Where next? The importance of sign-posting young disabled artists

"Shape Arts' Youth Programme 'Inspiring Futures' Open Day at the Royal Opera House'

Unlimited trainee, Simon Overington-Hickford looks at why opportunities for young disabled people are so hard to find and the industry’s role in changing this…

I don’t very often reflect on my own position as a young disabled person just embarking on a career in the arts, however on the train back from Bournemouth a few weeks ago, where I had been attending Diverse City’s ‘Immerse for Diversity’ workshop, I did take a moment to take stock of how my fledgling career got off the starting blocks. I decided that I had worked hard and embraced opportunities that presented themselves, but that the finding of those opportunities had been haphazard… To say the least.

This was a common theme at the workshop itself, where I met a wide range of young disabled artists, parents, teachers, university representatives, more established disabled artists and organisations. The sector is trying to encourage more young disabled people into the arts but from what I could gather due to gaps and prejudices you still need a lot of luck as a disabled person launching their arts career.

The group I sat with during our smaller discussions (and later backed up by testimonies from the afternoon speakers) told of two BIG gaps:

  1. the education system – young people with disabilities finishing school are actively steered away from careers in the arts, or
  2. those who persist despite this being given the wrong guidance about which courses might suit their ambitions best.

I also heard stories of young people who, frustrated with the secondary, further and higher education systems, had turned to inclusive youth arts schemes to grow their practice and train but then struggled to transition this into an emerging professional career further down the line, leaving many asking simply ‘where next?’

These two big gaps present two distinct periods in a young disabled artist’s life when their talent, skills and input could be lost from the arts sector because it is not picked up on or nurtured when they need it most. Some find chances and people who are willing to mentor them but often this comes down to being in the right place at the right time – you can’t strive for an opportunity if you never knew it existed. In light of this, discussion turned to how to make the chances of succeeding less random.

In May 2014 Diverse City launched their Diverse Futures website. They explain:

‘For many years we have been working with The Remix, an inclusive youth performance company based in Dorset, run by Activate Performing Arts. Many of the young people from Remix who are disabled are incredibly talented, passionate and creative emerging artists but they couldn’t figure out how to continue in the performing arts after finishing school. There is a lack of information out there. As a result many are signposted to the social sciences, or general courses in life skills. They are rarely told about professional integrated performing arts provision. We knew this needed to change.’

With this in mind, the Diverse Futures website was started to offer information about provision for young disabled artists. There are other organisations trying to redress the balance and give young people new ways to excel, such as our own Unlimited Impact programme, providing mentoring and support for emerging young disabled artists from which young people such as Laura Dajao and Tom Wentworth have benefited. Watch more about their experiences here.

In addition, Artsadmin and Shape, who run Unlimited in partnership, have a wealth of opportunities: Shape have for some years now been running a highly-regarded and successful Youth programme which places a strong emphasis on developing the careers of young disabled people in the arts, and Artsadmin’s own youth board, which is constantly growing and offers a host of great ways to get involved in the arts. Our information sheet offers a quick overview.

Finally, Shape is on the lookout for a new trainee (like me) to work with Unlimited Impact. The Traineeship encompasses a number of tasks, assisting a range of projects across artforms, from marketing to event management and project evaluation. Find out more about the role here and get your application before Monday the 25th of April 2016. Good luck!

I am optimistic that soon the wider arts sector will realise the talent they are missing out on by not fully engaging with disabled young artists and arts professionals. In the meantime, my advice is to keep working hard and grab those opportunities as they arise – show them how brilliant and valuable we are.

The Unlimited Impact blogs are a great way to stay abreast of many opportunities for young disabled people working in the arts – we are always putting new opportunities out there so watch this space!