Liz Porter reflects on what the Disability Arts movement has given her over the years – and where she is now – in response to discussions at the Lead On conference as part of the government funded Cultural Leadership Programme. held in Cheltenham Town Hall on 21 September 2009.
‘Lead On’ gave me an opportunity to go on a personal journey of self-reflection on where I fit in Disability Arts within these changing times. It’s taken me some time to process my thoughts but I’d like to share some of them with you now.
I’d never been to an Open Space event before, so I went with an open mind not really knowing what to expect. It was great to see familiar faces and some completely new to Disability Arts.
We sat in a large circle and Moya Harris explained how an open space is run. Individuals pose questions or topics for discussion. A space is allocated to each posed question and then it’s a ‘free for all’. Participants can then choose to go into any of the discussion groups for an open conversation on the topic initiated. Participants can choose how long they stay within a discussion and can leave whenever they want.
The questions posed on the day were around:
· Leadership Style – the right to be who we are
· Conflict – resolution and mediation
· Disability Arts – past, present and future
· Do Disabled Leaders face different challenges to other leaders?
· When do I know I’m a leader?
· Who’s in charge?
When I first came into the movement I found it difficult to find acceptance because I wanted mainstream training and mainstream opportunities. It was wonderful to have ‘real’ performance experience within the LDAF Workhouse circuit and to witness the birth of disability arts, sharing disability related creativity.
But I wanted to work with non-disabled people and work on equal terms too. I had been to special school where I was very ghettoised alongside my disabled peers – and wanted to break out of that. At that time in the early 1990s many of the disabled leaders (many of whom had never experienced segregated education) seemed to want to keep disability arts separate. I didn’t understand this. I felt that something was missing. Ok, masses has happened since then, but what is it really like for people coming into the scene today?
So at Lead On I posed a discussion within one of the spaces about whether or not Disability Arts is changing, as a cultural and collective form of engagement and interaction? I’ve had this question in my mind for some time. I feel that Disability Arts is changing and that it is important to create a real legacy for and beyond 2012.
What was clear from the discussion that took place is that there is still a lot of frustration about how funding is dished out to disabled and deaf artists - and how as individual artists we can or can’t operate on an equal level with our non-disabled peers. Access is everything – but as a community we still often have little understanding of each others’ access needs. What can we do to change this?
It made me reflect on the difference between the individual and collective voice and how we might influence change. A key is learning where, when and how to take individual responsibility. In the 1980s and 90s the disabled peoples’ movement activated change through political action - without which we wouldn’t have got the DDA and the physical and attitudinal advances in access we have now.
But I strongly believe that everybody has the right to self-definition. I’ve often seen that it is not easy for new people entering the scene to come to terms with their identity as disabled people. Or to be given some balanced guidance around ‘Disability Culture’. The social model went some way to improving understanding, but perhaps not far enough.
The question arises as to how disabled individuals who are not in paid positions can work for change in partnership with arts bodies. I’ve experienced frustration in not having the opportunities to get my cv on an equal playing field to non-disabled peers who have got jobs. I question whether my education is a factor or whether it is how I’ve interacted with the movement in the past?
If we hadn’t had the Arts Council apprenticeship schemes of the 1990s a lot of disabled people who are now working professionally within the creative industries wouldn’t have found careers. I feel strongly that there is still a need to re-instigate apprenticeships which forge partnerships between mainstream and disability organisations and disabled people. This view seemed to be shared by many at Lead On.
I am concerned that the next 3 years represent a crucial time to be clear about the messages that we send out to the world, to newly disabled people and to the next generation – a generation who may not, thankfully, have to experience the traumatic imprisonment of a special school.
There is so much discussion around the terminology of what being a ‘leader’ means. Many of us are still planting seeds. Perhaps more pioneers than leaders’ offering gems of so-called wisdom, often without remuneration. How many times have you been expected to comment on access issues without payment, and done it because you know it’s going to make a ‘potential’ difference? (a topic that came up within Lead On’)
I wonder how many of us have fallen into the trap of banging on about access at the expense of our own creativity? I know I’ve felt like a hamster going round and round on a wheel. But I’m bored of it.
The history of how we have got to where we are is important. I believe we need to take the best of the past to inform the present and the future. A collective voice has power, but individually we have to take more responsibility.
The ‘Lead On’ Open-Space, was organised by Moya Harris and Sarah Scott, through the Cultural Leadership Programme. The day presented an opportunity for discussion around Disabled and Deaf Leadership. The event was held in Cheltenham Town Hall on 21 September 2009.