Finding an audience for Disability Arts

A woman sits in her wheelchair, wearing black trousers and a bright orange vest. She has short hair and is scowling, tied to the security gate in front of her front door. 29 NOVEMBER 2014 JU GOSLING AKA ju90 WRITES: On Wednesday 26 November, international artists Krip Hop Nation came to the Old Town Hall Stratford courtesy of the Disability Arts Touring Network. Uniquely blending lyricism, activism and breakbeats, the act featured Leroy Moore and Rob Da’Noize Temple from the USA, Ronnie Muwanga  from Uganda and MC ChrisCore, Binki Woi, Borries Liebl Munich, Sascha Hummell and Scilliaka Sicsak  from Germany.

Krip-Hop Nation works internationally as a platform for disabled Hip Hop artists, and as an independent voice for disability led justice and politics. On Wednesday they created a dynamic set that pulled in every member of the audience, and also featured Together!’s very own Unique Technique (click here to view one of his raps). However, that audience was very small, despite a great deal of publicity and the event being free. Why was that?

We know from last year’s festival that disabled people have never been more excluded from accessing the arts. Already living on the lowest incomes in the UK, the above-average-inflation rises in fuel, energy and food prices have hit us hard, as have benefit cuts including the reduction of Council Tax Benefit by 20%. Cuts to services such as Taxicard and to social care support have also had a serious impact on those who need support to leave home and/or can’t use public transport. The move to digital marketing and booking online also severely disadvantages disabled people, in a world where more than half of all households containing a disabled person have no domestic internet access, while community internet provision including within libraries continues to shrink.

We also know from last year’s festival that disabled people who do have social care support are not being encouraged and supported to access community activities. Support workers, who are often doing at least two jobs, seem to find it easier to stay indoors when they are on duty rather than to accompany their client(s) out. Mental health workers are actively encouraging their clients – including, on Wednesday, one of our best rappers – to stay indoors, and warning them against going out. Social care users are also being forced to adhere to rigid daily timetables which are expected to be the same 52 weeks of the year.

In 2013 we called this ‘institutionalisation in the community’, and we are continuing to raise these issues with the public sector locally. The current situation undermines the already low self-confidence of many of the disabled people involved, is deeply isolating, removes independent living skills, and is generally in opposition to the local agenda of ‘personal, economic and social resilience’.

However, this cannot be the only reason why the audience was so small on Wednesday. Admittedly, since the widespread cuts of six years ago, the Disability Arts audience has been largely developed for outdoor arts and the Southbank, whereas a very wide range of events used to take place across the city. Perhaps Krip Hop Nation were seen as too ‘urban’ for this audience. But where were the Hip Hop audience? Did they believe – as audiences often do – that a disabled act would not be worth watching, even if it was free?

Last Wednesday I referred to the ‘Creative Case’ for diversity, and argued that, by making a case for the inclusion of diverse artists to mainstream promoters and venues instead of taking it for granted that diversity and excellence go hand-in-hand, we had already undermined it. My position has always been that, where public funds are concerned, the organisations being funded should reflect the whole of the community. With 20% of people of working age being disabled, the official figure of just 3% of publicly funded arts workers being disabled is completely unacceptable. Publicly funded organisations should be required to prove they are representative of the people funding them i.e. the general public, not provided with additional funding to ‘include’ us.

Where we need to be targeting our energies instead is in showing audiences that diverse artists have a huge amount to offer them. Clearly, requiring publicly funded venues to programme diverse artists, particularly within other programmes, would have a considerable impact. But we also need to look at other ways of showcasing diverse artists’ talents. Last Saturday’s Natural Diversions street theatre was very successful in doing this, because the art was taken directly to the audience. We need to find other ways of doing this.

In the meantime, if you have an opportunity to catch Krip Hop Nation tonight in Liverpool, or at some other time in the future, they really are unmissable!