Unlimited Symposium: what does the future hold for disability-led arts

By Joe Turnbull on September 21, 2018

The Unlimited Symposium was organised by delivery partners Shape Arts and Artsadmin at London’s Unicorn Theatre 3-5 September 2018, preceding Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival. The symposium brought together experts, artists, programmers, funders and other delegates from around the world to debate the current state and future of disability-led art. We hear from an organiser, a chair and two panellists from the symposium.

Jo Verrent, Senior Producer of the Unlimited commissioning programme, the largest commissioner of disabled artists in the world and organisers of the symposium

Room full of delegates chatting
Unlimited Symposium 2018 attendees. Photograph: Rachel Cherry

We devised the symposium, primarily, to create a space for discussion and for multiple perspectives to be shared. We were very clear we didn’t want to create a space that Unlimited then monopolised. Just as the commissions programme is only a holding frame for the artists, we wanted this to be a frame for a wide range of opinions, including international perspectives. That’s why we didn’t set the topics ourselves but right from the outset crowdsourced and set up votes to choose them.

What did we want it to achieve? Action. For too long there have been events people attend, but nothing ever changes – we wanted to focus on change: what are people actually going to do differently as a result of what they saw/heard/discussed?

In some areas I can see progress in the disability arts sector since the inception of Unlimited in 2012. The number of venues that programme disabled artists work or that have a wider pool of contacts to draw on is heartening. In others, we appear to be going backwards – the issues artists are having in the UK with the benefits system (Access to Work and Personal Independence Payments) – both of which should support disabled artists not penalise and problematise their lives!

Right now, I think we are in a space that allows multiple points of view – which is healthy. If we say we are pro-diversity it means we have to accept a diversity of opinion too and not expect everyone else to think in exactly the same way. Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t hold strong personal opinions, but it means we can try and be more understanding about where different opinions come from, which is ultimately the way to move ideas forward. That’s much more effective than simply ranting at people, which I think just entrenches beliefs.

I’m learning masses from our trans communities where differences of approach are welcomed and accepted, and yet held and supported within the centre. Perhaps this is due to the violence of the anti-trans groups attacking them? I don’t know, but I’m interested in seeing how they work and support multiple perspectives simultaneously.

In a global sense I think the UK is also in an interesting place in relation to supporting disabled artists – we have so much (yet often don’t recognise our privilege in this), yet so much is still under threat. Have we done enough, come far enough yet to take our foot off the accelerator? 

Globally, the biggest barriers include the sense that disability is still seen as something to pity. The charity model is so prevalent in so many countries and places disabled people into a position where they internalise that view and see themselves as objects of pity. I would love this to shift and think art is one of the best ways through which we can make this change happen. In this country, I think the biggest barrier is a lack of joined up thinking within government; so, you have Department for Media Culture and Sport via Arts Council England supporting disabled artists, whilst at the same time Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is making life impossible for many. It just isn’t a connected vision.

The reasons for optimism are the artists. They are incredible. Not just those within Unlimited but all those in the sector – just look at the range, the approaches, the quality, the passion, the work! If I ever get tired, jaded, fed up or disengaged I come back to the art. It refreshes me, moves me, enrages and enthrals me – and that’s the whole point after all.

Andrew Miller, Disability Champion for the UK Arts & Culture Sector appointed by the DWP

A panel debate at Unlimited symposium
The ‘Art’ Panel including Andrew Miller and Outi Salonlahti and Sari Salovaara. Photograph: Rachel Cherry

I believe there has never been a better time to be disabled and in the arts. The UK’s disability-led sector and our disabled artists lead the world in the quality and invention of their work. Ever improving access and a shift towards inclusive practise in mainstream arts, offers better opportunities for disabled audiences, artists and employees alike.

On the basis of what I heard at the Symposium, other countries look towards the UK as a world leader in this field. Whilst this is pleasing to hear, we must exercise that leadership role with care and responsibility. Our cultural ecology is still fragile, there is no room for complacency as much more can be achieved in this country particularly around equality in training, employment and audience experience.

I think there’s been unequivocal progress over the last few years. We are seeing disabled artists disturbing mainstream culture and influencing artforms in ever more creative ways. Take the exciting work taking place in classical music being delivered in the South West of England which Bournemouth Symphony OrchestraBritish Paraorchestra and the National Open Youth Orchestra are leading. Or the mainstreaming of disabled theatre talent. From Ramps on the Moon winning UK Theatre’s Best Touring Award for The Who’s Tommy in 2017, to Jess Thom’s radical work on stage and on TV which is successfully engaging mainstream audiences. And let’s not forget Britain’s Got Talent. Who could have imagined just five years ago, two disabled artists coming first and second on Britain’s biggest TV talent show?

