pleasure to talk about some of the work we’ve featured over the last 10 years and explain something of Dao’s role to assist in facilitating networks and to support emerging disabled writers and artists through our blogs and our programme of commissioning writing on the arts and disability.
Last August Dao was invited to host another poetry event at Together! in Newham, where Wendy Tongue and Bonk Bipolar took to the stage with elements of the craft they’ve been developing through their respective blogs on Dao. There was further endorsement of their talent with invitations for further performances and workshops with the grassroots disability arts organisation.
On 3 September we ran Perceptions of Difference - a poetry event at the Saison Poetry Library in programmed to coincide with the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre. Having had a longstanding connection with Survivors’ Poetry, it was a fantastic achievement for me personally to introduce four poets who’ve been cornerstones of the movement: Hilary Porter, John O’Donoghue, Debjani Chatterjee and Frank Bangay.
Head Librarian Chris McCabe said of the event: “It's very unusual to have an event of so few poets which can suggest so much about the possibilities of poetry.”
It has been an ongoing pleasure to be a named media partner for Unlimited. Dao was the seventh top referral to the Southbank Centre’s website during the festival from 2-7 September, not accounting for the drive we did through our social media and weekly bulletin.
As the Unlimited programme develops through 2015/ 16 we will see new and further embedded partnerships beginning to ensure the programmes’ influence grow beyond London showcasing disabled artists creating extraordinary work.
It was great to see many of the artists given a platform at DaDaFest who are also an Unlimited partner. Last December the festival featured one of the main commissions Owen Lowery with Otherwise Unchanged, plus several of the research and development projects: notably Jess Thoms aka Touretteshero with Backstage in Biscuit Land, Ailís Ní Ríain with her extraordinary cross art form Hieronymous Bosch-influenced The Drawing Rooms, and Kazzum Theatre’s promenade performance piece Where’s My Nana
DaDaFest was particularly memorable for the International Congress that was a major part of the programme, bringing disabled artists from across the globe, to coincide with the International Day of Disabled People.
A quote from mainstream freelance writer Bella Todd who we engaged last year to help us spread the word about Unlimited to the wider press sums up something of our aspiration to keep going in 2015:
“Many national, international and mainstream publications would envy the scale, quality and consistency of community engagement Disability Arts Online fosters on both its main website and through its social media channels.
Its writers, bloggers and readers (among whom there's an important degree of crossover) engage in an ongoing discourse that's at once supportive, argumentative, personal, politicised and teeming with individuality. That's no mean editorial feat. The quality and breadth of the debate will always make Dao pertinent and provocative reading for the wider world.
As a platform for giving a community a powerful, purposeful yet individuated voice, it's also a site to which more media outlets and organisations could do with paying attention.
We know we’ve got a fight to survive in the year ahead. We are under threat from measures designed by people in power who really basically don’t have a clue. Let’s come together and use Dao as platform to get our voices heard and to challenge top-down ignorance
Last week DAOs FaceBook group was the site of a raging debate about disability, art and identity. Between 19-27 November members of the group posted something in the region of 15,000 words in 122 posts. Responses were passionate. It was a valuable debate testing the validity, or otherwise of Disability Art, a Disability Arts Movement and of definitions of being a 'disabled artist'.
Many of the contributions question the social model ethic of 'self-definition' and the validity of art that is informed by identity. The debate was prompted by Katherine Araniello questioning "a trend in disability culture of becoming a 'broad church' to include a wide range of illnesses, and character traits which have been problematised through both self-definition and current political thinking that we are all suffering from trauma and mental illness."
I guess it depends on your perspective. From my own experience of mental health issues I have no doubt that mental health is 'disability' issue. The most disabling aspect being the lack of an arena to talk about the issues outside of a 'medicalised' approach.
There has been the biggest backlash in the Press in recent years against disabled people, and in particular disabled people with mental health issues, for receiving disability benefits. According to the report published by Inclusion London a year ago, the press have been putting out the message that the majority of disabled people are only pretending to be disabled people. We are not who we say we are, but simply fraudsters. The mainstream view ignores the understanding of the disability movement of disability as oppression - as standing for the barriers that society places in front of people.
So what has this all got to do with art? Many feel that the politics around identity get in the way of art; that identifying as a disabled artist takes away from the value of the work produced.
I've been asked by several people who took part in the debate to post the comments from the DAO FaceBook group so you can read the arguments for yourself and continue the debate!