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.”
It was great to see the news of the protests against the disbandment of the Independent Living Fund… I've always had a huge amount of respect and admiration for John Kelly and it was great to see him on the news singing 'Which Side Are You On My Boys'. Much warmth, respect and solidarity goes to all the protesters who stormed Parliament yesterday!
I think this cartoon by Dao cartoonist Crippen from 2012 says it all about how despicable the puppet figurehead of our overlords is.
This is no human being! This is a man who will use any emotional trick in the book to draw sympathy from an unthinking, drugged by TV, drugged by Gaming, populace into colluding with his death-dealing campaign against disabled people.
As the Black Triangle Campaign commented: “The use of one’s dead family members to push policies which amount to passive euthanasia must be unprecedented in British political history.”
I often ask myself what is the point of Disability Arts? Every board meeting we have discussions about how we are swimming against a tide in our desire to raise the stakes for equality for disabled people. The attitudes that keep us in chains abound everywhere we look and our small attempts to challenge collectively are consistently ignored.
Just last week we suffered the BBC’s annual celebration of everything Tragic but Brave in which Pudsey Bear struts his stuff to let the world know how lucky it is to be ‘normal’. According to the Guardian an average of 8.3 million viewers watched Children In Need.
Disability is a role imposed on us as bearers of abnormality. The BBC ups harp music to the max in order to play on peoples’ fears of impairment, using the wit and charm of Sir Terry Wogan to preach their disabling message. At its core that message is that we can only make sense of our impairments in negative terms; that our worth as human beings can only be measured through a discriminatory lens.
Children In Need exploits the poor, needy and desperate straits of children and young people in order to remind us of the value of normality and to ram home the message that unless ‘normal’ people want to experience stigma, they’d better keep on conforming to disabling value systems and keep their own little idiosyncrasies and abnormalities well hidden.
And so it goes on… I don’t think anyone could argue that many of charities the BBC’s fund-raising marathon supports are not doing good work. This year Children in Need raised a record £32.6m for disadvantaged children and young adults in the UK, £1.6m more than last year.
The reality is of course, that at the end of the day it is disabled people who pay for the appalling piece of marketing that the BBC is so proud of. Disabled People Against Cuts are now estimating that the average number of deaths directly or indirectly attributable to austerity measures has risen from 32 deaths per week to 73 deaths per week. Attitudes proselytised by campaigns like Children in Need only serve to justify the human cost of discriminatory attitudes.
Meanwhile events such as DaDaFest are still attempting to raise awareness through showcasing artwork that presents conversations about the experience of disability and of impairment.
Art of the Lived Experiment, this years’ curated show at the centre of DaDaFest International 2014 has had a piece of work blacked out in protest by one of the exhibiting artists who took offence at his work being labelled as Disability Arts. Quite why Mike Carr would agree to have his work exhibited in a Disability Arts festival if he objects to the term is not clear. DaDaFest says what it is on the tin. What this act does demonstrate, in my mind at least, is how high feelings run in the running away stakes.
Disability arts still has a role to play in allowing conversations, not marred by media spin, that demonstrate the realities of living with imperfect, impaired bodies and minds in a way that is balanced and real, rather than tainted by negative sensationalist attitudes.
By Colin Hambrook
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!