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> > > SenseAbility presentation: Ten Years of Dao: a potted history

Dao Editor Colin Hambrook was invited to speak about Disability Arts Online at SenseAbility – an event held at the Pound Arts Centre, Corsham from 10-14 June. The festival, exploring inclusion in the arts and community, was organized by Tanvir Bush in partnership with Bath Spa University

Below is a transcript of the paper Colin presented on Friday 13 June 2014.

Dao’s vision is to achieve a widespread appreciation of the richness and diversity of disability arts and culture.

The name Dao came about because the site was originally the Disability section on the Arts Council’s Arts Online website. When we became independent and set up as a not for profit company in 2004 we kept the name as the concept for what we wanted to do followed the principles of the ancient Chinese philosophy, the Dao de Ching, which acknowledges the middle way.

Dao's aim from the off was to be a place that supports disabled or marginalized artists in making work from an authentic and informed position. Without imposing a particular viewpoint, Dao aims to qualify a Disability Arts aesthetic from an art-critical perspective.

We continue to acknowledge our roots in the Social Model of disability, which understands ‘disability’ as a role and an expression of ‘oppression’, rather than as a statement about “having an impairment.”

And so whilst Dao will showcase the work of any emerging disabled artist who is looking for a platform for their work, one of Dao’s key focuses continues to be the disability perspective in artwork that comments on 'disability' as an idea, like 'class', that is designed to uphold a pecking order within society.

One of Dao’s key audiences has always been to act as a resource for students of Arts courses and of Disability Studies. Dao is consistently mentioned on recommended reading lists and I frequently respond to queries from students writing theses or embarking on study related to disability and the arts.

We have a section for research articles. One of Dao’s most consistently accessed single article since its publication in 2009 is an extensive interview with Dr Colin Cameron, Head of Disability Studies at Northumbria University on the Affirmative Model of Disability

Published while he was researching his PhD on the Affirmative Model of Disability the thesis was built on a series of interviews with disabled people about the daily life experience of living with impairment.

Based on Social Model principles the Affirmative Model includes a deeper understanding of disabled peoples' experience.

The model defines disability as a personal and social role which simultaneously invalidates the subject position of people with impairments and validates the subject position of those identified as normal: and impairment as physical, sensory, emotional and cognitive difference, divergent from culturally valued norms of embodiment, to be expected and respected on its own terms in a diverse society.

And so to give some examples of a few specific pieces of work from Dao’s archive. In December 2004 we showcased a review, interview and gallery of Mark Ware’s animated video composition The Dog that Barked like a Bird.

Mark had decades of experience of professional artistic practice before the onset of a stroke forced him to rethink his approach and necessitated breaking rules about narrative film-making in an informed and unique way.

Originally based around a diary record the artist kept following a stroke in 1996, these stills form part of a larger multi-media animated film project. Mark describes the work as “an exploration of altered subjective experience caused by changes in my mind and body”.

The asymmetry illustrates how the stroke left him with sight that registers at different speeds in each of his eyes. It felt right that Disability Arts Online should be open to showcasing artwork that expresses impairment from a perspective that cuts through the worthy / victim narratives that are too often told about disabled people.

Dao’s role is to assert the value of our lives and our expression. Allan Sutherland has now written several life histories in the form of cycles of what he calls transcription poems. The process arises from transcribing interviews, verbatim, purposefully leaving in inflections and nuances of speech.

This first publication of a major art work came out of Allan Sutherland's eagerness to record Paddy Masefield's life story. Paddy: A Life offers a life history of a key disability activist who achieved much in getting the Arts Council Lottery to enshrine access into all public sector building developments.

Paddy tells his story unequivocally giving expression to truths that artists and arts organisations will rarely, if ever, admit to. So, for example the poem Community Theatre explains just how Paddy with a mix of charm and determination was able to achieve so much:

So I was like a jobbing electrician
picking up work wherever I could,
and then very interestingly
having been at a conference
and being quite rude about various people.

And I have no doubt that the Arts Council were included
because I usually manage to attack them
precisely because they funded virtually everything that I was doing,
so it was extremely unwise
and not very grateful
to attack them,
but it was a regular habit.

This is the title painting from Rachel Gadsden’s  Beyond the Asylum series which depicts the front of the Denbigh Asylum with a group of staff on the left and inmates on the right. Large faces and flying figures appear at the windows with the distinct name of one of the main medications Largactil and the imprint of letters, embedded into the canvas.

First showcased on Dao in 2005 at the beginning of a career as a visual artist within the disability arts sector, Rachel's large mixed media canvases of work about the Cane Hill asylum in 2004 opened up a personal connection for me. I had visited the Victorian institution several times as a teenager, when it was still a functioning mental hospital. When I joined the Campaign Against Psychiatric Oppression in the early 1980s, one of its key members, Eric Irwin often told terrible stories of his incarceration within the same institution. Rachel's paintings evoked that personal history through her 'psycho-geographic' approach to making work. 

When she was commissioned to make a similar series of work responding to the derelict Denbigh asylum in North Wales, Dao asked to showcase a gallery of her images. In addition Dao commissioned an article looking at how she went about encapsulating 150 years of history within a series of 2 dimensional artworks.

