Are Some More Equal Than Others?

Tony Heaton CEO of Shape speaking in a meeting. He is looking away from the camera and wearing a blue shirt.
Image by Rachel Cherry for Unlimited.

Tony Heaton, Former Chief Executive of Shape Arts, chaired a lively Unlimited Debate at the Southbank Centre in September 2016 about what equality means as experienced by disabled artists.

Joining him were choreographer Claire Cunningham; actor Nicola Miles-Wildin; musician and film-maker Ivan Riches, and visual artist Rachel Gadsden. Tony asked the artists to introduce themselves with a challenge: “they are going to tell you about their art form and which part of the fence they’re sitting on, and they may have sore arses because I suspect some of them are sitting on the fence actually, but we’ll find out.”

Rachel Gadsden started: “I am an artist, a visual artist and performance artist. I started off training in theatre, but most of you know me as a visual artist and drawer. No: people aren’t equal, full stop.”

Claire Cunningham was equivocal: “I am a performance-maker, sometimes called a choreographer. I was going to say yes, but now I’m thrown. Yes, but I think it’s more about context than art form.”

Ivan Riches was firm: “I’m a sonic visual artist, musician and film maker, and I also work with Drake Music who work with disabled musicians. And, no. We all should be equal. But we’re not.”

Nicola Wildin joined Claire: “I’m an actor/director, probably best known for my role as Miranda in the Paralympics opening ceremony; theater is my background. I have probably got a really sore arse because I am sat on the fence.”

“Do disabled artists working in certain art forms get more opportunities than in others?” questioned Nicky, “I think it depends on art form, on what’s flavour of the month, on impairment, on getting into those venues and those buildings in the first place, around marketing it. Do we market it as inclusive, as work by disabled artists? Taking everything into account, I’m on the fence.”

Ivan explained: “I employed a friend to film a Connect and Collaborate event at Drake Music, and he said, ‘this is a real mixing pot of various people with disabilities, disabled artists, and musicians.’ But I knew not everyone was there, that the biggest issue is finding a level playing field for everyone. It’s about finding the right venue, and that is what stops equality; and also the costs.”

For Claire, it’s about realities: “I’m coming here with a project with Jess. It’s things that came up in that; the simple situation of being perceived as a man and a woman, all the things that brings up, not only between us, but how we are perceived when we appear together. We have a technical rehearsal somewhere, and I am in a room of men, essentially. The potential moments of inequality around that are not probably to do with disability at all.”

“The work that I make does have quite a political element,” said Rachel Gadsden, “and I tend to work with marginalised communities, and individuals that don’t have a voice, and that could be said about every one of us in this room. It’s better than it was ten years ago and it’s better than it was ten years before that, but I would definitely say that I don’t think there is a level playing field, I think some people have far more opportunities than other people.”

Tony asked Nicky about 2012; did it lead to more chances for disabled artists?

“As soon as it finished, there’s government cuts and everything, and disabled people are pushed back down. We had glory for two weeks then suddenly it became lack of Access to Work funding. Back home in Gloucestershire we have got some arts companies, but they are very non-disabled-led and, dare I say it, still quite medical model based. So there is still a shift to be made. I’m not sure whether disabled people back home have equal access to things we have here in London. And that’s part of why I have set up my own theatre company; I want to create high-quality stuff that is accessible to everyone.”

Tony asked other panellists what they are doing to open up opportunities for younger artists. “I’m white, I’m middle-class, I’m educated, I’m able to communicate verbally, all of these things are part of that,” said Claire. “All of these intersectional aspects mean I’m palatable to non-disabled audiences and programmers, and I’m very aware that my impairment and my experience of disability is absolutely not as affecting.  But my job? I consider my job is to open the door and jam a crutch in it for everybody else! That’s what I consider my job is; I’m a stepping stone for those programmers.”

Claire gets spontaneous audience applause. Time for questions from the floor: “Is part of our inequality as disabled artists that we seem to have this extra onus on us to do something to make the world a better place?” asks Mik Scarlet. “It seems most other artists can go off and take drugs, get drunk and do art, man, and that’s it; but we get asked on our funding applications, ‘what’s the community outreach? What are you doing to make a better place?’ I would quite like to make art, actually, and sod the world.”

Claire responded: “I’ve written about this; this question of whether the white male normative-bodied choreographer has to think about how his work represents other white male normative-body choreographers. Is he expected, every time he travels, to further the development of local white male normative-bodied choreographers? Does he have to check every single Twitter publicity image and see it doesn’t negatively represent other white male normative-bodied choreographers?”

Another question: “I’m Paul. I had the privilege to be at the [Paralympics] closing ceremony. It gave me a lot of opportunities. I have learning difficulties. Should there be a special day where producers and directors can get to notice talent with learning disabled people and physically disabled people specifically? There was a quote [in the media] by the guy from the National saying he usually hires people that he knows. Two thirds of the people he casts, he knows already. Do you think having something like that would actually help disabled people in the future?”

Finishing up, Tony sums up actions: “Let’s see if we can get a day; a slot where we bring people together and put some of the fantastic work we see and commission in front of them, and where we can say, why aren’t you doing more about this? That’s something I’m going to take away and have a conversation about.”

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