How can we avoid stereotyping disabled artists?

| by Nina Mühlemann

Tags: Feature Festivals Arts and disability Dance Theatre Contemporary dance International collaboration Live art

Support for arts and disability has increased over the past few years. But do programmers have unconscious prejudices? Nina Mühlemann speaks to Unlimited 2018 artists and producers – and shares some advice

Jo Bannon We are Fcked. Photo Paul Samuel WhiteJo Bannon performs We Are F*cked. Photo: Paul Samuel White

It has been six years since the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad put an unprecedented spotlight on the work of d/Deaf and disabled artists.

London 2012 marked a time where the visibility of disability in the UK media was heightened, and disabled people were often represented in two easy, polarising stereotypes. We were either presented as inspirational because we could achieve something 'despite' our disabilities, or we were portrayed as benefit scroungers. The Unlimited commissions and festivals, which began alongside the Paralympics, provided a platform for disabled artists to push back against these stereotypes and to create different narratives around disability stereotypes, both in the UK and in other countries.

As Unlimited 2018 approaches, I want to discuss where we are now. Are disabled artists still confronted with easy stereotypes around disability, both in the UK and in other countries? Where and how do these manifest themselves, and what are some strategies that challenge stereotyping?

Arts Council England's Creative Case for Diversity is a useful starting point. It's based upon the observation that diversity is integral to the artistic process and drives art forward. This approach has likely contributed to better opportunities for disabled artists in the UK.

Jo Verrent is Senior Producer for the Unlimited commissioning programme. She notes a difference in the way many venues and festivals approach work by disabled artists. "Programmers used to come to us and say, 'we've got to the end of the programming for X festival and realised we've not got a disabled artist in there — who do you recommend?' Now, I think, for many that process starts much earlier. I've known a number of festivals build and theme whole programmes around the work of disabled artists as the centrepiece of their programme, not the add-on. And that to me is progress."

"We were either presented as inspirational or as benefit scroungers"

And Suddenly I disappear by Kaite OReillyKaite O'Reilly's And Suddenly I Disappear — a collaboration between the UK and Singapore, where disability-led initiatives are rare. Photo: Wesley Loh of Memphis West

Verrent adds: "People no longer assume the work is all one type of work, created by one type of artist." These platforms let artists tackle stereotypes head on.

Artist Jess Thom, for example, uses comedy to address stereotypes about Tourette's, which according to her are prevalent across all areas of society. "I feel passionately that humour and creativity are powerful ways to address these," she says.

Playwright Katie O'Reilly applauds the increased opportunities disabled artists have and attributes this to the work of initiatives and organisations like Unlimited, DaDaFest and Graeae Theatre Company. And yet, she is convinced that in a society that is becoming "more and more segregated", media stereotypes of disabled people as inspirational or benefit scroungers will only strengthen. She also notes that despite positive changes in the arts, she is still confronted with venues wanting to sell her work through easy stereotypes.

As a result, O'Reilly has become very careful: "After a negative experience several years ago where a venue attempted to promote my work through the language of tragedy and sensationalism, I now ask to see the promotional material and have an input."

Choreographer and dancer Dan Daw had similar negative experiences. "While I am proud and take ownership of being a queer, disabled artist, I find myself still struggling with how venues and festivals are choosing to sell my work," he says. "Conversations I have with promoters and venues around my work's implicit relationship to my otherness are wonderful, and I am empowered greatly when I am given the choice to 'warn' audiences of my disability — and queerness — or not. It is rather disarming when the choice is taken away.

"I have found myself angered by instances — and quite recently — where marketing teams have taken it upon themselves to not only mention that I am disabled, but go a step further by publicising the type of disability I have." Daw emphasises that disability and queer themes feature in his work and that they should be talked about, but he needs to have authority and choice over these conversations.

"I still find myself struggling with how venues and festivals are choosing to sell my work"

Dan DawDan Daw wants more control over how his work is presented to audiences. Photo: Graham Adey

These examples show that the promotion of work by disabled artists can lack nuance, and the industry may need to work harder to gain a greater understanding around disability. Daw has also been confronted with the narrative that he is 'overcoming' his disability through dance and thus is an inspiration. The problem with this approach is that disability (and the disabled bodymind) is seen as something inherently bad, not simply as another part of life. The 'inspirational' stereotype can thus be very damaging.

Daw explains: "I find it perversely fascinating that I am only inspiring when I attempt to insert myself into the virtuosic blueprint of ableism by smoothing out the edges, staying on balance and not dribbling. This makes me angry, but it also saddens me greatly. My work since leaving company structures are attempts, even strategies, to reclaim this lost sense of self."

