The arts are let­ting down peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties – this must change

The Guardian - Journal - - News -

For years, the arts in the UK have made diver­sity a pri­or­ity and, grad­u­ally, this is pay­ing off. On stage, au­di­ences are used to black ac­tors tak­ing on roles in Shake­speare plays; gen­der-blind cast­ing is gain­ing ground; black and mi­nor­ity eth­nic lead­ers are slowly be­ing ap­pointed to ma­jor roles – such as, re­cently, Kwame Kwei-Armah at the Young Vic and Madani You­nis at the South­bank Cen­tre, both in Lon­don. But there is one area in which change has been all but im­per­cep­ti­ble: disability. Bri­tain’s Got Tal­ent – and its last win­ner, the co­me­dian Lost Voice Guy – has done more for the pop­u­lar stand­ing of artists with dis­abil­i­ties in Bri­tain than any of its pub­licly funded cul­tural or­gan­i­sa­tions.

De­spite the revo­lu­tion in vis­i­bil­ity for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties brought about by the 2012 Par­a­lympics – a mo­ment of cel­e­bra­tion that may in fact have con­trib­uted to the false im­pres­sion that at­ti­tudes to disability had some­how been “fixed” – the pic­ture in the arts is de­press­ing. While 20% of the work­ing-age pop­u­la­tion as a whole iden­tify as dis­abled, the fig­ure for those work­ing in the arts in Eng­land is a mere 4%, in Wales 3% and in Scot­land and North­ern Ire­land, 2%. There are al­most cer­tainly more dis­abled peo­ple work­ing in the arts who have cho­sen not to de­clare them­selves, which in it­self rings alarm bells.

Direc­tors and trustees of arts or­gan­i­sa­tions – those who can make change at the top by ap­point­ing lead­ers – are over­whelm­ingly able-bod­ied. This makes it de­press­ing, but not nec­es­sar­ily a sur­prise, that not a sin­gle pub­licly funded arts body is run by a dis­abled per­son, ex­cept for those or­gan­i­sa­tions with a spe­cific disability arts fo­cus. And that is just the staff: ac­cess for dis­abled au­di­ence mem­bers to cul­ture, from mu­se­ums and gal­leries to the­atres and con­cert halls, can be ter­ri­ble, lead­ing to mis­er­able ex­pe­ri­ences (or sim­ply no pos­si­bil­ity of ac­cess at all), es­pe­cially for those who use wheel­chairs. The Ed­in­burgh fringe is a par­tic­u­lar cul­prit – un­der­stand­able to an ex­tent from young com­pa­nies work­ing on a shoe­string, but not from huge com­mer­cial pro­mot­ers who have the re­sources to do bet­ter.

There is also a lack of un­der­stand­ing of the needs of those with dis­abil­i­ties among those who work in the arts, which can lead to some em­bar­rass­ing, hurt­ful and cruel episodes – such as when a young woman with Asperger’s was ejected from a BFI screen­ing this spring (for which the or­gan­i­sa­tion has since apol­o­gised).

This has to change, and the gov­ern­ment is to be com­mended for ap­point­ing a disability cham­pion for arts and cul­ture to ad­dress these prob­lems.

There are a num­ber of sim­ple mea­sures that could help. For in­stance, the UK-wide adop­tion of the kind of disability char­ter that North­ern Ire­land has used for the past 20 years, which en­shrines the rights of au­di­ence mem­bers and lays out best prac­tice for em­ploy­ers. Bod­ies such as the Her­itage Lot­tery Fund should con­sider tar­geted grants to make venues – and, im­por­tantly, their of­fices – ac­ces­si­ble to dis­abled peo­ple. There is much that could, and should, be done to make train­ing, ap­pren­tice­ships and arts-fo­cused higher ed­u­ca­tion more avail­able to peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. An “arts ac­cess card” would ease the prob­lems that dis­abled peo­ple of­ten en­counter when at­tempt­ing to book tick­ets – some­thing Wales is al­ready do­ing with its Hynt card. The UK’s arts or­gan­i­sa­tions pride them­selves on their open­ness, fair­ness and vi­sion­ary think­ing. Now is the time to act on those prin­ci­ples.

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