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Animated Edition - Summer 2006
The disabled community?
Chris Hammond, Artistic Director of Full Circle Arts, urges us to work more closely with disabled artists, disability-led organisations and disabled people themselves in planning and delivering arts programmes and activities
com·mu·ni·ty (n)
1. a group of people who live in the same area, or the area in which they live
2. a group of people with a common background or with shared interests within society
3. a group of nations with a common history or common economic or political interests neighbourhood (n) society (n) kinship (n)
Encarta® World English Dictionary

dis·a·bil·it·y (n)
The disadvantage or restriction caused by a contemporary social organisation, which takes no or little account of people who have impairments and thus excludes them from the mainstream of social activities. (Social model of disability as defined by UPIAS [Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation] and adopted by the UK Government, the Disability Rights Commission and all disabled led groups and societies).

Often I am asked, usually by arts marketing people, where they will find 'the disabled community'. A difficult question to answer, since I would argue, that there is no such thing as 'the disabled community'. There are different communities with which some disabled people may identify as a collective, but these are diverse in nature and dependent on how the individual identifies themselves as a disabled person.

'Identity is about belonging, about what you have in common with some other people and what differentiates you from others. At its most basic, it gives you a sense of personal location, the stable core to your individuality' (Weeks, 1990, p. 88).

Some impairments, congenital impairments for example, or those associated with accident or with early onset - are more likely than others to lead to an individual identifying collectively and socially as disabled. However the majority of disabled people in Britain are over 60, research shows they are unlikely to identify as disabled and more likely to associate collectively in communities of older people.

Taking the first definition of community, a geographic community, unlike people of different ethnic origin who are more likely to settle and establish within an area of a town or city, disabled people rarely fit neatly into a geographic area. Whilst women, black and minority ethnic people can expect support role-models from within the family and community, disabled people are likely to grow up on a street where there are no other disabled people, in families where there are no other disabled people, and where there is sometimes an unspoken feeling of family burden, or unwitting pressure to conform to the grateful, passive role. This is different to race and gender, disability is more like sexuality, in the sense of familial isolation, and the need to come out and reject the burden of difference.

Taking the second definition of community, a group of people with a common background or with shared interests within society then as far as the arts are concerned the nearest you will get to 'the disabled community' is the disability arts community. Disability arts is built on the commonality of experiences and disabling barriers faced by around 12 million people in Britain.

Non-arts impairment specific groups simply continue the ethos of divide and rule. They most often stem from the patronage of impairment specific charities that choose to compete with each other for money to cure or care. All impairment groups endure a commonality of experience of discrimination, prejudice and disability. Taking part in the impairment game of who is most disabled does no group any favours, does NOT build a community and does nothing towards inclusion. True inclusion is not built on a turnstile system of including one group with difference then perhaps another.

The insistence on looking at impairment specific groups and grounding work such as 'Audience Development' around the medical model of disability looking at the barriers to participation of impairment specific groups has done disabled people a great dis-service. Whilst the Disability Discrimination Act now makes it illegal to not remove such barriers, bodies such as Arts Councils continue to spend generous amounts of revenue on this reductionist approach, cajoling reluctant mainstream organizations to 'develop their audiences' through removal of impairment specific barriers, or informing them of the use of captioning or audio description. Enough is enough, please can we expect that it is the duty of every service provider to make these reasonable adjustments and leave them to mercy of the Law if they refuse to cooperate, just as we do with, say, food hygiene, or health and safety. Creative ways of addressing equality issues for disabled people, at promoting inclusion of difference, questioning stereotypes, inclusive curriculums for artist's professional development have been ignored, and yet these are real issues for disabled people. The issues of inclusion and equality should be addressed by Arts Councils engaging with the disabled led arts community, and most importantly, trusting them to take the lead. Who wants a British Sign Language interpreted performance of a play, which would be offensive, patronizing or irrelevant to a deaf audience. Or a ramp into an accessible dance studio where the curriculum is based around ableist traditional body perfect dance positions and moves?

And, never mind audience development, what about some professional development for disabled artists and arts workers? We all know that the largest audiences for the arts are from those members of the public who have positive participatory experiences in the arts whether on a professional or amateur basis.

In any society, what constitutes 'normality' is fluid and flexible, according to how the dominant value systems change and develop. The arts play a huge role in shaping these value systems. Being prepared to question what is regarded as art and how we invest money and resources does much to let us know about the value placed on our contribution. It tells us whether we are included in the arts and cultural expressions of our country as artists, audiences or even as citizens. We all gain by living in a diverse and pluralistic society, in which many cultural groups can co-exist. For too long inclusion of disability has not been regarded as adding our culture to a culturally diverse Britain, but rather a simplistic access issue of removing barriers to allow us to be integrated on others terms within the dominant culture.

So if you want to reach 'the disabled community' approach disabled led arts groups, or groups of disabled artists, large and small; listen and learn, include them on their terms, be prepared to turn your thinking on its head, and be creative in the many different approaches used in the inclusion of difference.

Chris Hammond is the Artistic Director of Full Circle Arts and can be contacted on chris@fullcirclearts.co.uk

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Animated: Summer 2006