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The Uncomfortable Truth about Disability


Disability is a word that provokes a range of emotions from across society. At its worst, it immediately stigmatizes and excludes many through pure ignorance of the reality of how we live our lives, from hate crime through to patronization; we can often feel that we are not allowed to be ordinary people with ordinary wants and desires, just like everyone else. On the flip side, we are the source of inspiration: amazing "super-humans", achieving gold medals and accolades in such events as the Paralympics or other huge feats that defy conventional wisdom to prove we 'can do'.

Over recent years, I have experienced people trying their best to not use the 'D' word. If you think it through, it is a horrible word which seeks to describe our limitation in function, be it mind, body, learning or senses. The 'Dis' in the word places us in the 'other' category and sadly it is still a place that we are still fighting to get out of. We prefer to use the term 'Disabled People' as we change the emphasis in that it is not usually our medical conditions that prevent us taking part in everyday life but the raft of barriers preventing us access. From lack of qualifications and segregated schooling, through to high unemployment and rampant poverty, society is built around the 'able-bodied'; those I prefer to call, 'the non-disabled privileged'.

Recent austerity measures in the UK have impacted badly on our community group. We have lost artists through suicide, through lack of personal assistance support, ignorance, and too many dying before their time (RIP Bev, Tina, Alan, Louis, Lisa, Jacques, Gill, Ben, Tobin). We are increasingly seeing artists starting to withdraw from opportunities because they have lost their funding support. From Access to Work and Independent Living through to Mobility Allowances, we are seeing disabled people unfairly penalised, their tools for independence being taken away, through no fault of their own. We are the hardest hit and with the rise of disability hate crime, our position in society is being increasingly demonised and we are feeling pushed to the margins, labelled as benefit scroungers who are whittling away the welfare budgets out of proportion to other sectors of society. This is so far from the truth.

Why have things come to this? It has not always been this way. Before the Industrial Revolution, most of our then rural based society accepted the fact that our bodies can 'fail' us. Back then we were not grouped according to our impairments but were part of a community that adapted to the changing needs we had. We didn't know about prevention measures or first-aid procedures. Things really changed for us when capitalism took hold and economics became the driving force of our existence. Institutions based on impairments, the rise in charities to incarcerate and prevent us being a part of everyday life and the eugenics policies which negate disabled life - all of these became part of the everyday fabric of our lives. With issues such as abortion to assisted suicide, the disabled body features like a gigantic boulder to humanity's progress, taking our money, using up valuable NHS resources, making us all painfully aware of the degenerating, decaying being that we all are.

We need truth. We need to take a reality check and really look full in the face of what messages we are promoting about these issues, not only to non-disabled and hearing people, but also to disabled and Deaf people too. Why? Because we grow up in an age affected and influenced heavily by the media and the many stereotyped stories that tell us how to be us or how to react to us. It is bleak out there and it is getting worse. This is not just from the many anecdotal stories we hear, but also as borne out by statistics.

As Artistic Director for DaDaFest, I programme work that takes these issues and presents an alternative way of viewing the 'lived experience of disability' in how we create art. As Yinke Shonibare says, "Disability Arts is the last Avant Garde". We aim to promote and present work that takes the viewer to new places, allowing us to look at the issues that affect our lives. The arts are the ideal space to carry out this kind of exploration, creating spaces where our preconceptions are lifted and we are able to see old issues in new light. Not from a voyeuristic position, but one that engages through challenge, shock, sexuality, comedy and quality art. Art that is - crucially - for absolutely everyone.

We aim to show that disability is a universally human issue - you are either disabled or not disabled yet. We all need to stop and think about how our bodies age and change. Our work is about counteracting the deficit mind set (I have a deafness gain, not a hearing loss), using the arts to promote excellent work that pulls no punches in saying exactly how it is.

Check out the programme here: DaDaFest lasts from 17th November to 3rd December in locations across Liverpool, UK - we'd love to see you there.

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