Two young performers dancing at DaDa Fest.


Ruth Gould (DaDaFest) talks about Disability Arts - as a genre, how it challenges systemic barriers, and six actions organisations can take to lead to change.

Across the globe creative practitioners are working with communities to co-create and co-produce. This work cuts across genres and challenges our understanding of the role of arts and culture in society. This blog is part of a series exploring socially engaged practice in the UK and internationally. With writings and provocations from Matt Peacock (With One Voice, Streetwise Opera), Chrissie Tiller (writer, teacher, thinker), Shelagh Wright and Peter Jenkinson (Culture and Conflict), this blog offers examples and experiences of socially engaged practice, shares ideas, and investigates what it means to create socially engaged art today.

Disability Arts - a catalyst for change

I would like to talk about the arts from the perspective of Disability Arts, which has now become a recognised cultural genre in promoting the lived experience of disability. This work has relevance not only for disabled or Deaf people, it is increasingly attracting interest from wider audiences of all ages. Disability Arts creates work that counteracts misunderstandings, misconceptions, stereotypes and negative narratives surrounding the lives of disabled people. Its strength is that it is created by disabled and Deaf people, artists and creatives. From the truth of the lived experience of disability they are producing captivating, remarkable, exciting and contemporary art.  Indeed as Yinka Shonibare states Disability Arts ‘is the last Avant Garde’.

This is significant because statistics demonstrate that disabled people have an unequal share of life choices and opportunities. In the UK 44.3% of working age-disabled people are economically inactive, a figure that is nearly 4 times higher than for non-disabled people, 11.5 % of whom are economically inactive (Papworth Trust: Disability in the United Kingdom 2016).  Disability remains closely associated with social issues including unemployment, homelessness, poverty, lack of qualifications, debt, and, most worrying of all, limited life expectancy. Deaf and disabled people are consistently subject to a raft of barriers from attitudes to lack of physical access, which prevents equality of life opportunities and independence. 

It is all too easy to perceive that society is built around the 'able-bodied' – or 'the non-disabled privileged'. Disability is perhaps one of the most complex and misunderstood aspects within today’s society. A recent survey highlights the following information: 1)There are more than 11 million disabled people in the UK. 2)One in six people are affected by disability at some point in their lives. The survey also indicates that disabled people are the second biggest minority group in the UK after men [who make up 49% of the population]! While our presence is widespread, we are unequally represented within mainstream society. We are most likely to be out of work, in poverty, acquire few skills and qualifications, and be subject to discrimination on a daily basis.  It is therefore imperative to create chances to change these controls and the Arts is one of the best ways to achieve this. 

Disability Arts creates a meeting of people who seek to purvey the truth of their lived experience largely through activism, their fight for others and their acceptance of difference. An exciting exchange of minds and experience can take effect.  The work can help to change the world as it is now, supporting and creating freedoms to participate without fear as well as dispelling feelings of unease, embarrassment or inconvenience by making a seeming otherness ordinary.  In fact, the trouble with normal people is they don’t really exist anyway.

'Disability Arts is likely to be influenced and prompted from unexpected, surprising and occasionally disruptive places.'

Disability Arts is likely to be influenced and prompted from unexpected, surprising and occasionally disruptive places. For example, a few years back, at DaDa, we worked with a group of learning disabled women who created and conceived a visual arts project exploring sexiness using handbags and high-heeled shoes. A strength of participatory arts is that it encourages ownership and captures the participant’s thoughts about a particular way to approach and create work. This visual arts project was a definite way to challenge preconceptions and dispel the many negative assumptions about what disabled artists can do, think or want to achieve.

Art often takes the viewer/participant into new comprehensions. That is our aim. Unless you live with a personal experience of disability, you probably rarely think about the impacts of disability beyond the medical condition or diagnosis. In today’s society we all need to have places where our reality is mirrored, affirming our position in society. This is not always easily available with disability. One of the founding figures of the disability arts sector, Vic Finklestein wrote:

‘Disability culture must arise out of the spontaneous desire of disabled people to share our feelings, experiences and desires, our loves and hates, our pleasures as well as our sufferings, amongst ourselves. In other words, we have to make the choice that we want to identify ourselves as disabled people. We have to be willing to express our separate identity. There can be no disability culture without this freely made choice.’

Vic Finklestein

This means we have to put things in place to actually engage with people: from clear marketing messages, access to technical and personal support, through to supporting role models and working with artists with lived experiences of disability.

It is worth acknowledging that being or becoming disabled doesn’t happen to a select few – most of us will now live into old age, and therefore inevitably acquire impairment/s and/or become a disabled person. It can be said that you are either disabled or temporarily not disabled. The inherent nature of our humanity means we are embodied within a fragile and degenerating body – it is a given that we will change. It is only right that we can continue to participate in the wonderful things life has to offer. However something is not quite working when our society is predetermined upon us all being ‘able’, ‘capable’ beings – sensory aware, intellectually in tune and all moving and learning together – as a ‘one size fits all’. As disabled people, this is not always the experience: consequently, many feel excluded, discouraged and prevented from participating in the arts, cultural activities and life in general. This is something we must address.

DaDaFest’s work since 1984 has been about pioneering, empowering and raising aspirations for disabled and Deaf  people in the arts. We aim to encourage skills, talent and career development in the sector. DaDaFest is disability led and focused to reflect the lived experience of disability. We believe that disability is a social issue – it is systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion by society (purposely or inadvertently) that are the main contributory factors in “disabling” people. DaDaFest uses the arts to educate, challenge attitudes, identify and remove the barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people.  The Biennial festival creates a space to explore the bigger issues that affect all our lives and programmes work from the prism of the disabled or Deaf artist and relevant communities.  

