On Wednesday we hosted the inaugural meeting of the Newham Disability Arts Network at the McGrath Centre. One of our aims is to capacity build the sector locally by supporting existing groups and organizations and helping to set up new ones, rather than attempting to take over/do everything ourselves.
As the response to our festival has shown, there is a range of groups already doing excellent work in Newham. East End Hamlets and the Art Recovery group are two independent visual arts groups run by and for people with learning difficulties and people with mental health difficulties respectively. Meanwhile Active Plus empower people with dyslexia and Powerhouse women with learning difficulties through the arts as a central part of their work.
The Act Up inclusive theatre company, who performed at our International Day of Disabled People event, offer training and performance opportunities to all local residents, while Blue Sky Actors, based at Stratford Circus, is a company for adults with learning difficulties. The McGrath Makers and Starpad DJs are creating employment as well as offering training opportunities for people with learning difficulties, as are the Autism Team who are also based in the Centre.
There is also a range of activities on offer to young people. The Discover Centre’s Mighty Mega Saturday Club offers arts activities to disabled children and their families, while Richard House Children’s Hospice runs a weekly Film Club as well as offering a large number of one-off opportunities for children with life-limiting conditions to participate in the arts. For young adults, the Sardines Dance Collective is based at NewVic College, and creates high-quality inclusive dance performances as well as running education and community programmes.
The vibrancy of the Disability Arts sector locally, as well as the high level of demand for arts-based activities from locally based disabled people and carers, made us particularly pleased to welcome guests from other parts of the UK to the Old Town Hall Stratford on Friday. Together! is part of the Arts Council-funded Disability Arts Touring Network, with partners including DaDaFest International festival from Liverpool, the Arts Disability Forum Ireland, Disability Arts Online, Preston City Council, and the Citadel venue in St Helen’s.
Our aim is not, of course, to create a parallel or segregated arts sector for disabled people. Rather, we aim to work towards inclusion and equality by promoting models of good practice, as well as creating opportunities for disabled people and carers that current barriers to inclusion prevent them from accessing elsewhere.
We also regard the Disability Arts movement as an international art movement like any other, with its own theories, traditions and history, as well as its own unique perspective on the world. Disabled people, too, have our own unique history and culture in addition to being members of the wider community.
Both locally and nationally, being part of wider networks enables us all to be more effective. It also enables us to promote our artists to other parts of the UK, and to make artists and audiences aware of wider local and national opportunities. As we say, “Together we are strong.”