Working with Disabled Artists: What to Think About?

An image of lots of different coloured post-it notes which have hand written notes on them such as social model and do less or do differently?
Working with Disabled artists post it notes

A week or so back, Unlimited’s Senior Producer Jo Verrent met up with the Enablers connected to Eclipse Theatre’s Slate movement to talk about working with disabled artists. Here’s a list of some of the questions they discussed, and some of the answers they arrived at…

How do you break the ice, ask the question, bring up the subject of disability and access?

It’s all about developing a relationship, building trust, being familiar with access and disability issues, and not making a big deal out of it.

What levels of understanding do I give?

Understand the politics and the PC but also get to the ‘real’, be both human and humane. Help people develop their vocabulary to enable ownership of access; disabled people are the experts in their experience, but not always the experts on solutions, especially if they are newly diagnosed – but be wary of giving unsolicited advice. Not everyone is at the same point of acceptance and this is ok. Also, recognise when someone isn’t doing what you need them to be doing (for the job, for the contract) and have the conversation – the funder, organisation, project has responsibilities too.

What can I ask?

How can I best support you? What might you need to best enable you to deliver your role? What barriers do you face? Steer away from ‘what’s wrong with you?’ because the answer is ‘nothing’. Get to understand the Social Model of Disability and let it guide your language and your questions.

Think about the lens through which you view disability, impairment, ageing… Is it impacting on how you treat people? Change your viewfinder.

How do I spot invisible impairments?

It’s hard – the clue is in the name. They are extremely common so it’s probably best to assume that everyone might have some need. Once someone tells you they have an access requirement you share the responsibility for barriers removal – it’s not down to them to do so repeatedly. It can be hard being open, being ‘out’. Don’t make it a joke.

Pretending, performing and putting on a brave face – are these useful or detrimental?

Different people have different coping strategies in different situations – and some work well, and some don’t, and some work for a bit and then stop. Have a conversation. No one should be forced into playing up an impairment or pretending that one doesn’t exist, but how someone handles being disabled is their own choice.

What about people experiencing feeling of ineptitude, shame, or where their needs are seen as ‘just one more thing’ that people have to deal with?

Change the culture, challenge the negativity, create spaces and places where it’s ok to be who you are – you can do this if you take on responsibility and work to the Social Model.

What about mental health support? Self-harm? Self-sabotage?

Be clear where your boundaries are and know when you need to hand over and to whom. Be kind – always. Make conversations about self-help, responsibility and self-management part of the conversation. Think about both being well and keeping well. Mindfulness works well for some people. There is always an option. Do less or do more differently. Think about the roles things like alcohol and other substances play in your work culture and your own ways of working – these things can be a trigger, and addiction can be an issue.

How can we use and accept differences and lived experience without creating or glorifying trauma?

By being careful, being aware and thinking beyond the glory moment to the consequences of what we do. Distinctive individual stories yes, but also ways to encourage unity in and around disability and shared experience.

What can we do in the workplace?

Get your head around Access to Work, and lobby around the crisis for disabled people in the UK caused by the austerity agenda. Recognise that discrimination is inbuilt into arts sector – and the ways we run the sector cause more discrimination too. Think about building in flexibility with working methodologies and timescales as well as budgets – contingency time and contingency money. Put access in your contracts to give clarity about who does what and what the plan B is. Make it part of data collection but explain why – and use self-identification. Make it part of contracting. Don’t just provide access – think about audience development. Additionally, understand that even doing all this doesn’t mean that people won’t face barriers in your workplace or suddenly become non-disabled.

How do we get better?

Consider getting an access audit or Disability Equality Training for your organisation. Ensure that a culture of inclusion is present at every level. Make time for genuine deep reflection. Try, fail and then try again.

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