History, Culture and Community

Act Up! Newham perform 'Dear Mr Cameron'

Act Up! Newham perform ‘Dear Mr Cameron’ at the Local History Day at St Mark’s Community Centre on 8 December 2015

UK Disability History Month: Celebrating our lives; challenging disablism; achieving equaliy


Today the Disability Reps Forum held their annual Local History Day at St Mark’s Community Centre in Beckton, which as always was marketed as part of the Together! 2015 Disability History Month Festival. This well-supported open event brings together disabled people from across communities and faith groups in Newham, which is the most culturally diverse borough in the UK (and very probably the world). And this is not a one-off occasion; local disabled people and carers work together year-round to support each other and to raise awareness of the issues facing them. In a week where doubts have been expressed whether people from different backgrounds can ever live peacefully together, the sight of so many people coming together in friendship should reassure. Far from being a divided community, as a white ‘out’ lesbian I still receive both Eid and Christmas presents from traditionally dressed Muslim friends I have made through my work locally, who recognise that we have a great deal more in common than anything that divides us.

The Local History Day plays an important role in increasing understanding of how disabled people from different impairment groups, communities and faith groups have experienced barriers in their lives. Each year, some brave individuals tell the stories of their lives, focussing on their experiences as disabled people within their own communities, and these powerful narratives remain in their listeners’ memories long after Disability History Month is over. Alongside this today, Disability History Month national coordinator Richard Rieser gave a presentation about the national theme of the Month, the portrayal of disabled people in still and moving images throughout history. Richard identified a range of recurring stereotypes, and demonstrated convincingly how little has changed today. To conclude, Tara Flood from the Alliance for Inclusive Education spoke about the progress that was made towards inclusive education over the late 20th century – and the continuing move back to segregation that began with the independence of schools and colleges from local authorities, and which has increased since 2010 with changes in national government policy.

Inclusive education is a critical issue for aspiring disabled artists, since accessing nationally recognised qualifications is essential for their careers. Act Up! Newham is our inclusive community theatre company, who create devised performances based on the lived experiences of their members, and act these largely in pop-up venues with a minimum of props. Together! 2012 CIC has been supporting Act Up! Newham’s development since 2012, and I am delighted that in the past year they have been able to register as a Community Interest Company, and are now being funded to work with a professional writer and director for the first time. Today, though, they performed a short piece that they first created for the Together! 2012 tent at July’s Liberty Festival, ‘Dear Mr Cameron’. This highlighted performers’ concerns about their future, including the impact of cuts to the Independent Living Fund, how to access work and housing, and discrimination.  In response to growing difficulty in accessing college courses, Act Up! Newham are now developing their own training programme offering Arts Awards, AQA and other qualifications, as well as continuing to support their members to access formal courses.

Today we also talked about Newham’s unique disability history as the main Paralympic Host Borough for London 2012, and the work of Together! 2012 CIC to create a real and lasting cultural Legacy in East London. As one of the speakers pointed out today, anyone can become disabled at any time; we are no different from anyone else. Telling – and listening to – our own history means telling and listening to the story of us all. And the more we realise that our common humanity outweighs any differences in culture and beliefs, the sooner we can change our world so that, like the disabled residents of Newham today, we can live and work together in harmony. Story telling may come from lived experience, from documentation or via fiction; stories may be sung, danced, acted, played, told in writing or in still or moving images*; but whatever form it takes, culture – art – is more powerful than any weapon.

* The Together Disability Film Festival runs from Friday 11-Sunday 13 December at the Old Town Hall Stratford and offers an unparalleled and free opportunity to view a wide range of genres featuring central disabled characters and/or the perspective of a disabled filmmaker. Films come from all over the world and have mostly been released in the last 18 months; a number are premieres. The Festival opens at 6pm on Friday and 12 noon Saturday and Sunday, and runs until 8pm each evening. Followed by Let’s Talk about Disability Film nightly at our café-bar partner Gerry’s (opposite the Theatre Royal Stratford East) with guest speakers. Old Town Hall, 29 The Broadway, Stratford, London E15 4BQ. 020 3373 7033 /07791 291 685. Nearest tube, overground and DLR stations: Stratford (fully accessible). Bus routes include 25, 69, 86, D8, 104, 108, 158, 238, 241, 257, 262, 276, 308, 425, 473, N8, N86, 010, A9, 741 & UL1. Blue Badge holders can prebook parking; others are advised to use the (old) Stratford shopping centre carpark. Click here for further details.

Next: A Feast of Film

With grateful thanks to our funders:

Arts Council England, with further support fromTrinity Buoy Wharf, Countryside Properties, Davenport Venue and Events Management and London Borough of Newham.