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Let’s put a spotlight on disability arts

Paula Rees performs with Chickenshed
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Next weekend, Liberty, the disability arts festival – now in its 10th year- will take over the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to celebrate disabled performers. It comes at a time when criticism is growing that the public understanding of the capabilities, as well as the needs, of those we call disabled are still not recognised.

Disabled people are still defined in the official gaze by their disability. Those assailed by cerebral palsy have as much mental deftness as any of us, probably much more in order to deal with their motor difficulties, yet their awkward speech still allows people to assume they are somehow less than the rest.

What the Paralympic elements of the Cultural Olympiad gave us was a magnificent revelation, through programmes like Unlimited run by Graeae’s Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings who runs the Docklands Festival, not only of what disabled performers can do, but what they can do that other performers can’t. People can dance in wheelchairs with such profound accomplishment that the wheelchair is a vital part of the performance, not an encumbrance. Yet too many theatres obstinately refuse to provide ramps, lifts and seating space to allow those on wheels to enjoy others’ performances.

Storme Toolis is a 20-year-old undergraduate who is making her own career, or careers, as an actor and a writer. She made her BBC TV debut last week as a regular element of the new New Tricks detective series and is a journalist as well as studying full time English and drama. Yet she couldn’t even get to the welcoming lecture of one university she thought of studying at because her chair could not be accommodated. Storme has cerebral palsy.

Paula Rees has been the writer-in-residence at Chickenshed, the theatre company that combines the work of disabled and non-disabled artists, for 25 years.

[pullquote]It seemed a no-brainer that the Paralympic opening ceremony would change the Establishment’s attitude to not only disabled performers but the disabled population generally[/pullquote]

“I have been judged from the day I was born,” she says. “My family were being judged even more because they wanted me to be accepted for who I am, not the label I had been given”. She is a writer, director and performer for Chickenshed, and a poet and has an MA, but she says she has studied inclusive performing all her life. Yet she cannot walk or speak because she too was born with cerebral palsy. In Chickenshed, she says: “I suddenly felt that I was born for a purpose, I am valued and I have something to offer the world”.

It seemed a no-brainer that the Paralympic opening ceremony in which the disabled performers astonished with their skillful adroitness and interpretation would change the Establishment’s attitude to not only disabled performers but the disabled population generally. It hasn’t happened, and the special ramps provided on the Tube, for instance, ceased to be provided as soon as the games were over; careers are still barred to the disabled merely because of the inconvenience of their physical condition, not because they can’t do the job.

Next weekend established companies such as Graeae and Candoco will perform new commissions, individual artists like Marc Brew and Andrea Begley, will be there, and it promises to be a resounding confirmation of what we learned a year ago. They will reiterate that disabled artists are artists first and disabled very much last, a truth that applies to all our disabled citizens. The arts can make the point with events like Liberty, but it needs employers, lawmakers and builders to take it and act on it.

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