Learning to see

A woman with bobbed blonde hair wearing a red and blue patterned dress sits by a table and plays a Spanish guitar. On the table next to her are a Russian doll, a Tibetan singing bowl and a kaleidoscope.

Liz Porter performs Learning to See at St Mark’s Community Centre in Beckton.

Artistic Director Ju Gosling aka ju90 writes: This afternoon Liz Porter presented her one-woman show, Learning to See, at St Mark’s Community Centre in Beckton. Liz’s story of being forced to attend a special school from the age of nine will resonate with many disabled people. Her powerful descriptions of the bullying and abuse that took place, and the impact on her happiness and well-being of being segregated from the rest of society, will remain with me.

It is testimony such as this that has led disabled people to campaign, along with parents of disabled children, for inclusive education. (That is, truly inclusive education, not ‘special units’ within mainstream schools and colleges, nor students being stranded in mainstream classes without the support they need to survive, let alone thrive.)

Learning to See underlined the importance of this year’s Disability History Month theme: “Celebrating our Struggle for Independent Living: No Return to Institutions or Isolation.” There is no better way of communicating history than through art, and Liz’s silvery voice, often raised in song, was spell-bindingly effective.

It was therefore a great pity that, although the show had been programmed in a building used by more disabled residents than any other in Newham, not a single disabled building user was in the audience. The reason: the performance began at 2.30pm, to take account of all those disabled people who need to eat lunch, take medication and rest afterwards before traveling to the venue.

By then, however, disabled building users were getting ready for their transport home at 3pm. By 4pm, when the show ended, our potential audience members were back in their homes, many without any hope of seeing another human being until the next morning.

Disabled people undoubtedly face many barriers in accessing ‘mainstream’ arts that could be dismantled by arts providers. But there are other barriers that are solely due to local authorities, and only they have the power to achieve change.

Not so long ago, disabled people used to complain we were prisoners in our homes after 9pm, due to lack of the support we need to leave after that time. For many of us, the curfew is now 6pm, since the shrinking funds provided for us to employ personal assistants do not stretch to evening — or weekend — working.

But for those people with learning difficulties, and/or high support needs, the curfew is just 3pm. Although their support is provided by ‘Adult’ Services, disabled service users are effectively being treated as children. They are forced to adhere to a strict weekly time-table, and are only able to access activities and support — as well as so-called ‘work experience’ — during school hours.

This may not be ‘institutionalisation’ in the strictest sense of the word, but it is certainly institutionalized thinking; it is certainly isolating; and it most certainly has no place in the 21st century. We all need to learn to see the people who are missing after 3pm, and demand change.

Why comedy is a serious business

A group of people are sitting around a table in a studio theatre. In front of them are bottles of water and pieces of paper. One man is reading to the rest.

Clare Summerskill leads a Comedy Writing workshop at Stratford Circus on 24 November 2013.

Artistic Director Ju Gosling aka ju90 writes: I’m writing this during our free Comedy Writing workshop with Clare Summerskill at Stratford Circus on Sunday afternoon (24 November). A sense of humour is probably more important to disabled people than to any other group. We rely on our ability to laugh at the barriers we face and the treatment we receive, in order to survive them and rise above them.

The eight participants in the group all have different comedy likes and loathes. What they agree on, though, is that comedy can also be a weapon that is used by us, or against us.

When we are able to use comedy as a weapon, we can use it to highlight the issues that are important to us and to raise awareness of our lived experiences of daily life. We can also use comedy to enable other disabled people to realize that their experiences are shared with others, and are not due to anything that is personally lacking in them.

When comedy is used as a weapon against us, though, it can be very dangerous indeed. So-called jokes about disabled people feed into stereotypes of disability, and fuel discrimination and prejudice.

The recent rise in disability hate crime is not simply due to news reports and government pronouncements about disabled people being scroungers and benefit cheats. For some reason, disabled people seem to be the only group for whom it is still acceptable to make ‘jokes’ based on age-old stereotypes, and this has led to a growth in broadcast ‘humour’ that is targeted at us.

Disabled comedians like Clare Summerskill – and Don Biswas, who will be compering our International Day of Disabled People event on 3 December at the Ascension Church Centre – therefore have an importance beyond the obvious one of making us laugh. I’m delighted that, with the support of Arts Council England, we have been able to use the festival as an opportunity to develop a whole new set of disabled comedy writers. I hope we will all have the chance to hear their work for ourselves in the coming months, both at future Together! events and others.

The real meaning of Legacy

Artistic Director Ju Gosling aka ju90 writes: It was a real joy to see more than 100 people come to celebrate the launch of our Together! 2013 Disability History Month free festival at the Old Town Hall in Stratford on Friday (22 November). The event also provided an opportunity to view the Together! 2013 Open Exhibition for the first time.

The Open Exhibition brings together the artwork of around 70 disabled children and adults who live, work, study, volunteer or otherwise have a connection with Newham. Everyone who identifies with this description is able to enter one piece of artwork, with a guarantee that it will be accepted for exhibition (so long as it is suitable for family viewing). The exhibition will tour to at least two more venues in 2014.

In addition to the visual art within the Open Exhibition, Friday night saw the premiere of a new piece of Live Art by Katherine Araniello, made especially for the festival. Katherine’s work brings together live performance with film and video, and is always characterized by her dry sense of humour.

In this piece, Katherine chose to play the part of an art critic, interviewing herself about her work and the motivation behind it. To do this she filmed herself responding to the interviewer’s questions, and showed this footage on a screen next to her. She also included clips of some of her recent video work as background to the video. I particularly loved the final, muttered sentence from the video-ed Katherine: “I hate art.”

One of Katherine’s starting points when she created the piece was the late David Morris, and the legacy he left behind in bringing people together to work creatively and change the world. David’s philosophy inspires everything that we do at Together!

David spent the last two years of his life leading on ‘external inclusion’ for London 2012. More than anyone else, he was responsible for making the Games accessible to all (and similarly, his absence probably contributed significantly to the problems that did exist).

David understood that the fundamental importance of the Games is not about displays of sporting excellence, but the part they play in bringing together people from all nations to participate in an atmosphere of peace and friendship. Newham, as the most diverse community on the planet, was uniquely suited to this, and ditto to carrying forward this Legacy.

The Games have always included cultural activities alongside sport. As with our exhibition, the inclusion of art demonstrates that physical – or intellectual – triumph is not what ultimately matters. Rather, it is the triumph of the human spirit.

Katherine’s work forefronts beliefs that were also very close to David’s heart; that life is worth living whatever barriers we may face; all humans are valuable; and so the language of ‘assisted dying’ should be exposed and challenged. I am so pleased that we will have another chance to see her piece – no doubt having developed further in the meantime – at our end-of-festival party on 19 December.