In the latest of our series of country profiles, Pádraig Naughton, Director of Arts & Disability Ireland explores the history, development and current state of the arts and disability sector in Ireland.

Arts and disability in Ireland: a brief history 

Simon McKeown Cork Ignite

Audiences at Cork Ignite by Simon Mckeown, Suisha Inclusive Arts at COPE Foundation and SoundOUT, Culture Night 2015. Photo: Claire Keogh

The initial interest in arts and disability in Ireland emerged from the community arts sector in the 1980s and the innovative artistic programme of City Arts Centre Dublin. An incubation space and hub for many burgeoning arts organisations, Arts & Disability Ireland (ADI) began as a project of City Arts Centre in 1985 under the name Very Special Arts Ireland (VSA Ireland) and was affiliated to the United States based VSA International Network. 

Through the 1990s VSA Ireland was involved in a wide range of activities including initiating a residency for an artist with a disability at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig, the Young Playwrights schools competition, Ireland’s first integrated dance project Counterbalance, a regular disability cabaret scene, and a national arts and disability festival “Discover” in 2001.  That was the same year VSA Ireland changed its name to Arts & Disability Ireland (ADI) in order to better reflect contemporary thinking in relation to language and disability.

A Strategy for Equality”, the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, was published in 1996 and was the result of the largest consultative process ever undertaken in Ireland involving people with disabilities. While the Arts and Culture strand of the report contained a broad range of transformational recommendations, it was those around support for individual artists with disabilities, collaborative practice and physical access at newly built arts infrastructure that had the biggest impact, led by the policy and development work of the Arts Council and local authorities around the country. 

The report’s recommendations around the provision of access for audiences with disabilities were without doubt the most groundbreaking.  They identified a network of national venues where audio description, captioning and Irish Sign Language (ISL) should be made available, as well as suggesting parameters for the provision of access at commercial arts venues. 22 years after “A Strategy for Equality”, these recommendations around access for audiences with disabilities have yet to be realised in their entirety. 

The funding landscape   

Katie Moore's photograph, Entropy

Katie Moore, Entropy, 2018. Katie was awarded an Arts and Disability Connect New Work Award in 2017. Photo: Katie Moore.

During the 1990s there was a parallel growth in arts and disability in Northern Ireland with the opening in Belfast of the membership-based Arts & Disability Forum in 1997. It was ADF’s Arts & Disability Awards that led to the establishment of the Arts and Disability Awards Ireland in 2001, an All-Island scheme funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Arts Council, which ADF continued to manage on their behalf.  The All-Island scheme ran until 2013 and was instrumental in developing and sustaining the practice of a generation of individual artists with disabilities across the island of Ireland.  

In a significant policy change in 2014, ADI were invited by the Arts Council to devise and manage a new funding scheme for artists with disabilities in the Republic of Ireland. Called Arts & Disability Connect, it is now in its fifth year and has supported 47 new work, mentoring and training awards distributing over €132,000. The only scheme exclusively open to artists with disabilities, it often serves as an entry point to the broad range of bursaries, project/production awards, commissions and collaborations through the Arts Council and local authority arts offices.

Access provision in the arts in Ireland

Woman holding a discover pen in fron ot artwork

Using a Discovery Pen at Art Makes Children Powerful by Bob and Roberta Smith, Butler Gallery, 2013. Photo: Ailís Feehan

In 2006, the year after I became Artistic Director of ADI, I initiated the very first audio described performances at the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s National Theatre and Dublin Theatre Festival, working with audio describers from Sight Lines in Belfast. In 2007, followed Ireland’s first captioned performances. ADI trained a pool of five Irish audio describers and captioners in 2008/09 with the Audio Description Association (ADA) and StageTEXT, both based in the UK.  Since then, a small number of venues and festivals have started providing ISL and relaxed performances but ADI is currently the sole provider of audio description and captioning to the arts in the Republic of Ireland. 

ADI has partnered with a variety of organisations and venues to develop access across Ireland.  Key partnerships have included:  

  • Audio description and captioning for eight national performing arts and visual arts tours, visiting 22 venues across Ireland 2012-2016.
  • Launching a regular monthly programme of audio described and open captioned cultural cinema across all three screens at the Irish Film Institute, Dublin, in 2016
  • Audio description of exhibitions using Discovery Pens, at the Butler Gallery, Kilkenny (annually, 2013-2018)

In 2017, ADI commissioned the ‘Going Out’ survey with the aim of understanding how people with disabilities engage with arts and culture in its broadest sense.  The largest quantitative audience survey of its type ever undertaken in Ireland, ADI reached 523 respondents with the strategic input of the National Disability Authority and over 20 other disability organisations. 

The research indicates that 86% of people with disabilities had attended at least one arts event including the cinema in the past 12 months.  However, 94% said they had cut back on at least one of their social activities in the last five years. The key barriers to going out (mentioned by 33% of respondents) are cost (25%), no one to go out with (22%) and transport (15%). Conversely, access is not a motivation. Just 8% of respondents said that a good night out involves resolving some kind of access issue. 49% said they go out for social experiences. 69% say they go to live performances or exhibitions to be entertained or to enjoy the atmosphere.

Irish artists' relationship with 'disability arts'

Group performance of Trickster

Jez Colborne, That’s Life and Mind The Gap, Trickster, performed at Black Box Theatre, Galway, 2014. Commissioned by Galway City Council and County Councils as part of Ignite. Photo: Reg Gordon

While Ireland has a long history of artists with disabilities and arts practice exploring a lived experience of disability, few artists would describe themselves as ‘disabled artists’ or making ‘disability arts’. What has emerged is a broad range of individual art form and collaborative arts practice that is firmly placed in the wider arts and cultural life of the country. 

Examples include:

  • Ignite, a 2013-15 partnership between the Arts Council, ADI and local authorities in Mayo, Galway and Cork, which created three new commissions each worth €60,000, led by internationally recognised artists with disabilities Aideen Barry, Jez Colborne and Simon Mckeown
  • A Different Republic, an exhibition by Aideen Barry, Amanda Coogan, Corban Walker and Suzanne Walsh.  It explored universal human rights in a year of commemorations, being both the centenary since Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising and the 20th anniversary of the landmark report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities ‘A Strategy for Equality’. 
  • Sanctuary, the 2016 film which won best First Feature at the Galway Film Fleadh, a love story cast from Blue Teapot’s company of actors with intellectual disabilities.

Looking forwards

For the future development of arts and disability in Ireland there is a need to continue to build on successes such as these and achieve even greater visibility for the high quality work of artists and companies with disabilities both in Ireland and internationally. This will involve broadening the range of funders, programmers, curators, directors and producers who want to present and champion the creativity of artists with disabilities. It will also require people with disabilities in Ireland to move beyond the art making and take on some of these roles within the arts, so they can influence change at the point where decisions are made. In parallel, there is a need to embed a more holistic approach to accessible arts programming at a local, regional and national level, so audiences with disabilities can experience the best of Irish arts in the wider communities in which they live.

Find out more about Arts & Disability Ireland.

Click here for information on Arts Council Ireland's arts and disability policy.