History is crucial to any culture, and it is essential to Disability Arts. It is through a sense of history that we define who we are, what journey we have undertaken and how far we have come. We also, implicitly, map out the future.
By building upon the achievements of the past, as disability arts practitioners and the broader disability arts community, we can ensure that we are creating something solid that we hand down to those who come after us. But to be accessible to future generations, those achievements have to be documented. Otherwise, everything we do is transient, a superior form of occupational therapy. We might as well have been basket-weaving for the last twenty years.
This process is particularly important for us as disabled people, because mainstream society devalues and marginalises so many of our achievements and struggles. We have to document our own culture, because it is not seen as significant enough to be documented in mainstream histories of the arts.
We need to be able to hand something on to further generations that offers a vibrant view of disabled people, saying that there have been people like them before, and they created something of value, something that values them, something that is there for them to add to. And we can tell them the names of some of those people. It is already possible to list people who have made major contributions to disability culture and who are no longer with us: Ian Stanton, Dorothy Miles, Sue Napolitano, Steve Cribb…
It is also important for us to know the achievements of our own movement. We need to be able to value what we have created. We need to give due credit to individuals and organisations who have taken the risks, made the commitments, believed in what could be done. And we also need to know our own history because it enables us to answer back to those who wish to denigrate or underestimate our abilities or the importance of our work.
The record of that history may take different forms: actual artworks, records of productions (scripts, programs, photos, posters), videotapes, oral history. What is needed differs for different arts, and some documentation has already taken place (as with Getting Noticed, NDAF's schools exhibition of posters). But there until recently there has been no overall strategy being developed for deciding what significance we attach to what aspects of our history and how we act to safeguard it.
National Disability Arts Collection and Archive
We are at a key turning point. If we wish to preserve and archive the history of the Disability Arts movement, we can do so. Most of it, from the very beginnings, is still there to be preserved. That will not be the case in twenty years time. It will not entirely be the case in five years time. We need to act now.
That is why the first project undertaken by The Edward Lear Foundation, a new Disability Arts think tank, is to kick-start the process of recording and preserving our history. We are working closely with the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive being established at Holton Lee in Dorset, for which this document will be a key tool.
Chronology of Disability Arts: 1977 - March 2003
by Allan Sutherland, director, The Edward Lear Foundation
Foreword by dao
dao has published the intital draft of this important chronology of Disability Arts in the UK, with the kind permission of the Edward Lear Foundation.
Disability Arts has been an important arts developments of the past 30 years. The movement has made crucial changes in getting work by disabled artists noticed and valued by a wider audience.
The importance of this chronology is in ensuring that the record of events and disabled artists who created and participated in those events is kept for posterity. This is not a definitive piece, but an ongoing work. So please send comments, and information which you feel could help progress and improve this valuable document to Allan Sutherland at the Edward Lear Foundation
This chronology covers the major events of disability arts from the movement's inception in the late 1970s / early 1980s to the end of March 2003. (The cut-off date is dictated purely by funding criteria and does not mark any particular notable event.)
It draws upon Disability Arts in London (DAIL) and Disability Arts Magazine (DAM), plus information supplied by disability arts organisations and individuals.
Dates are given as exactly as possible, and events are ordered by year and month. I have sometimes guessed the month where it is possible to do so with reasonable accuracy (for example when an event has been reviewed but no date given). Where no date is given, it should not be assumed that the date is entirely accurate. An exact date indicates that the date of the event is known (with a very few exceptions, where I have noted the fact in italics).
Where only the year is known, items are placed at the start of the relevant year. Such events are likely to have occurred later than at least some of the items placed subsequently with a specific date. I would welcome information that would enable me to place these items more accurately.
Events that occurred over more than one month are normally given under the start month.
I have taken quite a broad definition of what constituted disability arts, and included some events that certain readers will judge as belonging to other categories of arts activity. The definition of disability arts has been, and remains, an evolving concept and at any given time there has not been a unity of approach. I have therefore tried to include enough information to chart the discussions, the development, the alternative approaches and the false starts.
This chronology does not, however, cover wider equal opportunities issues in mainstream arts. I have disregarded such things as announcements of sign interpreted performances of mainstream plays. Not does it cover workshops and training, though I have included some of these where they seem to me to have a wider significance.
I have also included a limited amount of information about events in other areas such as disability politics, to try to give a sense of how what was happening in disability arts related to what was happening in other areas of the disability movement.
I have tried to minimise the use of intrusive quote marks. It should therefore be remembered that the language used in this chronology often reflects the phrasing of an original announcement or review rather than current modern practice. I have tended to retain such phrasing because it gives a flavour of the ethos of a particular organisation or event at a particular time.
Similarly, I have, as far as possible, respected the convention that the capitalised term Deaf refers to sign language users, who see themselves as primarily part of a linguistic community, whereas the lowercase deaf refers to any people with hearing loss, but have often retained descriptions of events that do not employ this usage.
A significant role in disability arts has been played by certain aspects of Deaf arts, such as sign song, and Deaf performers such as Dorothy Miles and Caroline Parker, and I have tried to document that. But this chronology does not attempt to provide complete coverage of Deaf arts. That would need to be done by a Deaf researcher with considerably better knowledge of the area than I possess.
Where possible, I have cross-checked announcements with subsequent reviews, features and news reports. Nevertheless, it remains the case that this chronology relies heavily on unconfirmed announcements. It is inevitable that there will sometimes have been last-minute changes, and that some of the information given here is inaccurate. I would welcome corrections.
The Way Forward
This is a work in progress rather than a complete history. It reflects what was covered in its source material. I would welcome further information, or suggestions of possible source material providing information about other geographical areas or other aspects of disability arts.
What this chronology does definitely do however is this: it defines what information is available from the most easily available existing material. Any event, or any individual not mentioned here is in danger of dropping out of the history of our movement. If you have further information, please forward it to me so that I may include it in future editions of this chronology. There will definitely be future editions. It is never too late to send additions, corrections or other information.
Corrections, further information, suggestions of other source material or information about early copies of DAIL should be sent to Allan Sutherland at the Edward Lear Foundation
I am extremely grateful to the staff of DAIL, and Victoria Lucas in particular, for all the help they have given me in sorting out a set of the magazine, and to the other staff of LDAF for putting up with my intrusions into their office while I ferreted around the boxes of back copies.
I would also like to offer thanks to all the individuals who have donated or lent copies of DAIL and DAM, trusting me with treasured possessions: Ann Young, Sian Williams, Joe Bidder, Hilary Porter, Geof Armstrong.
Thanks are also due to all the organisations who responded to my request for information about their history: The Art House, Full Body and the Voice Art + Power, CandoCo, Blue Eyed Soul, DASh, Oily Cart (To hard-pressed organisations who meant to reply but had trouble finding the time, I would emphasise: it's not too late - there will be updated editions.)
NOTE: To check the most recent update to any page of this chronology see 'last updated' at the bottom of each page
I would like to thank those individuals who have answered my queries about past events in which they were involved: Chris Ledger, Tony Heaton, Colin Hambrook.
And I owe particular thanks to all the various editors of DAIL and DAM, whose work over the years put on record most of the information contained here: Elspeth Morrison, Diane Miller, Kit Wells, Ruth Bailey, Colin Hambrook, Matthew Holmes, Joe McConnell, Hanne Olsen and Catya Wheatley for DAIL; Roland Humphries and Kit Wells for DAM.