“Unlimited”, a major disability arts festival, is currently being held at London’s Southbank Centre to coincide with the Paralympics. Colin Hambrook, editor of Disability Arts Online, talks to Russell Parton about what impact London 2012 might have on the community.
What was the climate like for disability arts in the 1990s?
I began working for the London Disability Arts Forum in 1994, when disability arts was very much linked with cabaret. The scene was buzzing with various disability arts agencies around the country, creating a forum that allowed disabled people to develop their artistic practice and to share their art and their voice. The movement was loud and proud: a fledgling deaf arts community campaigned to make BSL a recognised language, while the blind and visually impaired community campaigned for audio description. An emerging consciousness of the social model of disability created an atmosphere in which disabled people realised the barriers to inclusion were largely created by society, rather than their impairments.
Is there more of a level playing field with mainstream arts now?
I wouldn't say there's a level playing field but certainly more mainstream arts organisations such as the Live Arts Development Agency, ArtsAdmin, Improbable Theatre, Fuel, Arts Catalyst and festivals like Greenwich and Docklands International Festival have done a lot to use disabled artists and to think about disabled audiences.
What brought about these changes?
They came about as a result of disabled people campaigning, advocating for disability rights, going on to boards and convincing arts bodies that disabled artists can make exciting work that challenges and entertains. For years, the Arts Council resisted making access a condition of funding. Their reason was that they couldn't impose something that they couldn't fund. So when the new arts lottery funding came into place in the 1990s, Paddy Masefield (who then served on the Arts Council lottery panel) insisted the decision be overturned. He argued that it made sense to plan access as an integral part of any new building development for current and future generations.
What are the major challenges disability artists face in putting their art across?
I think there is still a sense in which disability arts are seen as a participatory arts product rather than a professional arts practice, though organisations like DaDaFest in Liverpool have done a lot to disperse the myth that a disabled person taking part in the arts is doing so for therapeutic reasons and not because they have something unique, exciting and challenging to say. However, television is rife with freak-show viewing that dresses itself up as educational, documentary-style programming. It makes disabled people more visible as a constituent part of society but reinforces stereotypes rather than raising awareness of impairment as something that is an ordinary part of human experience.
What effect do you think London 2012 will have on disability arts in the UK?
It's hard to say what the legacy of the London 2012 will be in terms of the daily run-of-the-mill effect on disabled people’s lives. In the 1990s, the disability arts movement was so dedicated to opposing the charity model of disability. We challenged the charity model largely because the support it gave was minimal and the messages were patronising. But while we had a tick-box culture, there was at least a sense that the mainstream press wanted to pay lip service to our culture.
For a few disabled artists – especially those who were awarded Unlimited commissions – there is tremendous potential for the development of new work but it's a strange dichotomy that companies like Graeae, Heart n Soul and many of the Unlimited artists find themselves in. There is an element in which, to get mainstream acceptance, they have to pretend they have nothing to do with disability; there is a sense in which disability art is only acceptable if it contains and restricts the amount it says about impairment to a level acceptable by a mainstream audience – and says absolutely nothing at all about disability.
The South Bank’s “Unlimited” season runs until 9 September.
Russell Parton is a freelance arts writer. Follow him on Twitter @russparton