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2015: The year impairment issues returned to the fore

In thinking about my round-up of the highlights of 2015 there are several events that stand out and a changing climate, culturally and politically, which are having an impact on the evolving beast that is disability arts.

Last March, and for the third year running, SICK! Festival presented its increasingly influential showcase simultaneously in Brighton and Manchester. Branded as a festival that confronts the physical, mental and social challenges of life and death this years’ theme was sex and sexuality, abuse and suicide. 

One of the pieces that stood out for me was Sue MacLaine’s ‘Can I Start Again Please?’, which was commissioned by SICK! and launched at the festival. The show received much acclaim from the press and won a Total Theatre award during its run at Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Presented as a duo with Nadia Nadarajah mirroring MacLaine’s poetic script in BSL, the performance was like a Vermeer painting come to life and choreographed with delicate precision. A hymn to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of abuse, the piece reflects on the paucity of a useful language to articulate traumatic experience.

Also in March, the provocatively named Awkward Bastards conference produced by DaSh at the mac in Birmingham shed light on critical issues relating to the Arts and Diversity. There are no easy answers to the problematic of identifying with any single ‘characteristic’. “How do you fit content of character into a quota?” Skinder Hundal asked, echoing a general sense of disillusion with labelling one’s work or one's self as anything. Yet still the question remains of how to make the invisible corners of Art practice visible. 

Election night in May was made memorable by a performance by Jess Thom of Touretteshero’s, ‘Backstage in Biscuitland’. If you know Jess’s work you’ll know she has a unique capacity to improvise. Learning that “Nigel Farage is at home washing his tortoise” was actually an immense comfort in the face of the misery of the inevitable outcome of the vote.

Originally an R&D commission from Unlimited in 2014, ‘BIBL’ as it’s affectionately known on Twitter, went on to receive five star reviews at Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the UK tour is set to extend until May 2016. In November Jess presented a version of the show for BBC4 as part of Battersea Arts Centre’s Live from Television Centre broadcast and she got 3 million views on Russell Howard’s Good News on BBC Two. I had the privilege of interviewing Jess shortly before the airing on television.

In April Dao’s own Trish Wheatley and Alice Holland worked with Liz Crow during the production of her live performance piece 'Figures' highlighting the impact of austerity on our community.  Trish interviewed the artist and Alice blogged about her involvement with the project, illustrating the power of art as activism. Perhaps Disability Arts is not dead, but like the clay figures Crow made for her performance, has been crumbled to nothing, waiting to re-emerge?

In June, I went to see Sanchita Islam’s astoundingly beautiful artwork at Rich Mix in East London. Imagine some of the most popular artists from the history of Art collaborating on producing 25 foot long scrolls using ink and pen. You’ll find elements of Da Vinci, Bosch, Breugel, Dali and a myriad of others intricately hidden amongst a seamless cacophony of elaborate detail. Using the event to launch her book 'Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too' - published under the pseudonym Q S Lam. Despite falling into a medical-model approach, the artist presents a much-needed critique of psychiatry from a personal perspective.

Four months later and I’m still recovering from my week at the Edinburgh Festival. It was hugely enjoyable and I got to see loads of amazing work, but the high octane engagement necessary to cope with the city is not conducive for someone like me, coping with ME/CFS. This year we saw Unlimited take off at Edinburgh with a plethora of artists with Unlimited awards showcasing work as part of the iF Platform and the British Council showcase within the Fringe Festival. 

My most memorable encounter was with newcomer to Disability Arts, Rowan James. A part of StopGap's iF Platform, the spoken word performer’s 'It's Easy For You To Say' was not one of the most polished or well-staged pieces in the festival, but it certainly came across with the most passion; at turns humorous, engaging and biting when it came to making comment on the impact of ‘labeling’, serving as a critique of Disability Arts in a disabling world.

The year's 'Consumption Award' for theatre riddled with disabling stereotypes goes to 'Kill Me Now' at Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. Displaying the most abject humour it was an example of the kind of theatre that should be shot down as soon as it rears its vituperative head. Thankfully, the theatre director Jez Bond listened to disabled people's complaints and elected to commission work from within the sector later in the year. He programmed Deafinitely Theatre for a run of their piece 'Grounded' during November, reviewed by Dao’s new-ish recruit Joe Turnbull.

At the beginning of October I had the pleasure of interviewing Aaron Williamson at the Shape gallery during a showing of the ‘furniture’ he’s created for his Demonstrating the World Unlimited commission. When the first outing of the live performance took place in November at the Experimentica Festival in Cardiff, Chloe Phillips gave it a considered response.

