Artistic Director Dr Ju Gosling writes: Welcome to the tenth annual Together! Disability History Month Festival. I would never have believed, when I led the Together! 2012 Festival as a volunteer for the UK Disabled People’s Council, that our planned one-off event would still be going strong in 2021. We set up Together! 2012 CIC in 2013 in response to demand from our 2012 audience members and participants, who asked not just for an annual Festival, but also for a year-round continuation of the creative workshops that we included for Disabled people.
Today, we are a National Portfolio Organisation of Arts Council England, who have supported our Festivals and summer professional development programmes from 2013 onwards. Our year-round Clubs programme, originally delivered entirely by volunteers, has been supported by the National Lottery Community Fund since 2019. Many thanks to both funders for making this Festival possible, with an extra thank you to the Lottery, who found a way to extend our funding to cover some of the additional costs of working during the pandemic. Thanks as well to our Community Advisory Board for their ongoing support — if you are interested in the Board’s work and perhaps in joining, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the second of our Festivals to be delivered online, due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Our Festivals are led by Disabled artists, and are inclusive of all Disabled audience members. While non-disabled people may already have returned to semi-normal, life will probably never be the same for many of us who live with impairments and long-term health conditions. Before Covid, we documented our work on our website to widen access and create a record for the future. Now, we deliver our work mainly via the internet, with a web-based Join in from Home programme and weekly livestream, and a Clubs programme that takes place by Zoom and phone.
Article 30 of the UN Charter on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities gives us the right to access the arts on equal terms. No one should have to risk their health or life or those of the people they live with in order to access art, culture and company. Our events industry conference on 24 November offers a unique opportunity for Disabled people and events organisers to discuss a future that is inclusive of Disabled people both in-person and via digital services.
Working online has brought us many benefits, along with the inevitable losses. We are fundamentally a pop-up organisation, and we began by running activities in community venues across the borough, bringing art to people’s doorsteps rather than expecting them to travel to unfamiliar places instead. However, many of the community spaces that we used previously, and particularly the 21st century ones with better access, have now been closed or repurposed. This includes Stratford Circus Arts Centre, which provided the only professional-standard stage. Before Covid, we were faced with difficult choices in terms of locating activities outside of Newham.
Now we take work directly into people’s homes instead, wherever they live. Team members, Clubs participants, and many of the artists we work with, have all gained valuable new digital skills and confidence as a result, together with the increased self-confidence, creative skills and social networks that have always been part of our goals. Many Disabled people still lack the resources and training to access online activities. But when we are able to connect with each other online, and make use of the resources we have at home — whether this is a simple pen and piece of paper to write poetry or draw a still life, or kitchen recycling that we can make into crafts —this is critical to our wellbeing.
So here we are at the start of Disability History Month again, and all three of the exhibitions opening tonight are tied to the historic time in which we find ourselves. Vince Laws and Duncan Bridgstock have created work directly in response to the pandemic. The Together! 2021 Open Exhibition brings together work created at home when it was too dangerous to go out, work created while participating online, and work created as in-person groups have begun tentatively to meet again, from a mix of amateur, community and professional Disabled artists with a Newham connection. All of the work has been fundamentally changed in nature by translating it into a digital form, while the potential audience is now much greater at the same time as the audience experience being fundamentally different. These are three exceptionally strong and vibrant exhibitions, and I would like to extend my congratulations and thanks to all of the artists, as well as to Open Exhibition curators Sarah Hughes and Alison Marchant and gallery assistant Emily Welch.
We have a wonderful Month of free events and activities ahead of us. From East London, Act Up! Newham bring us Postcode Stories on Tuesday 23 November; Sahera Khan presents a new performance about community safety on Tuesday 30 November; and cellist Jo-anne Cox performs and presents her Define Your Journey interactive online project on Tuesday 7 December. Newham residents will also be well-represented when the Together! Pop-Up Poetry Café returns on Thursday 2 December. All events begin at 7pm, with virtual doors opening at 6.45, and have BSL interpretation and live captions.
Before that, next Tuesday 16 November, Festival favourites Signdance Collective preview excerpts from their new work Oriente Plus, performing from the European mainland and North America. On Thursday 18th, our very own Julie Newman will be introducing an evening of new comedy and comic poetry, with Helena Ascough from the north of England and Cheryl Mclennan and Wendy Young from London. The following week, on Thursday 25 November, we host Hera’s digital opera, ‘We ask these questions of everybody’, based on a Personal Independence Claimant’s experience, followed by a discussion with the composers and cast.
The Festival also includes two workshops for Deaf and Disabled people, on Monday 22 November. At 11am, Signdance Collective lead an online dance workshop; and at 2.30pm DL Williams leads a Sign poetry workshop. As with all of our events, booking details are on our website, or just email email@example.com for the links. Then we end the Festival with our traditional party on Thursday 9 December, hosted by our very own Paralympian Robin Surgeoner aka Angry Fish, and introducing emerging Disabled musicians from across the UK who have featured on our livestreams.
The tenth anniversary of London 2012 is less than a year away, and the future of the Paralympic Legacy in East London is still uncertain. Our own core funding becomes due for renewal, with no certainty that it will be continued. As I have said, the safe community-run spaces available to Disabled people to meet have mostly been lost, together with the funded Disabled People’s Organisations that existed at the time of the bid. The only new cultural facilities are in the Olympic Park, which had become entirely inaccessible to us by 2018. But I know that today the late David Morris, head of external inclusion at London 2012 and the inspiration behind Together! 2012, would be delighted at the Legacy that Disabled people have created for ourselves in the last decade.