The Study and Republic of Inclusion: Disability Arts in Ottawa

A crowd of people are sat in front of a big screen that is purple and turquoise. Rowan James is stood in front of a microphone giving a talk

Artist Rowan James was awarded funding by Unlimited to attend The Study and The Republic of Inclusion, the final two parts of a three-part disability arts gathering called The Cycle in Ottawa, Canada. Here, he shares his experiences and insights with us…

Defining Terms

Before setting out I want to make it clear that this blog post uses a variety of terms to talk about disability and the arts, where differences exist between usage in Canada and the UK I have opted to use the terms in relation to their national context.

In the Canadian arts scene the language is mostly informed by a medical model of disability rather than the Social Model of Disability, for example I had other artists ask me “What is your disability?” Often this question makes me feel icky as it falls into the category of things I would not ask someone I didn’t know well, but it makes sense to the person asking it if disability only exists on the level of impairment.

It has been my experience that even people with very similar politics and intentions have different perspectives on language depending on their experience of being disabled.

Canada

I’m a freelance artist, theatre maker and poet, having been short-listed for an Unlimited award I was lucky to receive some additional support when I was offered the chance to attend The Study, a gathering of creative working in disability arts, and The Republic of Inclusion, a conference in Ottawa that brought together artists, academics and activists working across Canada in accessible theatre. This conference was the first time that Canada has hosted a national level discussion about disability arts.

I was one of the only people in attendance from outside North America and this gave me a unique perspective on the event, allowing me to see the differences between how the UK and Canada have approached accessibility.

Children of God

My trip began with a performance of Children of God, a musical about Canada’s dark history of residential schools for indigenous children. It was written, directed and arranged by Corey Payette.

I have to admit that I knew almost nothing of the oppression of Canada’s indigenous population before watching this show so it was an education. The work told a powerful story and I was completely absorbed. It was the end of their run so I got to meet the whole cast and creative team afterwards.

I arrived during the celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary as a country. Amid this celebration of nationhood and national identity there was the counter narrative of indigenous people’s pain and anger at the colonisation and decimation of their land and culture.

Residential schools existed to legally kidnap children and indoctrinate them with the very culture that was oppressing them, children were removed from their parents and sent to a boarding school they were not allowed to leave with the intention of cutting them off from their own culture. The last of these schools only closed in 1996.

There are parallels to be drawn between the experiences of racism and ableism, both involve the application of power against a group of people and are expressed in the structures of the state, the culture of the society and the lived experience of those oppressed by them. There is a theme of reconciliation within the debate proposed by indigenous people, that allows for righteous anger and expression of a grieving process for what has been lost and experienced, whether that is physical or cultural. If the debate is framed by indigenous people it seems to me that it is possible to move forward in a way that acknowledges the humanity of the people harmed by colonialism.

I feel there is a cynicism around ableism that makes it easy to portray the disabled experience in a two dimensional way: either with inspirational and therefore unintentional objectification or pity and a social role that allows able people to give thanks for what they have got. How as disabled artists do we use our experience to tell a greater truth? How can we move away from being viewed as inspiration porn and therefore needing to ‘earn’ our humanity? But also give breathing space to the reality of our daily lives, for me this is frequently being Disabled by people’s inaccurate perceptions of me, normally quantifying either my soberness or intelligence. A struggle that becomes tiring and lonely but does not define me.

Style

I noticed that the conference was more gentle, less aggressive and a lot less passive aggressive compared to my experience of conferences in the UK, it felt relaxed and respectful. For me this was because there was more conversation and collaboration and a scene at an early stage of development.

Another difference and one where the UK does well is that the community in the UK has successfully concentrated on making the distinction for funding streams between community and professional arts. This has a lot to do with getting venues on side and how we are written about in the national press. This means that both types of work have better access to funding and are not seen as interchangeable, allowing for a larger professional sector to exist than is currently possible in Canada. But things constantly change – just because we did it well five years ago, doesn’t mean we’re doing well now, we can’t become complacent.

In the UK Access To Work is something that makes being a professional disabled artist more viable than in Canada, although it’s not walk in the park to get to many artists, including myself, it makes being a practicing artist more viable.

Joy

My lasting impression of the time I spent in Canada will be the new friends I made, all dedicated experts in their field. With a plethora of life experiences, artistic practices and language codes to express themselves and an appetite for change. Although our ways of expressing our desire for equality may at times be different, when we were together I felt understood and a joy at how we are able to include each other.

My underlying beliefs and position within conversation around disability arts/work made by Disabled artists remains the same: fighting disability discrimination through art is about holding a mirror up to social constructs that imprison us. Conferences and big organisations are not always easy to interact with and will never be 100% accessible to everyone but they offer the chance to celebrate difference and the hard work of individuals who have a genuine desire to create a fairer society.

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