Unlimited – challenging perceptions through the arts

| by Jo Verrent

Tags: Arts and disability


  • StopGap's 'The Awakening'
  • Michelle Ryan's 'Intimacy' (c) Fioan Cullen
  • Fittings Multimedia Arts's 'Edmund the Learned Pig' (c) Joel Fildes
  • Jo Bannon's 'Exposure' (c) Manuel Vason

Unlimited commissions disabled artists to create art – it’s now the world’s largest commissioning programme aimed solely at disabled artists. Yet the creating of the work is only the beginning. We work with artists of all genres – visual arts, music, performance, literature – to create amazing, extraordinary work which is then showcased in London, and can be seen all over the UK.

In London, at the Unlimited Festival at Southbank Centre, the work is shown in a disability context – it's badged as work by disabled artists and that is the focus of the festival. It makes a great marketing angle, it means we have a critical mass of work to bring in producers and promoters from across the UK and internationally, but it's important to remember that's not the only way the work is seen.

Most of the time, when the work is out on tour or being shown in other spaces, it’s just part of the main programme in venues and festivals. Edmund the Learned Pig, our children’s show by Fittings, is just like any other kids' show and so can be part of children’s festivals, programmes and events regardless of whether they have a link to disability. Julie McNamara’s moving piece Let Me Stay has toured quite extensively already picking up rave reviews, and although the subject matter is disability focused, most of the performances are within mainstream programmes, not disability specific ones.

"Unlimited is a commissions programme, yes, but our aim is much bigger..."

For us, this is crucial. Unlimited is a commissions programme, yes, but our aim is much bigger. Through supporting the artists to make great work we want to challenge the cultural sector, to show that the work of disabled artists is of high quality and can attract audiences interested in great art, not only disability art.

Often disabled artists are only programmed with other disabled artists, and we don’t think this is not the only way it should be. ‘Disability Arts’ can make a good focus for a festival or an event, but it's a waste of talent and skill – and great art – if disabled artists are only used for these events and not others, too!

This was an important element when the Unlimited Festival began in 2012, alongside the Paralympic Games, and it's even more important now. 2012 was such a landmark year. Disabled people’s expectations rose as our visibility increased, access improved and public perception began to change. Rather than being seen as incapable and redundant, we were seen as people who could achieve – within sport and culture, and more widely. The opening of the Paralympic Games showed disabled people as both creative and humorous, and ingrained historical perceptions of disability began to shift.

"...it's a waste of talent and skill – and great art – if disabled artists are only used for these events and not others too!"

Since then less headway has been made than we might have hoped. The recession in the UK has meant cuts in many services, particularly benefits to disabled people, and to push these through, many of us feel we have been ‘branded’ as incapable once more. Certain key benefits that aid independence and that many disabled artists rely upon extensively have been stopped (such as the Independent Living Fund) or reduced (such as Access to Work), and the potential impact for the future cannot be underestimated.

But from gloom to celebration! We can’t wait for the Unlimited Festival at Southbank Centre to start next week. The best way to challenge perceptions, in my view, is through the arts. And we have seven days crammed full of incredible work that will put disabled artists from the UK right back in the spotlight again, and enable audiences from across the world to see ability and not just disability.

Jo Verrent is Senior Producer at Unlimited. Follow @weareunltd for updates from Unlimited, and follow @UKTheatreDance for live updates during the festival. 

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