What Limits Unlimited?

Unlimited’s Senior Producer, Jo Verrent, shares the talk she gave about the hurdles we come across in Unlimited.

Last week I gave a Talking Points talk at Brighton Dome on ‘What Limits Unlimited?’ aimed at artists and those in the arts sector. In the interest of access for those who don’t live near Brighton, I thought I’d share it here too (and also because I’m stuck in bed today and I think all this behind the scenes stuff matters).

So what limits us? Well, as a disabled person I know I’m not limited by my impairment but by the lack of access around me and in particular by the assumptions that others make over what I can and can’t do. And oddly enough, it’s similar for Unlimited.

The biggest limitation is those organisations that just say ‘we don’t do disability’ as though it’s a box they can choose to not tick. ‘Disability’ isn’t what Unlimited is about – I think you’ll find that’s art. And if you do art, then you should be interested in the art that all members of society make? Arts Council England think so – hence this Monday’s event focusing on the Creative Case.

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It’s closely linked to the phrase ‘disabled people can’t…’ which we still often hear. Yes, disabled people can. There isn’t a single job that all disabled people can’t do – as disabled people are as wide ranging in their skills and talents as all other people. Yes there might be specific jobs that a specific person can’t do (for example, I reckon I’d be a rather awful emergency medical dispatcher as I don’t use the phone) but everyone has a heap of things that match their skills and competencies and a whole heap that don’t. You think disabled artists can’t create high quality art? Then me and you need to have a chat…

I do understand it when I hear ‘I’m not disabled, I just have…’. For too long having an impairment has meant you are seen as second rate, so why would people want to apply to a scheme where you have to mention you have one? Mainly because you are not second rate, the world is. By accepting your disabled identity you can join a growing band of artists and activists and others who are rejecting the second class label, adopting the social model way of thinking and understanding and gaining a greater sense of self respect into the bargain – as the fabulous Stella Young who died this week learnt at the age of 17:

“At seventeen, something shifted… I learned the truth at seventeen. That I was not wrong for the world I live in. The world I live in was not yet right for me…..I stopped unconsciously apologising for taking up space.”

Disabled artists are making some of the best work out there at the moment – not the best work in the disability field, the diversity field or any other field, the best work out there full stop. So when I hear ‘but is it any good?’ my bloody starts to boil. Why not go and look at it and make up your own mind? But don’t come back and tell me ‘didn’t they do well?’. If you approach the work with a patronising attitude, then you demean those who created the work. Engage with the work, not someone’s impairment. Tell me you liked it, you hated it, that it moved you – anything as long as the work remains the focus.

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What else limits us? When programmers state: ‘there is no audience for that’ – without actually looking at the work. There is a lazy assumption that disabled artists only create work for disabled audiences. This isn’t true. Every work has a different audience, as every work has a unique aim. Or when people state: ‘we don’t usually do access’. Often when we expect something to be audio described, captioned or interpreted its seen as something special. This should be part of every organisations general provisions by now, surely?

Only a couple more and I’ll stop ranting, promise.

I hate it when people say ‘we already do that, we have a local group who…’. I love community based work, think its essential for building expectations, skills, combating isolation and a whole heap of other things. The grassroots is an essential part of the ecology and absolutely needs key investment, but it doesn’t replace the impact of high quality professional arts practice. In fact, I reckon the two have a symbiotic relationship – one feeds and nourishes the other. If you have one, then you need the other more not less.

And my personal least favourite limiting sentence of the moment: ‘5 years ago we could have, but not now.” With budgets being tighter than ever and yet more cuts on the way (like those impacting on Access To Work as reported in the online chat last week at Guardian Cultural Professionals), the saddest thing is when people can’t look forwards. When people can only think of what they would have done then rather than what they can do now. It has been shown that disabled people have been hit nine times harder by the cuts than any other social group – please don’t keep adding to the misery by saying you can’t engage now either. The only way to survive in austerity is through vision. Make yours a vision that includes us, not one that excludes..

So if those are the phrases that limit us at Unlimited, which ones set us free? I’m choosing between two: Eldridge Cleaver’s ‘if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem’ and the disability rights movements ‘nowt about us, without us’. For me, the solutions are all about connecting up. Through partnerships, alliances and treaties – likely and unlikely – we can shift where we are now closer to where we want to be. And who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

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