Choosing a blog post of the year is tricky. There have been so many erudite, funny or touching posts from all the artists using Dao as a blogging platform. But I think the question that Sophie Partridge raised again about the emphasis on impairment rather than disability, which has been a hallmark of the work shown this year past, is something that needs further and deeper discussion.

There have been benefits. Much of what’s been shown has had a focus for attention on the creation of innovative access – partly down to some of the pioneering work done by Unlimited. Another of the Unlimited R&D Artists, Chloe Phillips was a real find. Her research into audio-description as part of the creation of a piece of work with Taking Flight theatre is going to result in some interesting if not hilarious theatre next year. 

From a small award, in part motivated by Jess Thom being refused entrance to theatres because of impairment issues, she has gone on to challenge theatre makers, directors and producers to think about the creative uses of ‘relaxed performance’. Backstage in Biscuitland has been an example of how art can be a real catalyst for change. 

On the other hand – in tandem with a plethora of performance and theatre that tells our stories of impairment – is a careering back to medical model language.

This year has seen an explosion of a return to the use of the tongue-twisting phrase ‘people with disabilities’. As though the Social Model never happened. As though we are forever doomed to be objects for scrutiny in the eyes of non-disabled people, defined as containers like Pandora’s Box – emblems of everything that’s wrong in the world. 

There was a clear end to what we saw as Disability Arts at the beginning of the 2000’s – a move from an activist phase of work that sought to challenge discrimination in a pro-active way, made by and for us. The last 15 years has seen the emergence of work looking to challenge perceptions and prejudices. In the last few years we’ve seen much professionally produced work with more money behind it to make it more presentable to wider audiences. But also there has been more of a sense of fragmentation and less of a sense of what Disability Arts is for. Disability Pride seems to have taken a fall before it even had a chance to raise its head. 

The issues Sophie raises need further questioning because we have entered a new phase. It hasn’t quite defined itself, but is marked by the closure of the ILF last June and the caps on Access to Work, which will continue to make it harder and harder for disabled people to continue paid employment. 

For Dao, we look forward to some much-needed improvements to the site next year. From the team, Trish, Joe, Alice and myself, we wish you all the best for the holiday season and look forward to engaging with you all again in 2016.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 17 December 2015

Last modified by Joe Turnbull, 18 December 2015

Katherine Araniello and Simon Raven do 'The Golden Gherkin'

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.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 29 July 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 29 July 2015

The City of London laughs in the face of the plight of disabled people with the erection of a new/ old Damien Hirst monument

A statue by artist Damien Hirst which according to the Evening Standard “aims to challenge our prejudices around disability” was recently installed next to St. Helen’s Church and opposite the Gherkin in London’s Square Mile.

The seven-metre high sculpture, called Charity (2003), is a replica of a 1960s Spastic's Society charity collection box depicting a disabled young girl clutching a teddy bear and a collection tin.

The Standard goes on to say that Hirst said he “aims to question society's historical tradition of representing charity as a pitiful image.”

So, firstly you have to ask yourself, why? And at a time when disabled people are suffering more than any other community within society as a result of the increasing prejudice and discrimination being expounded by the media and government.

Both FAD Magazine and Artylst tell us that “Hirst’s Charity revolutionises the classical practice of elevating a noble subject, by selecting the dejected image of a disabled girl with her leg in a splint and depicting the charity box having been broken into.”

What utter drivel. And yet another example of 'disability' being used and exploited by the rich and powerful as a commodity for trafficking ideas and power. Since the 2012 Paralympics it seems that we have gone beyond 'disability'. We live in such an equal society now, apparently ‘disability’ no longer exists.

'Disability' has been written out of the benefit system. Access to Work has been cut and the Independent Living Fund is no more. And now, of course, we hear the government want to make further steps to legalise killing us off.

Yet Hirst deems it appropriate to celebrate the fact that the 'disability' begging box has been broken into and the few meagre pennies we had have been stolen, right in the middle of the biggest self-serving tax haven and money laundering centre in the world.

As a movement we’ve always given ‘pity’ bad press. Johnny Crescendo urged us to 'piss on pity' when it seemed we were fighting for a more just world. But society has gone so far in proving that any form of compassion is outmoded and that as a result society itself no longer exists.

