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Paul Darke's Blog - disability arts online
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Disability Arts Online

Wednesday 5th March / 5 March 2008

I was intrigued by a response to my last blog asking the question of whether or not there was a case for building bigger bridges with mainstream organisations (having been doing this myself in recent times) the problem of being able to maintain our, one’s own, integrity is a difficult indeed. The obvious answer is yes, if you have no integrity to start with (something I am sure I have been accused of in recently). Although I say that flippantly there is an element of truth in it: as someone trying to get Disability Arts presented across the country in mainstream venues, believe me, a high degree of compromise is required.

Problems of access are always a big issue. For example, if offered a free venue it is almost impossible to turn it down: especially if it is an all or nothing scenario (as is often the case). But, the venue is upstairs. Do I put the event on knowing I will exclude or just not have the event? I would say have the event. The financial reality is often that an event will not be fully accessible: signing is too expensive; audio-description is far beyond our budget and/or a better venue will not be available (financially or as a partnership). I would still put the event on, if it were the only way it could happen.

Self-help – which is what we are often required to do – is all that can be left. I do not expect every disability event to be accessible to me and we should not expect it (given the ever increasing financial restraints we all face for reasons we all know). We must expect friends to help (interpret, describe, record – with permission – and / or enable in someway). One can, and has to, work creatively. But it is better to put an event on for the few rather than not at all: after all it could change the life of one of the audience in a way that can only be good. Alternatively, if I pay for a better venue then signers are a no-no: what should I do? I have run events where it would have been cheaper to give the two Deaf people that came half the money and said to them go out on the town and have the best night of your life all expenses paid (instead the money has actually gone to a non-disabled person who has little to no interest in what they have signed anyway).

In working with mainstream organisations one can build bridges and the best way, I feel, is to understand from the very start that they probably do not have the slightest interest in your event, form or cultural and minority issue. I prefer working with these types of organisations actually – often, the worst are those that think they ‘care’ about Disability Arts but really have no idea about it except as a tick-box exercise. Do not get me wrong: working with a mainstream venues that know, care and can deliver on equality of access culturally and physically is a rare joy (the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton is one such place); but that is a rare pleasure indeed.

It is important is that we put pressure on funders to ensure that venues give us our due share of their cultural output (rather than wasting a fortune on our own administration and management). We must pressure ACE – all funders in fact – to ensure a full range of cultural output by those they fund in the mainstream year in and year out. We should keep our own records of any (all) venue’s output in order to ensure their plurality of expression. But, we also need to be more tolerant of what we ourselves do, on limited funds and opportunities: we are usually doing the best we can for the most we can (even if this is not for all).

As an example, in Wolverhampton we are about to put on a Disability Film Festival. Signing and audio-description is an ideal but not a realistic reality (many aspects of the festival will be fully inclusive). Given that Deafest (a film festival for Deaf people) happens in Wolverhampton every year with over triple our budget should we have signers at every event if that means less events? I would say no. Forego signers if it means you can have more events for a broader disabled community. This is irrespective of the arguments about the Deaf believing they are a linguistic minority and are not actually ‘Disabled’ anyway (in my view, whether they like it or not, they are one of us). The reality is they have had a major event for themselves recently and our budget will not encompass every impairments type or all disabled people. We will do our best but budgetary constraints mean we have to make some judgement calls (including decisions based on what else has been on in the area for other disabled groups.

What would you do: what decisions have you made where limited budgets / space / options are available?

To some extent it is unrealistic to expect mainstream venues to participate in our banner-waving Disability Arts culture (pride in ourselves or our cultural expression). They are so unsure of their own culture and self-expression that it is rare indeed to meet a truly confident mainstream organisation able to deal with difference as a matter of course (again, Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton is a rare bird in a menagerie of insecurity and self-doubt). Thus, venues will always like disability and art that enhances their own sense of themselves rather than a sense of pride in an(O)ther. Still, we must plug away and offer it to them; whilst educating them in the errors of their regular exhibition criteria.

We have to realise that the strength of Disability Arts is in the core threat to the security of the mainstream venues and establishments. Disability Arts liberates us all (disabled and non-disabled) from seeing anything as having any ‘mainstream’ value – Disability Arts reveals the value of all over and above the very idea that there is anything that has greater value over one thing or another. Thus, like Crippen, I await our turn in running the arts as fairly (or unfairly) as all other groups: including letting those white middle class men and woman having another turn after we – then all the other’s equally excluded – have had a hundred years doing it.