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.”
Last night was the 21st Anniversary of Survivors’ Poetry. It’s not difficult to fill the Poetry Café in Betterton Street, London, but it was a suitable venue for what was for me, an emotional occasion. Being involved with Survivors’ Poetry through the 1990s was instrumental in my getting involved with the Disability Arts Movement.
Joe Bidder was then and remains to this day, an engaging mentor and advocate. Without him I would never have been able to move forward with the work I’ve done within the Disability Arts Movement over the last twenty years. At the event he reminded us how instrumental Arts Council were, then, through the vision of Bushey Kelly, in establishing Survivors’ Poetry. Joe reminded us how radical and effective the group was in establishing the first ever Arts Charity staffed and run exclusively by survivors of the mental health system.
Another founding member Frank Bangay recalled how much of the organisation of gigs and workshops, back in the day, happened from his ‘office’ in the local telephone box! Frank’s poetry always stirs with a spirit for understanding and compassion, arresting the listener with images of the healing power of nature. Accompanied on guitar by Alastair Murray and with a mean harmonica in hand he gave us his song of hope for England.
Frank has been a cornerstone of the Survivor Arts movement since the 1980s and continues to be a prolific writer and producer though his work with Core Arts. I’d recommend reading an interview with him by Xochitl Tuck published in the Spring/ Summer 2005 edition of Survivors’ Poetry Express.
Another founding member Hilary Porter, talked about her initial reticence, followed by her gratitude for everything that Survivors’ Poetry has meant to her. I remember her dedication to making the events and workshops all those years ago so welcoming. Her self-effacing, warm nature were an inspiration that kept the Survivors’ spirit alive through many years.
Razz has also been there since the beginning. He continues to bring an ineffable charm and enthusiasm to the performances and workshops he organises with Xochitl and takes part in at the Poetry Cafe and Tottenham ‘Chances’.
The event made me realize how much I miss the spirit of survivors performing and the gentle supportive vibe that is such a hallmark of what is so valuable and necessary to giving survivors of the mental health system a space to express ourselves and to cope in a world that can be so cruel and insensitive towards those of us who struggle in our daily lives.
Simon Jenner continues to keep Survivors’ Poetry going. The website contains some great live films of performances by various members of the group, including some of the wit and wisdom of the fourth founding member of the group, Peter Campbell, who unfortunately was unable to make the anniversary night. When Peter talks about the presence of God on Cricklewood station you just know he speaks truth. Go to http://www.survivorspoetry.org/the-poetry/performances/ for some real gems.
I’ve been at sixes and sevens the last couple of weeks. You know how it is – sometimes impairment can get the better of things. I count myself lucky to be in a position where I can do work which affords me the comfort of allowing me to manage the daily slog of M.E. related restrictions.
I have just met with Gaelle Mellis – the dynamic artistic director of Restless Dance Company in Adelaide. We talked a lot about that thorny issue of identification. It is so understandable why disabled people don’t want to be saddled with a label – but the fact is that our fight to get equal participation in society won’t happen without facing what disability means to us – the ways that discrimination impacts on us in our daily lives.
At the fine edges of attitudes towards disability is the fact that there are so few role models of disabled people to counteract the argument that if we can’t be cured, our lives are not worth living. Debates around the assisted suicide bill have been raging on dao through the summer – thanks to the Julie Birchall of Disability Arts – otherwise known as Crippen.
In response I just wanted to publish a link to Clair Lewis’ moving and well argued blog against the rationale behind assisted suicide on Heresy Corner
Titled ‘My life is unbearable - don't fix it, just kill me’ Clair argues that we should be fighting for inclusion, independent living and assistance to live – rather than assistance to die.
Getting disabled people having fun on the streets of London is one way of countering the notion of ‘tragic lives’ that is the generally accepted view of impairment. I enjoyed this years’ Liberty Festival as much as ever – despite the fact there was no LDAF-run film tent. On the plus side the stages were much better set out to accommodate the lively mix of arts that is Liberty. It’s the one big open event in the disability arts calendar – when disabled people gather to catch up with old and new friends, and see some of the latest work coming out of the disability-related arts scene.
There is always an emphasis on the performing arts with several stages for music, dance and a tent for comedy, cabaret and spoken word. One of my highlights was seeing Sophie Woolley perform excerpts from When to Run
Described by Irvine Welsh as a "A stunning, electrifying show full of imagination and verve," the show comprises of four compelling monologues from a teenage athlete, a highly strung professional, a lifestyle guru and a dog walker. The writing is gripping, dark, with a fast paced hilarity, matching the intensity of the various characters running exploits.
Generally, Liberty presents a mixed audience of disabled and non-disabled people who are generally fairly subdued and difficult to play to. Aside from the smattering of disability arts regulars Liberty is largely giving exposure to a crowd who are experiencing the work for the first time. You can tell from the quizzical looks on peoples’ faces that they are finding their way into it. I think this is one of the festivals greatest strengths – even if it makes it hard for the performers.
The biggest crowd pleaser this year was Kuljit Bhamra who did a great job of getting the audience to take part, chanting Liberty and humming themes on the hundreds of plastic kazoos he handed out. He is a celebrated tabla player and composer who is lauded for having bought Bhangra to the UK. He was the perfect act to end the festival on, conveying warmth and passion.
This years’ festival seemed to showcase dance more than anything else – possibly because dance works well in an outdoor space. It all looked very sleek and professional. Blue Eyed Soul did a sterling job entertaining the crowds with a variety of aerial dance work throughout the day.
One of my favourite acts was Penny Peppers’ spoken word spot in the cabaret tent. Call me old school, but I think there is more of a need than ever to name those disability elephants which hold us back from taking part. Penny’s spoken word stuff does just that, in a sexy, humorous and engaging style. I think if she could find a way over the hurdle of performing from the page – she’d find a way of making her act that much more dynamic.
Going back to my meeting with Gaelle. She is looking at ways of getting the fantastic Oska Bright Film Festival over to Australia. The Team of Learning Disabled Film-makers who head that project have done amazing things this past year and half. The Oska Bright Festival coming up in November is bound to be a highlight of the year.
Carousel, who are the learning disability arts organization who facilitate Oska Bright have just come up with another great initiative called ‘Shut Up and Listen!’ It is the culmination of a years work with people with learning disabilities who have an interest in music. It will be an outlet for their music to be heard and promoted through a learning disabled led radio show.