We’re just a group of individuals stacked up against each other like pawns in a China shop, self-righteous about the need to throw away anyone who doesn’t justify their worth to the economy. Even then, the logic of throwing away the ILF and the Access to Work Scheme doesn’t bear thinking about. The amount of money wasted by disavowing disabled people from making a contribution through employing PAs, paying tax. etc. is sickening.

A fertile discussion raged on Dao’s FB group in the last couple of days, instigated by blogger Deborah Caulfield.

The first thing you realise is how utterly lacking in imagination Hirst and the producers of Sculpture in the City are. I mean, come on, a sentimental 1950s image of a young disabled girl begging in a short skirt. The crowbar and the scuffed appearance are probably reminders of how sick people got of these objects on the streets in the 1970s. My own memory is that they always stood, vandalised and broken into.

Simon Raven reminded us that by far the best artistic treatment of the charity-box pity theme was by Katherine Araniello who did an ironic imitation, collecting for the Sick Bitch Crips. (As an aside Araniello is performing in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall on 25 July as part of One City One Day)

Simon also suggest a group coming together to organise a 'Beggars Banquet' event at the foot of the sculpture to address our concerns. Anyone else up for it? 

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 7 July 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 7 July 2015

Defend disabled people's right to independent living

The Government's plans to do away with the Independent Living Fund (ILF) on 30th June are going to have an immense impact on many individuals Dao works with either directly or indirectly.

The ILF helps over 18,000 disabled people with high support needs to live independent lives in the community rather than in residential care. The fund was introduced in 1988 as the Conservative party at that time realised that supporting disabled people with personal care needs to live independent lives, in their own homes, was cheaper by far than residential care.

After June 2016 there will be no additional funding for already cash-strapped local authorities to meet their legal obligations. The LA’s budgets have already been cut by £991 million in 2011, £890 million in 2012, and they are being cut by a further 28% in 2013-15. 

There is no overall scheme to ensure the safety of the people who depend on the ILF. The overall sense of what will happen is that LA’s will not be able to supply the budgets needed for disabled people to continue to have the same levels of PA support. Individuals will be left to fight for their support needs to be recognised. 

The policy to scrap the ILF is not designed to save money. The implication is that most group 1 users will no longer be eligible for any funding due to tightening of local authority eligibility criteria. The average cost of the ILF is just £345 a week compared to the average cost of residential care being £738 a week. 

This is a direct attack on disabled people designed to divide, weaken and  destroy the spirit of an already fragmented community. More than 18,000 disabled people will lose an essential lifeline, devastating their quality of life. 

Please write to your local MP, and sign the 38 Degree Petition 

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 3 June 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 26 April 2016

Happy New Year: we've got a fight on our hands!

We know we’ve got a fight to survive in the year ahead. Many of our artists, dependent on the Independent Living Fund are under attack. We need to come together creatively and positively to challenge the threat we are under from measures designed by people in power who basically don’t seem to have little clue about the real world.

The letter I received personally from my own MP to complain about the closure of the ILF said: 

“...Ministers have considered the implications of the fund and have undertaken a new equality analysis and gathered further evidence. Following this, the Government has decided to close the ILF on 30th June 2015. This will provide disabled people with choice and control over their care within the mainstream system, with local authorities responsible for meeting the care of support needs of ILF users in England. Local authorities will be funded so that they will be abler to meet their new responsibilities towards ILF users. Awards will be maintained for current users until the ILF closes.”

We’ve got six months to raise a fuss and ensure that our voices are heard above those who may possibly in all sincerity believe that the closure of the ILF will provide disabled people with choice and control!

Join DPAC for a Mass Action to save the ILF, Tuesday, January 6th 1.30pm for 2pm start. House of Commons, SWIA 0AA OR Join Online. DPAC have prepared a webpage with tweets on that you can use. For more information please click here to go to the DPAC website

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 5 January 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 12 January 2015

Looking back: 2014 has been a mix of triumph and devastation for Disability Arts

Firstly I’d like to extend my condolences to Richard Longstaff’s family at this time. His loss last summer, as a result of cancer was a big blow to me personally. I could see a book of poetic reminiscences of growing up in a rural Northern village emerging from his poetry blog. It was a joy to work with him and he is sorely missed.

2014 has been an eventful year for us here at Disability Arts Online. There have been lots of highlights but I’ve been particularly pleased about getting out and about more - taking Dao on the road, as it were. Getting involved in being a part of arts events as well as reporting on them has been a rewarding way of providing opportunities for the artists who engage with Dao.

Dao has always been about providing a space for disabled artists putting their art into a public arena for the first time alongside established disabled artists. Dao is more than just a website, so it was great to talk about what we do as an innovator in the arts, giving a potted history of Dao as part of Bath Spa Universities' Senseability Festival. 

