Breaking Down Barriers

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Breaking Down Barriers

We’re still putting barriers in front of disabled artists and workers. How can we create better ways of working that provide equality to all?


Creative Coalition Festival’s Breaking Down Barriers session centred on ableism in the creative industries, reflecting on the barriers faced by people with disabilities and how we can work together to improve our working practices.

Andrew Miller MBE, Cultural Consultant, Writer, and Broadcaster chaired the panel discussions, which included speakers: Jo Verrent – Director of We Are Unlimited, David Hevey – CEO and Artistic Director of Shape Arts, Tanya Raabe-Webber – Artist, Emma Sweeney – Lecturer in Creative Writing at The Open University.

Andrew Miller opened the discussion with a challenging question to the panel: what is the definition of ableism? “Ableism, in its simplest form,” he expressed, “is discrimination and social prejudice,” leading to the inhibiting of “disabled people’s ambitions and non-disabled people’s expectations of what disabled people can do.”

Each speaker then reflected on their own experiences with ableism. Jo Verrent described her experience of being steered in certain career directions by non-disabled people, leading to “other people rather than me dictating what I wanted to do.” For Tanya Raabe-Webber, growing up in a disabled community left her unprepared for the wider social world: “That’s where my values were created, by being in a community of disabled people. So when it was time to be released into the rest of society, it was a big shock.”

The intersection of radical politics and disabled activism marked an important moment in David Hevey’s experience. “That cocktail of being disabled and yet being angry about it politically started early for me,” he said, describing how being disabled offers an opportunity to “use the body as agency and name it for everyone.” And, as a non-disabled person, Emma Sweeney remarked “throughout my career, I haven’t considered myself disabled and I haven’t been perceived as such by the people I’ve worked with,” leading to a very different experience compared to the other panellists.

Andrew prompts the panel to paint a picture of how ableism exists within the creative sector. For Jo, the main issue is diversity. “I think the key thing is that there is lip service paid to the notion of diversity. People say that they want [change], but what they don’t want to do is actually make change happen.”

The attempt to change, from Tanya’s perspective, must come from accessible funding opportunities. “We’re still missing out on disability access funding being thought of or being provided right from the beginning of an exhibition, instead of seeing it as an add-on, which is I feel like it’s still seen as that in a lot of cases.”

Critical of the institutions themselves in their push for diversity, David argued that there’s an insincerity at play. “Organisations are disability phobic… they’re phobic about change. And so they’ve become ‘diversity-lite’.”

Of course, COVID played a big role in the discussion, a topic of significant worry for people in the disabled community and a reality of their lived experiences. “We have created a second class citizen for the arts,” argued Jo, noting that engagement with disabled people has been neglected, especially post-lockdown. For David, though, COVID presents an opportunity for telling stories unique to disabled people. “Anyone that has had extraction and exploitation on their body has got an advantage because of the lived experience; you’ve got stories to tell.”

Keen to get the panellists to reflect on how ableism can be pushed back against, Andrew asked them what tropes we must move away from, and how institutions, individuals, and companies are planning to affect real change.

“On a wider level, it’s about valuing qualities that society hasn’t traditionally valued,” Emma replied. “If we can open up what it means to value people, then we can start to move away from certain types of stereotypes.”

For Jo, that fight for value, equality, and equity must happen equally with the artists as much as the sector. “The artists are only one side of it… We also have to work with the sector. We have to support the sector and drag it along to meet the artists halfway. If we wait for the sector to be ready, it’s not going to happen.”

Tanya reflected on how inclusion, rather than integration, is the key. “It’s having us at the table so that we can have the conversations so that we can instigate change from within, and from the top.”

Acknowledging the role non-disabled people play in fighting for equality, Emma had this to say: “Realising that all of us are likely to experience disability at some stage in our life, and rather than to fear that, to look at what we can learn from people who do currently consider themselves to be disabled and how that could be of great value.”


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