This last festival (2018) was themed ‘Passing: What’s Your Legacy’ and explored dying young, life changing moments and progression of illness and explored issues around societal views on disability after impact of active armed service.   One example of how this was achieved was through an alternative to the poppy wreath for the commemoration ceremonies on 11th November 2018 to mark 100 years since the end of the first world war.  Disability is a huge impact of active service: from the experience of PTSD, through to the loss of limbs or senses. Yet this is very rarely thought about.  We worked with local artists, sculptor Faith Bebbington, and different community groups across the Merseyside area to identify the creation of a new wreath to remember these issues from disability expressions.  Three wreaths were created and laid alongside the poppy wreaths at three different ceremonies on 11th November. This was followed up with open conversation events from ex-service people in the following two weeks. In total over 60 people were involved in the creation of the wreaths and it is estimated that over 1,400 were involved in witnessing the laying of the finished work. 

At the heart of DaDaFest’s work are the festival programmes and supporting events that act as a focus for talent development, showcasing and promoting Disability arts. Our work is delivered in partnership with a range of arts and cultural venues across the City, a collaborative approach that allows us to support them to embed inclusive practices and policies in their core work and operations, thereby embedding culture change for inclusion. 

'Our work is needed to bring about social change by creating opportunities for engagement, promoting proactive principles and methodologies, and improving visibility of overlooked communities of disabled and Deaf people.'

Our work is needed to bring about social change by creating opportunities for engagement, promoting proactive principles and methodologies, and improving visibility of overlooked communities of disabled and Deaf people. Our festival trajectory has explored notions such as being normal, the disabled person as an experiment and life’s journey from the cradle to the grave. Our strength is that we operate as a disability control-led charitable company, with 80 per cent of trustees self-disclosing as a disabled or Deaf person. 

By generating/developing art we can be a catalyst for change in three main ways

  • Supporting disabled and deaf people to positively represent/view themselves and their position in society.
  • Challenging prevalent ‘disablist’ views and structures created by a largely ableist society.
  • Promoting a political context through the Social Model of Disability – acknowledging that society and its systems create many barriers preventing people having equality of access.

Things have been changing. With the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 and the Single Equalities Act in 2010, publically funded bodies have become more responsive in providing access and developing awareness to make their services available to disabled/Deaf people. Sadly, little is in place to support and include people into the arts sector as artists, leaders or creatives.  

Six actions for change: removing barriers to participation

There are many opportunities to make positive change and remove the numerous barriers to participation. Once an organisation recognises what can be put in place and how more people can engage. Developing a checklist of actions helps to focus organisational change and bring all along in the journey making such things every day and not add ons. 

  • Only use level access venues
  • Book support such as British Sign Language interpreters, trained and qualified audio describers, lip speakers and personal assistants
  • Programme and commission disabled people 
  • Provide budgets with added access costs and employ staff knowledgeable about technical support
  • Encourage more positive representation of disabled people and disability issues within mainstream media and popular culture.
  • Actively prevent disability being represented from a non-disability point of view, which will continue to perpetuate the myths and stereotypes of the disabled experience. 

Things are changing. In 2003 we held our first young disabled people’s arts festival. The idea came from the young artists. It was important that they could lead on the work hence we employed external facilitators and technical support workers to nurture and encourage their ideas. It was also important to encourage them to challenge some of the structures of control and dependency, which back in the early noughties were so prevalent, particularly within the special school system.

The first event, hosted by Mat Fraser and a young presenter from CBBies, gave rise to disability role models, which in turn encouraged the young people to grow their ambitions and goals. The work has flourished from just 45 young people at the start to well over 200 in this year’s programme, led by a leadership group of 22 young disabled people. One of the saddest aspects of that first young people’s festival in 2003 was the lack of interest from external audiences. It took time to change this and we have now delivered over 20 mini DaDaFests and all the events sell out – attracting family, friends and people from across the UK.

Improving the quality of the work has created much-anticipated, original and exciting events. The young people have also been able to present art activities using the Social Model of Disability as a backdrop. Its concepts have motivated the young people to write songs, poetry and drama sketches. This has been vital to how they connect to and feel placed within society and how they present this. The Social Model is a liberation framework and assists in understanding and identifying the many barriers to participation. The work the young people create says it all...

Harin's poem

Freedom to dance to move and sit down like on the big wheel
Which goes round and round.
Barriers can hold you back like having the right seat on the plane,
Which can hurt your back.
Listen to me,
Don't ignore me.
These are things that make me feel free.
Please don't ignore me.
I'm the same, ask me if I want to play your game.
I am the same as you.
Do not tell me what to do - I'm free!!! 

Putting access in place is essential and arguably easier to sort; systematic barriers and attitudes towards disabled people are harder to deal with, and will constantly need addressing. Attitude towards disability plays a big part, and the assumptions of what disabled people can, or as mostly thought, what they cannot do. Societal change happens when the audiences are introduced to disability arts and participants can engage in arts practices created and led by disability and deaf artists forging connections, raisings aspirations and affirming identity. It does takes time, recent legislation and policies can help, but gaining understanding and long-term change within society continues to be a challenge without the voices of disabled artists, creatives and participants as leaders in the field. 

See also