I’d especially like to thank John Kelly and Karl Newman of DaiSyFest. Last June they invited us to produce a poetry event at G-Live in Guildford. The captivating Penny Pepper performed an extract from her poetic memoir Lost in Spaces with riveting cello accompaniment from Jo Cox.

Allan Sutherland took to the stage with a selection from the transcription poetry cycle Proud: from the words of Jennifer Taylor. I think all of us, Allan included, were stunned by the power of Jennifer’s voice rising through the poetry to describe a fierce determination in the face of appalling discrimination. It’s one thing to read through the cycle from 'Neglected Voices' as they were published on Dao, but another to hear the words in performance. It was made all the more moving by Jennifer’s contribution to the q+a after the reading.

Both Penny and Allan progressed through the year following DaiSyFest with performances at Together in Newham along with other Dao writers/ poets Wendy Tongue, John O’Donoghue and Bonk

It was great to get more continuity with a successful application for a slot; Perceptions of Difference in the Saison Poetry Library on the Southbank, which fortuitously we were able to fit into the Unlimited Festival. In putting this event together I came full circle as my roots in Disability Arts came through having worked initially with Survivors’ Poetry from the early 90s. We programmed two of the poetry groups’ founder members Hilary Porter and Frank Bangay alongside two other important poets/ writers within Survivors’ Poetry’s history, Debjani Chatterjee and John O’Donoghue.

What can I say about Unlimited. I think Shape and Artsadmin have done a terrific job overall. Applications will be foremost in many artists’ minds over the coming holiday and from the interview I did recently with Tony HeatonIt will be extremely competitive due to the far-reaching success of the festival at London's Southbank Centre. We did a massive job of reporting on as much of Unlimited as possible and thanks go to Bella Todd who we commissioned with a brief to get as much copy into other publications as possible.

There have been some massive successes coming out of this years’ Unlimited: the three that spring to mind are the extensive tours by the poet Owen Lowery with Otherwise Unchanged and the performer Jess Thom's Touretteshero plus the Vacuum Cleaner’s Madlovewhich has been commissioned by FACT in Liverpool with a big development in partnership with the University of Liverpool.

Like Mat Fraser’s Cabinet of Curiosities performance at the Science Museum (amongst other places) in London earlier this year, Lost in Spaces reflects on the history of our movement. I hope we see more art and performance in 2015 on this level. Disability Arts is fragile and like all historical accounts, vulnerable to a sleight of hand. It’s important that we have control over how our stories are told, so I’m looking forward to developments with NDACA (National Disability Arts Collection and Archive).

Ann Wade, Ruth Gould and their team at DaDaFest in Liverpool deserve a special mention for providing the most powerful highlight. It was the international element of DaDaFest that brought into context so much about the work Dao does as a networking organization that pulls people and ideas together.  

Listening to Leroy Moore eulogising about Krip-Hop Nation as a global force: “we, not I”, performing with Ronald Muwanga who talked about the oppression of disabled people in Uganda. We heard a rousing talk from Chris Smit who is taking elements of Art of the Lived Experiment to DisArt Festival in Chicago next Spring. And were treated to Rachel Gadsden’s Al Noor exhibition, making connections with disabled artists from the Middle East. The lasting images that will stay with me were from Epic Arts dance performance of the before and after of the history of Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge with the regimes’ Year Zero in 1975 in Cambodia. I hadn’t realised how much further than Hitler the dictator went. Even people needing glasses were considered too impaired to be worthy of life…

We live in precarious times. The forthcoming disbandment of the Independent Living Fund with a ridiculous promise from the Government that Local Authorities will step in and make provision, in the light of further announcements today of further incisive cuts to local services, means that for many of our talented artists who rely on ILF for PA support, there is a chasm opening.  Society, it seems, has been hoodwinked into turning its eye inwards, like a homunculus reflecting greed and self-interest at the expense of culture and civilisation.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 18 December 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 12 January 2015

Congratulations to Mat Fraser for the recent award given to Cabinet Of Curiosities: but isn’t Disability being firmly put back in a box?

It was good to hear that Mat Fraser has won the Arts and Culture Award category in the Observer Ethical Awards 2014 for his show Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability was kept in a Box.

