EUNIC Talk: Arts & Disability - Access, Artistic Innovation and Cultural Relations
What is the appetite for radical change in Europe’s arts sector in relation to making the arts accessible to disabled people? In a EUNIC Talk about “Arts & Disability" held on 7 July 2020, guest speakers from the sector engaged in a dialogue about the key challenges and the role of cultural relations organisations regarding this work.
Gitte Zschoch, EUNIC Director, opened the talk highlighting the fact the topic of arts and disability has not been part of the mainstream agenda on culture and cultural relations. Accessibility for disabled artists and professionals and for disabled audiences should be seriously considered. She said that for EUNIC and its members this is a topic to which more attention should be given as it is also linked to EUNIC’s interest in fair collaboration.
Ben Evans, Head of Arts & Disability for the EU Region at the British Council and Project Director of the Creative Europe project Europe Beyond Access, explained the different models from which disability has been addressed until now: the social, the charity and medical models. Particularly looking at the social model society creates unconscious structures that are the source of structural, cultural, economic and attitudinal barriers for disabled artists impeding their professional development at different stages of their artistic lives: "People have impairments but they are disabled by society." Ben stressed that it is the responsibility of arts and cultural organisations to address barriers preventing disabled people achieving full equal access to the arts as audiences but even more importantly as artists and professionals. "What are we doing in our organisations to address these barriers? We should tune in to a cultural ecosystem that supports cultural engagement by disabled people."
People have impairments but they are disabled by society.
Ben advocated also for the creative case for disabled artists claiming that disabled artists contribute to a richer and more innovative arts sector. Explorations of different perspectives help us all understand society. This diversity is one of the creative opportunities of our time. Organisations have the responsibility to the arts sector and to the art forms to ensure the arts benefit from the aesthetic challenge to form offered by disabled artists.
Sophia Alexandersson, CEO and Artistic Director of ShareMusic & Performing Arts – Knowledge Centre for artistic development and inclusion based in Sweden, described some concrete examples of challenges faced by disabled artists. One of the basic challenges is lack of knowledge and understanding of what is required to ensure accessibility for disabled artists and even more so when mobility and travel is required. There are a lot of logistical aspects to consider in order to ensure good working conditions for disabled artists, however there is no one-size fits all model for accessibility. Travel is another big challenge as it requires a lot of preparation and resources to counter any disruption and unexpected changes. Lastly, insufficient financial resources create a lot of barriers for artists. Disabled artists often require someone who can support them in adjusting in a new environment, but who is going to pay for that? Sophia also emphasised the importance of facing all these obstacles for the future of arts and also highlighted the role of education. A lot needs to be done within the higher artistic education so that the whole ecosystem covers the entire journey of the artists.
Filip Pawlak, Independent producer and artist based in Poland, introduced a report titled ‘Disabled artists in the mainstream: a new cultural agenda for Europe’ which emerged from the first European Arts & Disability Cluster meeting in November last year hosted by Europe Beyond Access. The report sets out recommendations on how access to the arts for disabled artists, arts professionals and audiences needs to be at the heart of European cultural policy and the future Creative Europe programme. According to Filip it is important for organisations and professionals working in the field to join forces for the advocacy on disability in order to make concrete progress. Filip also mentioned the four main recommendations to the EU: importance of raising awareness on this topic at national and EU level, articulating that the proportion of the EU population who are disabled have an equal right to benefit from public expenditure on cultural activities, demanding equal access to cultural mobility for disabled arts professionals, reducing discriminatory barriers for audiences and building new audiences of disabled people.
The Q&A session with participants of the EUNIC Talk focused on questions such as: how can we make our institutions more open to this discourse and practices on disability? How long does it take to make a change towards an inclusive organisation? It was estabalished that it is important to draw on the expertise of colleagues and showcase new works by disabled artists. It takes time to activate institutions, however as we share more knowledge and practice in the field, this should allow us to move faster and actively engage in the field. On the other hand, internally, it is a constant working process of reviewing activities and engaging with the community. A participant posed a question on whether it is necessary to impose quotas for disabled artists. Answers from the panelists indicated that it is not constructive to make a distinction between disabled and non-disabled artists as each artist should be considered for their artistic potential. However, in some countries where arts and disability is not yet well developed, it might be helpful to have a quota to raise an awareness of the issue. Disabled artists also need to be included in the decision-making process. One of the biggest gaps in the advancement of arts and disability is the lack of knowledge and experience by cultural managers and professionals which leads to people not taking the risk to work with disabled artists and audiences.