I am optimistic about the future of the sector. We are at an important moment of change both in the arts and wider society. This offers us an exciting opportunity to push beyond the bounds of The Equality Act and the policy of “reasonable adjustment” which has contained our ambition. With that in mind, I am campaigning for better access for disabled artists and creatives to training and employment together with initiatives to better support disabled audiences, building an alliance across UK funders and governments to facilitate this. 

I also want to see disabled leaders at the helm of mainstream arts organisations where currently there are none, together with better representation of disabled people on arts boards. Once these things are achieved, equality for disabled people in the arts becomes a realisable and sustainable possibility.

The most important thing I learned at the Unlimited Symposium was that we in the UK are privileged. Despite the individual struggles we all face daily, we are privileged by the degree of support we have from wider society, our cultural sector and funders.  We are not an embarrassment to be hidden away, our work as disabled artists and creatives is actively supported, funded and promoted. Many of our international colleagues are not so fortunate and face greater struggles just to get their voices acknowledged and heard.

Outi Salonlahti and Sari Salovaara Planner and Accessibility Advisor and Senior Specialist, respectively, at Culture for All Service, which promotes equality within the fields of art and culture in Finland 

Jo Verrent and crowd at Unlimited-Symposium 2018
The crowd at Unlimited Symposium. Photograph: Rachel Cherry

Sari & Outi: There has been progress in many respects in the past 15 years or so in Finland. There are 3-4 recurrent disability culture festivals across the country. Maybe half of them are disability led. Culture for All is involved with one, DiDa, which is around 3 December in Helsinki each year.

Many feel that disabled artists are only invited when marginalized groups are put forward, but some disabled artists have somewhat broken into the mainstream, including dancer Maija Karhunenpunk band Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät(PKN), activist/visual artist Jenni-Juulia Wallinheimo-Heimonen, Deaf actress Silva Belghiti, theatre group DuvTeatern in the Swedish-speaking theatre field. Some artists have started receiving funding, like any other artists. There are vital programs that aim to support artists who are learning disabled, mostly in visual art and music.

Possibilities for education maybe getting better as the awareness is rising. Yet, the barriers are huge everywhere and there is much uncertainty because the support systems for disabled people are on a move in order to reduce the overall costs for the society. The new Non-Discrimination Act has helped a bit with its statement on reasonable accommodations.

Sari: In the UK, work has been going on longer and there have already been some quite prominent advances. It’s impressive that there are such efforts as the Creative Case where the whole arts sector seems to be determined to take responsibility and strive towards more equal practices. We all thank UK for the work you do!

Outi: In Finland, there is a small amount of funding for cultural activities by disability-led organisations and for developing the accessibility of culture, but no commissioning programme like Unlimited. Also, we mostly lack disabled gatekeepers, there is maybe one committee member in the Arts Promotion Centre Finland, and some art journalists and then some curators who could be called allies. But mostly the situation is very different from the UK.

Sari: In order for better international collaboration to happen, perhaps something like Unlimited Symposium with well-organized discussions could be repeated on a regular basis, arranged in collaboration internationally, so that different countries take turns? Where the funding would come for such international programs, I don’t know.

Outi: Maybe some ongoing online-based discussions could be useful as well, such as an international mailing list or Facebook group to continually debate issues.

Sari: The symposium was empowering and helped to find the strength to go on in the fight for equality. I liked the spirit as there was quite direct talking but at the same time a safe atmosphere with respect for others. I have already had active exchange with DASH, where they have offered to give advice on creating discussions around curating. Inspired by the Unlimited symposium, we will have a public discussion with disabled arts activists and curators on 29 October at Artsi museum in Vantaa.

Outi: The symposium was very useful and inspiring, we met people from different countries and art fields. Many questions and issues seem to be the same around the world. I think one point I learned from the Unlimited programme was very important: the programme includes not only financial support but other forms of support. It can really help artists develop their work.

Sari: It may be that there is no direct line towards a more positive future in Finland, or the UK for that matter, but in a way, I feel that there is no going back either. There are scary processes in European societies with much uncertainty and fear. It may result in rigid opposition for all diversity. Hopefully, a good school system with fair education for all will solve some of that. As the awareness for equality in the arts sector is rising, I hope that there will be more disabled artists who can take the route and become prominent. The insight which they can deliver through their work is much needed.

Find out more about Unlimited and resources around the symposium here. You can continue to join in the debate using the hashtag #UnltdSymposium.

Recordings of each of the four sessions are available below:

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