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Andrew Miller: Disability can no longer exist at the bottom of the list of arts’ priorities

Fellow disability champion Jess Thom as Touretteshero at the Southbank Centre. Photo: Sam Robinson

Government disability champion for the arts and culture Andrew Miller speaks of his experiences as a disabled person struggling to get work in the sector and says it’s time to welcome disabled artists, employees and audiences

Disability in 2018 was more visible than it has ever been in our national culture. We saw the first disabled-led BBC Prom from the Bournemouth Symphony Resound ensemble; Lost Voice Guy won Britain’s biggest television talent show, Britain’s Got Talent, Ramps on the Moon [1] continued its pioneering work with regional theatres and the great Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was reclaimed as a great disabled artist at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Meanwhile the UK’s disabled artists such as Jess Thom and Yinka Shonibare led the world in the quality and invention of their art. This is a view shared by Arts Council England chief executive Darren Henley, who recently said: “The work of disabled and deaf artists is often the boldest, most aesthetically adventurous art out there.”

Touretteshero’s Jess Thom: ‘Disabled people need to be written in, not written out’ [2]

Yet when it comes to our mainstream arts organisations and their boards, disabled people are invisible. The arts have long struggled with issues of ethnicity, gender and class while disability has languished at the bottom of the list of priorities. This fact was highlighted when media and entertainment trade union BECTU recently launched a diversity strategy [3] that failed to mention disability once.

As UK government disability champion for arts and culture, I’m setting out to change all that. For 30 years I’ve operated in the arts and broadcasting industries, which have offered me, as a disabled individual, few support mechanisms, frequent discrimination and, perhaps crucially, no role models. Combined, these factors have made sustaining my career unnecessarily challenging and, as I’ve travelled around the country meeting disabled artists and creatives, it is a depressingly common story.

I began my career in the 1980s during the first big moment for equal representation – when broadcasters woke up to their lack of on-screen diversity. My first job was presenting a children’s show called Boom! on Channel 4 [4], which was produced by Teletubbies creator Anne Wood. The format was groundbreaking, integrating disabled children with their non-disabled peers and achieved weekly audiences of two million. It established me as one of the few disabled presenters on mainstream television.

But my presenting career was brought to a premature halt in the 1990s after an audition at the BBC, where I was told: “The Blue Peter audience are not yet ready for a disabled presenter.” More recently, in 2014, I had to withdraw from a recruitment process for a senior role at Oxford Playhouse [5], a publicly funded theatre without a single wheelchair-accessible space in which I could be interviewed.

We have a long way to go before disabled people can compete on a level playing field

Twenty years apart, these experiences conveyed to me the same demoralising message: that both in attitude and access terms, we have a long way to go before disabled people can compete on a level playing field. And in the cultural world, so reliant on public subsidy, that is simply wrong.

There are nearly 14 million disabled people in the UK and we make up a fifth of the working-age population. Disabled people and their households have a combined spending power of £249 billion a year, according to figures from the Department for Work and Pensions. The government recognises it needs assistance to help tackle the issues disabled people face as consumers and employees across a range of industries from retail to airports.

So, it has recruited sector champions, all working in different industries and undertaking this role voluntarily. We don’t work for, nor represent, the government. Rather, we are catalysts for change and my role has responsibility for the arts, museums and film. While the business case for inclusion is surely overwhelming, I believe our sector has been slow to recognise it.

As the Guardian recently highlighted, access remains patchy across the cultural world for disabled audiences, artists and employees alike. Environments remain where disability is not fully regarded as an essential component of diversity allowing discrimination to flourish.

Miller presenting Channel 4’s Boom! in 1989. Photo: Ragdoll Productions/Channel 4

There is significant under-representation of disabled people in specialist arts education, apprenticeships and employment. In 2016 it was reported that not a single disabled individual graduated from UK drama schools. In 2018, Arts Council England revealed disabled people compromised only 4% of the arts workforce. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland it is 2%.

Employment prospects are poor as disabled candidates have to be twice as convincing as their able-bodied peers just to get over unconscious bias. There are no visible disabled leaders in the mainstream sector, perhaps as a consequence of the risk-averse conservatism of trustees and the small band of commercial headhunters responsible for appointing senior roles; neither group is known for its support of diversity. And all too often the existing leadership equates disability with outreach, reinforcing the outdated notion of disabled people as objects of charity.

In short, our mainstream culture is institutionally excluding disabled people. So to drive progress, I recently gathered a task force of public bodies, including all four UK arts councils, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the British Film Institute, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to create a strategy for change.

Using the social model of disability – inclusive of neurodivergence, learning and physical disabilities – there was recognition that disabled people need better support to enter the talent pipeline and gain employment. As a welcome start, the Arts Council of Wales has pledged to double the number of disabled employees in the Welsh arts workforce and triple disabled board membership.

I also want to see better use of government resources such as the Disability Confident employer scheme and benefits such as Access to Work made easier to claim. I have proposed a National Disability Arts Access Card, designed to create a consistent offer for disabled audiences, building on the successful Welsh Hynt scheme. Hynt has signed up 14,000 disabled people in three years and operates in 40 venues across Wales. The scheme offers centralised eligibility checking, standardised benefits such as free personal assistant tickets and frontline staff training.

Arts Council Northern Ireland has already committed to rolling it out and the funders have commissioned a feasibility study for a UK model. I am convinced it will offer disabled audiences a better deal than the hundreds of bespoke schemes UK theatres and venues currently offer.

We will explore how National Lottery funds can improve access to arts premises and consider the potential of a Disability Cultural Charter to ensure public subsidy delivers the necessary adjustments to attitudes, based on the Northern Irish model.

This is about ensuring disabled people are welcomed and valued as artists, employees and audiences – as equals. I want to see our cultural sector leading beyond the requirements of the Equality Act, to demonstrate that poor training, rubbish access and institutional discrimination can be consigned to the past.