The result was a fascinating piece of text, recorded and edited by Tim Hayton, giving a diary-style account of the artists' search amongst the debris within the building, looking for evidence of Loanda Matilda Wall - a patient who according to County records, had been discharged from the hospital on 12 May 1876.

This represented Dao's first commission taking the reader on a journey through an artists' process 


Few disabled artists have made disability art about the links between disability and war, which has often surprised me given that war has to be the most disabling situation of all human experience.

Peter Street: Selected poems convey seminal moments. With an economy of words and a crafted elegance, he tells it like it is. Whether he's reminiscing on the power of childhood friendships, recounting life and death experiences, or writing about disability and impairment. His war poems are incredibly powerful and totally overwhelming descriptions of what he witnessed as a war poet attached to a relief unit at the height of the conflict in Bosnia.

This is from Peter’s collection Still Standing published by Towpath Press in 1998


An ex-serviceman
rattles his big tin
under our consciences.

I slit in some change,

confess to him that I've seen action.

“Good man!” he smiles.

Walking home

I feel my stitches, holding those scars
of war,
burst. At first the traumas are
like trying to blow a cricket ball
down your nose.

Then everything pouring out; snipers

and that wall splashed crimson,

where bits of bone and brain
clung like wool to a barbed-wire fence

and that camera-man who left me

when those guerrillas
pulled out their

Guilt spills and restlessness splashes
the pavement.

To give an example of the kinds of research programmes that Dao supports, in August 2010 we hosted Anne Teahan’s: Sharing Cultures: Disability and Visibility

Liz Crow was one of the subjects of Anne Teahan’s research and here is a still image of Liz from her live performance as part of Anthony Gormley’s One and Other project which took place on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2009. It shows her in her wheelchair dressed in a nazi uniform against a stormy sky.

My interpretation of this powerful image is that it illustrates the rejection of a disability identity, with reference to pastor Martin Niemöller famous quote: first they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist. etc

Initially developed from a Dao blog, Anne Teahan's research project went on to incorporate a series of interviews with 55 artists from the US and the UK who had exhibited in Revealing Culture an international festival of disability art at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC in summer 2010.

Teahan's research contextualised the differences in culture and attitude coming from disabled artists / artists with disabilities, respectively from the UK and from the US.

The publication included two galleries of selected works by the artists involved. The research revealed some fascinating insights into the difference between American and British attitudes to language around disability.

In comparing Dao with the VSA website (VSA produced the exhibition at the Smithsonian) several Americans said they were impressed by the sense of community; of disabled people 'doing it for themselves', which Dao evokes. Overal this support of an artists' research project represented Dao's first extensive support of an artists' Grants for the Arts Award.

In May 2012 Dao was awarded a Grants for the Arts by Arts Council England to deliver Diverse Perspectives, a national project featuring residencies and commissions for disabled artists with arts organisations resulting in digital artwork to be premiered on DAO. In addition the funding gave us the opportunity to produce coverage of the Cultural Olympiad with its specific focus on the Unlimited programme of work produced by disabled artists.

The year marked an incredible hiatus for Dao, commissioning eight artists to produce artwork in association with a mix of mainstream and disability arts organisations.

Amongst the eight commissions, Liz Crow took her live durational performance Bedding In, Bedding Out to 3 arts venues over a period of six months. The Salisbury performance was watched on livestream by more than 9,750 people in over 50 countries and received national coverage in The Guardian newspaper.

This photo shows Liz Crow from her performance Bedding In: Bedding Out, in an installation in a gallery, in bed – ostensibly asleep - with book cases, flowers and bedside lamps on either side of her

In the wake of the current welfare benefits overhaul, which threatens many with poverty and with a propagandist campaign that has seen disability hate crime leap by 50% in the last two years, Bedding In Bedding Out was conceived to create a conversation about the realities of life for disabled people under the current austerity measures.

Conversations arose with disabled people world-wide through a series of twitter feeds that accompanied the project. From the edited versions of these tweets came a series of resources to counter the current lies, which abound in the media about the benefits system. A website In Actual Fact was produced in response to give short responses to much of the propaganda.

Liz said about her motivation: “I wear a public self that is energetic, dynamic and happening. I am also ill and spend much of life in bed. The private self is neither beautiful nor grown up, it does not win friends or accolades, and I conceal it carefully.

But for me, along with thousands more, the new system of benefits demands a reversal: my public self implies I don’t need support and must be denied, whilst my private self must be paraded as justification for the state’s support."


This is an image from a series of Jane McCormick’s current ‘selfie’ blog on Dao. It’s called ‘Sick selfie with borrowed smile’ and is a portrait of a woman with hair swept back from her hairline staring askance from the camera with a pair of lips torn from a magazine across her face

And so to sum up I’m very proud of what Dao does and who Dao serves. On very little resources [served as we are by myself and Trish Wheatley both on part-time contracts] we have managed to garner tremendous support and goodwill from our audience and contributors.

Dao has come some way to being recognized as a journal that promotes debate; reviews and showcases some of the best in disability arts practice; and that includes arts across a wide range of perspectives across the literary, visual and performing arts.

We pride ourselves in being a journal that is unique for the kinds of discussion that take place through its pages.

As Jane McCormick recently commented “reading through the pages of Dao is like doing an MA in Disability Arts study.”