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The DaDaFest Congress explored arts as a tool for social change, providing examples of creativity and artistic excellence from countries and cultures across the world. Review by Deborah Caulfield

portrait of a young man's face painted in a collage-style, divided into planes

David Lock's 'Misfit Unwanted' 2012 from Art of the Lived Experiment, the DaDaFest exhibition which is travelling to Michigan next year

All the speakers contributed positively to the event. The following made the strongest impression on me.

Christopher Smit teaches media studies at Calvin College, Iowa USA. He is the author of Screening Disability, a collection of essays on the history of the portrayal of disability and film. Smit is an academic who thinks deeply and writes beautifully. I found his ideas on disability, inclusion and art to be both refreshing and challenging. 

His presentation focussed on the DisArt Festival, which will take place in April 2015 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It will include 'Art of the Lived Experiment', the exhibition curated by Aaron Williamson which is showing currently at The Bluecoat in Liverpool. 

Smit believes disability art can change perceptions of disability. Quoting Neil Marcus, he said:

"Disability is an art; an ingenious way of living."

But that’s not all there is to say about disability: "The disabled artist must be a careful storyteller", he said; "crafting images can be tricky. If we’re portrayed as tragic, for example, then this misses the point."

Smit maintains that art allows us to gain an understanding beyond our own immediate experience, that dialogue is not only essential but is inevitable, simply by going about our lives, as disabled people. When there is silence, when disabled people aren’t heard, then there is injustice.

On the question of some artists’ reluctance to identify as disabled, Smit said this was probably about fear of rejection by the mainstream.

Kaite O’Reilly is an award-winning author, playwright, dramaturg, and more. Of her 2012 Cultural Olympiad production 'In Water I’m Weightless', Colin Hambrook said on Dao: “Ultimately the beauty of 'In Water I'm Weightless' is its challenge to notions of tragedy and bravery, whilst equally talking openly about the difficulties that impairment can pose."

"Change is necessary", Kaite told us. It’s happening but more is needed because theatre is still dominated by the ‘old narratives’ from the better-off-dead department that peddles disability as personal tragedy, stories rooted in the medical model, about the awfulness of impairment.

Ronald Muwanga AKA Ronnie Ronnie from Krip Hop Nation, is an award winning journalist from Uganda. He told us that in his country disabled people don’t get awards. They don’t get much else, either. It’s normal, there, for disabled children to be rejected and neglected. Access to education and equipment is rare because society has such a low regard for disabled people.

A recently published UNICEF report states: "… children with disabilities remain one of the most marginalized and disadvantaged groups in society …"

Ronnie said his government spends more on defence than improving conditions for disabled people. Although Ugandan Disabled people have a lot to be angry about, protesting is not an option. Taking to the streets would result in tear gas and arrest.

They ‘fight back’ through their music, challenging negative perceptions. By doing it they are proving that they can.

For me, the overriding impact of DaDaFest’s Congress is the sense that we are part of an international community of disabled and Deaf artists, led by disabled and Deaf artists. 

I felt privileged to be in the audience, to be addressed, entertained and enlightened by an array of able and talented artists.

It left me feeling less isolated and more motivated and positive about disability arts, and about myself.


Julie Ann Racino

2 January 2015

Welcome to the meeting of images of "dis"ability, community services "provision", and disability culture and freedom. New book, Public administration and disability: Community services administration in the US (Racino, 2014) at CRC Press