Recently, a number of exciting things have happened to celebrate disability arts and performance. The Liberty Festival at the Olympic Park brought disability and inclusivity to the attention of many in the form of street theatre and live music. The Southbank’s Unlimited Festival showcased some of the more prominent disabled theatre pieces and practitioners currently working in and around the UK.
I was lucky enough to be involved with both, and therefore feel I can say with reasonable authority that both festivals were successes with many sold out performances, and budding future interest in what was shown. I’m stating this not to write reviews, glowing or otherwise, of what I did and saw (though I recommend checking out the list of shows that were on and supporting these artists as they definitely need and deserve it), but because of a general feeling I have had since these events have finished, namely a feeling of unrest.
On Sunday night, the last event of Unlimited, Graeae Theatre Company’s cast of the highly acclaimed Reasons to Be Cheerful successfully created a rawkus and jovial atmosphere by playing through many beloved Ian Dury classics and giving anyone interested an excuse to dance, sing and shout. The highlight for me was screaming “I’m spasticus autisticus!” alongside hundreds of other disabled and non-disabled patrons after the performers on stage stated their disgust and anger at the current government’s plan to cut funds from various programmes designed to support the deaf and disabled population. This includes (and is by no means limited to) the Independent Living fund, previously discussed on Exeunt by Natasha Lewis, and Access to Work’s funds to provide sign interpreters for deaf individuals working in various professional settings.
Disabled people in the UK are currently finding themselves faced with questions of whether or not they will be able to continue in employment at the very least, and/or live independent and fulfilling lives at the most. It is a scary time. Coming home from the Unlimited Festival, I had two stories sent to me via facebook. One was about a deaf man’s inability to do his job because Access to Work has taken upwards of six months to provide a coherent response to his application for financial support to pay for sign interpreters. The other one is similar to many stories that have cropped up in the papers. Another disabled person had his benefits cut and was found dead weeks later (not an exaggeration) in his flat because he had no food, no electricity, no money, and no real support to help him find a job. As an aside, I’m aware many may disagree with the last part of that statement. To that I say try spending a day in jobcentre plus or even an hour on the phone with the DWP, and/or look through their policies particularly with regards to disabled individuals before deciding a person is lazy and/or mooching off government funds. The insider truth is, outside of these bubbles of celebrating disability culture and art, the world is not a very friendly place.
After the gig was finished, I sat in the bar with a number of friends and discussed the high calibre of work that was shown in both festivals, and felt proud of my disabled comrades. We also collectively decided that this is just one example of the fact that great art is often created in times of tension, unrest and oppression. That might seem like an extreme statement, especially in light of the joyful event we had attended, but it holds truth. Many disabled people in this country, myself included, feel they are fighting a war against terrifying government policies that already have and will continue to negatively effect quality of life for many disabled individuals.
What scares me most about this is that no matter how loudly people are screaming for basic human rights, (the right to live in their own flat or the right to work), this issue is not getting the amount of attention it should considering the amount of people it effects. Over nine million people in England alone are registered disabled, and many registered as such live below the poverty line according to the Department for Work and Pensions website. It is a national crisis that currently is sitting under the radar.
I’m also worried for my own field of work. In a world where the precedent is that arts get cut before everything else in times of governmental need, what will happen to festivals like Liberty and Unlimited? How can we expect disabled artists to be given funding, space and time to create new and exciting pieces of work if we can’t necessarily expect them to be given support to live comfortable and capable lives?
Unfortunately, I have no answers, nor does anyone else at present. The outcome of many of these fights will only be known with the passage of time, and undoubtedly a bit of blood sweat and tears. The reason I mention it now is to raise awareness, regardless of whether or not you agree with what I say, and to pass the onus of responsibility onto whoever reads this blog. Do some research, support disabled people and the art they create. Know about the battles of one of the biggest minority groups in the world, and fight alongside. Everyone deserves the right to have a high quality of life and to do what they love. Right?
To find out more about and join the fight for the Independent Living Fund, go here or use #saveILF on twitter
To support Deaf workers in the fight against cuts to Access to Work, go here.