Beyond tolerance: Disability, Advocacy and the Arts

Caitilin Punshon
Earlier this year, former Minister for the Arts Simon Crean annoyed disability advocates by encouraging a culture of tolerance towards artists with disabilities. As a result, Arts Access Victoria organised a forum to discuss moving beyond tolerance. Artists and representatives from arts organisations attended the forum. Many ideas were raised. These included issues of access, opportunity and funding. Several speakers thought more diverse representation on funding bodies would cause cultural change. The forum did not solve any problems. But the people who attended it will still find ways to make art accessible and meaningful.
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Caitilin Punshon on 22/08/2013
Michelle Waterfall and Richard Smythe performing in a play. Michelle is wearing a blonde wig and Richard has a hood on his head with large rabbit-style ears.
Arts Access - Michelle Waterfall and Richard Smythe

Artists with disabilities will keep making art, whether they are "tolerated" or not.

Here's a little tip: It's never a good idea to annoy artists, activists and disability advocates all at once. Yet that is exactly what former Minister for the Arts Simon Crean did earlier this year. He launched Creative Australia, the nation's new arts and cultural policy. This document lists a number of admirable goals for increasing access to the arts and culture. However, it also aims to encourage a culture of tolerance and inclusion of people with a disability.

Tolerance? You can imagine the reaction the use of that word caused.

Moving beyond tolerance

The response from disability advocates and arts organisations to that particular turn of phrase caused it to be deleted from the final version of the policy. But the act of altering the wording is not enough to change a view that continues to persist in society. Instead of celebrating and supporting all artists, it seems that some people still have dismissive or patronising attitudes towards artists with disabilities. That's if they acknowledge we exist at all.

Seeking ways to contest and progress past these limited perceptions, Arts Access Victoria recently hosted a forum called Beyond Tolerance: Disability, Advocacy and the Arts. It featured an impressive panel of artists, advocates and representatives from key arts organisations. These included:

  • Katharine Annear, artist and activist
  • Penny Hutchinson, director of Arts Victoria
  • Ross Onley-Zerkel, co-ordinator of Deaf Arts Network 
  • Jade Lillie, director of Footscray Community Arts Centre
  • Emma Bennison, chief executive officer of Arts Access Australia
  • Tony Grybowski, chief executive officer of the Australia Council.

Over 300 people attended the event which was compared by the inimitable Stella Young, editor of the ABC's Ramp Up website and general sassy lass-about-town.

Access, empowerment and funding

As Stella prompted the panel with a range of questions, certain themes began to recur. One of these themes was the need for cultural change and the capacity for art to create this change. Another was concerned with access to opportunities, both for artists with a disability and for those wishing to engage in the arts as participants or audience members. There was some discussion around privilege and empowerment, and, unsurprisingly, much of the conversation centered upon funding.

Ross Onley-Zerkel highlighted the problem of having to get access to and then submit funding applications in English, rather than his first language Auslan. Other panelists and audience members noted that additional funds were often required purely to reach a basic level of access for artists and participants. This generated some debate about the merits of dedicated funding for artists with disabilities.

Dedicated funding and cultural change

Katharine Annear noted that while specific funding to improve and increase access for all artists was necessary, making money available exclusively to artists with disabilities remained problematic. She instead proposed the notion of employing more people with disabilities as experts and peers on funding panels. Emma Bennison also voiced this view, which prompted a round of applause from the watching audience.

The goal of achieving better representation and genuine diversity in arts and funding bodies was echoed in various ways throughout the evening. One speaker observed that this was more likely to cause a significant and sustainable cultural shift than any policy objective or key performance indicator would.

The power of art to change minds was also reiterated several times, particularly in terms of the distinct position, perspective and insights of artists with disabilities. It was nevertheless acknowledged that most artists prefer to be recognised for their excellence, rather than for their achievements as people with (or without) disabilities.

Reaffirming our commitment

Participants at the Beyond Tolerance forum may not, as Stella joked, have succeeded in solving all the problems of the world. But it appeared that by the end of the evening, most of those in attendance had reaffirmed their resolve to keep questioning, challenging, exploring, educating, advocating and, above all, to making accessible art that matters.

The message of this forum is clear: artists with disabilities will keep making art, whether they are tolerated or not.

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