I interviewed Mat before the show went on tour and was wowed by his performance in the Science Museum earlier this year. For me it was akin to the kinds of cabaret performance we, in the disability arts movement, were lucky to see Mat do 20 years ago: Mat, angry, proud, projecting a cynical humour advocating for disabled peoples’ rights by giving exposure to the Social, Medical and Charity Models of Disability.

Always anarchic, linking karate-kicking raps with observations of how 'disability' is a personal and social role, which simultaneously invalidates people with impairments and validates those identified as 'normal'.

So it surprised me to read in the Guardian’s coverage of the award by Rhik Samadder that the journalist interprets the show, by saying “One of the show's aims is to normalise disability.”

Disability will never be ‘normalised’. Paul Darke, argued back in the late 1990s in his Now I know Why Disability Art is Drowning in the River Lethe paper, that the inclusion agenda was always in danger of sanitising disability to the extent that endangered disabled peoples’ rights.

The assertion of the potential normality of disabled people to fit in - went against the principles of Disability Arts precisely because it sought to ally with the cultural agendas of the arts establishment, rather than the values of the disabled peoples’ movement.

And it looks like Paul’s warning is coming to pass as the current dismantling of the welfare state continues to threaten disabled peoples’ lives. With precious little comment from the media, measures which, under the pretext of saving taxpayers money (but which with a  terrible irony are costing more than the sums allegedly saved) are leaving more and more disabled people in a desperate state of poverty.

The latest epistle under the reign of the current unelected government, is to do away with the Independent Living Fund - a fund set up because it was realised from an economic viewpoint that it was more cost-effective to give disabled people direct support in their own homes - as opposed to locking people away in institutions. So we are going to see disabled peoples’ support needs taken away and replaced once again with high cost institutions allowing little, if any, quality of life.

I wonder if the subtext of Mat’s show should be How Disability is being pushed back in a Box. In his show Mat compares Nazi propaganda images and asks how easily those images can be applied to the strategies of Atos and the DCMS, working specifically to disenfranchise disabled people.

The ILF helps over 18,000 severely disabled people to live independent lives in the community rather than in residential care.

The government announced on 6 March 2014 that it will close the ILF in June 2015.This is the second attempt by the government as last time the Court of Appeal found that the government had breached the equality duties.

The government now claims to have got around the court findings and says it will devolve the money to Local Authorities for 12 months with no ring-fencing.

After June 2016 there will be no additional funding for already cash-strapped local authorities to meet their legal obligations.

Please, help us in the campaign to stop the government's latest attack on disabled people.

Four easy steps to campaign:
1.    Email your MP now to help save the ILF and encourage all your friends and family to do the same
2.    Sign the ILF petition to government
3.    Tweet #savetheILF and Facebook the link to the e-action - www.pcs.org.uk/savetheILF - so others can join the campaign

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 16 June 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 26 June 2014

Colin Hambrook discusses a recent paper on the social model of disability

It feels like things are coming inexorably to a head. Running alongside a year of arts events being rolled out under the banner of the Cultural Olympiad, there is a growing sense of foreboding as the current tide of political changes threatens to change the state of play for disabled people in the struggle to maintain quality of life.

It seems that the vision of a society where everyone with lived experience of disability or health conditions can participate equally as full citizens, is being undermined as we look at changes happening with The Independent Living Fund (ILF), Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Incapacity Benefit, Access to Work and Direct Payments - all measures that came into play as a result of the Disability Movements' campaigns for a fairer society.

Disabled People Against the Cuts has recently published an academic paper by Debbie Jolly, which I would urge everyone to read. At the core of 'A Tale of Two Models' is a history of the influence of the Social Model of Disability. Jolly reaffirms our understanding of Disability as a social construct; a power relationship between those who have self-determination and those who don't. She outlines how our understanding has become muddied in arguments pitting the medical model against the social model - and essentially how the bio-psychosocial model - currently in favour amongst influential bodies such as the big Disability Charities - is being used to support welfare reform.

How things play out over the course of this year is both exciting and worrying, in equal measure. Can Disability Arts continue to play a role that allows disabled peoples' voices and concerns to be heard? We've a plethora of Unlimited events, and Disability Arts Festivals in Liverpool and London. For example DaSH's M21, DaDaFest 2012 and Together 2012 all promise events by Disability Artists that challenge, as well as entertain. At the core of these arts is an ethos that looks at the barriers to disabled peoples' participation in society. At the end of the day it's about changing attitudes. Debbie Jolly explains in academic terms how we've much further to go than perhaps we imagined. I think we need more communication that spells the issues out in plainer english - and which offers paths to sharing experience.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 17 April 2012

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 17 April 2012