Outside the UK, art by disabled people is often seen as a form of therapy or charity. An example for this is my home country Switzerland, where the notion that disabled artists could make a professional, enriching contribution is too often absent, although several inclusive festivals and companies fiercely advocate for the inclusion of disabled artists in the mainstream.

Kaite O'Reilly's 2018 Unlimited commission, And Suddenly I Disappear, is a collaboration between the UK and Singapore. In Singapore, too, disability is prevalently considered to be a medical or charity issue and disability-led initiatives are rare, according to O'Reilly. In many countries, funding for disabled artists can come directly through charities, and this reinforces the stereotype that disabled people are to be pitied.

Verrent explains, citing Indonesia as an example of a place where she has worked with the British Council to connect disabled artists and create opportunities: "Money can often only be gained through playing the pity card — and that impacts not just externally on the assumptions of a cultural sector but also internally on disabled people themselves.

"I've been to many countries where extremely talented artistic disabled people refuse to consider themselves as artists as they believe that their impairments render that an impossibility. Opening up conversations in these locations is challenging — what is an artist, who can be an artist, where do these assumptions come from, who do they serve? And the conversations need to be sector wide. But still I have seen immense change happen, and happen quickly."

"Arts organisations need to admit they don't know everything and learn to listen to marginalised voices"

Jess Thom. Image James LyndsayJess Thom believes that humour and creativity are powerful tools for overcoming stereotypes. Photo: James Lyndsay

Including disabled people's voices in conversations across the sector is a crucial strategy to counter stereotyping. Real change in the arts can only happen when disabled people have opportunities on and off the stage. Tarik Elmoutawakil, an artist who also works as a producer, explains: "Arts organisations like to think of themselves as 'neutral', and it's important to acknowledge that that isn't true."

Different, non-dominant perspectives need to be supported, and Elmoutawakil stresses that arts organisations also need to admit they don't know everything and learn to listen to marginalised voices: "I learn from people who are not me. I learn so much from black women, from people with different neurodiversity to my own, or different disabilities than my own, I learn from trans and non-binary people — people who experience marginalisation on a structural level, have so much experience and knowledge about the real and concealed ways in which our society works," he points out.

However, Elmoutawakil is also quick to note that including a single marginalised voice will not magically fix everything and that organisations need to be careful not to engage in tokenism. His Unlimited commission, Brownton Abbeycentres around queer disabled people of colour, and is one of several Unlimited commissions in 2018 that highlight the intersections of different identities and communities.

Elmoutawakil explains: "I'm tired of only seeing very limited examples of black and brown bodies, on stage and in audiences. Due to representation in media and wider culture, we are used to seeing white people as being able to have infinite possible identities, so much that white people are just "people", the standard on which the rest of their defining characteristics are built upon.

"In my experience, white people are often so used to being treated as individuals (when it comes to race) that even the notion of being grouped together as 'white people' is received as unfair or simplistic. Frequently the term 'white people' is so shocking, it is even branded as the sceptre of 'reverse racism'. Conversely, 'black and brown', 'BAME' or 'People of Colour' are routinely expected to adopt and get used to terms created by others to define ourselves. And mostly, that's as far as our characters get to deviate from the 'norm'.

"I'm tired of seeing very limited examples of black and brown bodies on stage and in audiences"

And Suddenly I disappear by Kaite OReillyRamesh Meyappan in Kaite O'Reilly's And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore/UK 'd' Monologues. Photo: Wesley Loh of Memphis West

"For black and brown people, especially disabled and/or queer black and brown people, it is very rare we can be our full, authentic selves without having to downplay or hide parts of ourselves. We have to be respectable, a fine example, and inspirational. And if we are not those positive branded identities, we are seen as the negative stereotypes, lazy, difficult to work with, aggressive. I'm challenging this by making a positive welcoming environment that anyone can come to (regardless of race, class, disability, sexuality), but one which centres, celebrates and elevates 'Otherness'. It's a model I'd like to see the rest of society adopt."

Several Unlimited 2018 commissions address intersectionality, and thus challenge stereotyping by asking people to look further than the disabled/non-disabled binary. This allows for more nuanced takes on identity. Another example is the commission of Jo Bannon, We Are F*ckedThe programme describes it as an exploration of the modern feminist experience — and does not mention disability.

And yet, Bannon explains: "To me the work is about disability. It's about death by 1,000 cuts, these small relentless comments by society that remind me of my otherness, that remind me of my body and physical appearance and can destabilise my sense of personhood. In the work it manifests choreographically through vibrating and shaking, as metaphorically these comments make me oscillate between myself and the idea someone has about me. There is something in this work for me about wanting to blur the boundary between the reactions I get as a woman or as a disabled person, because often I can't tell which is which."

It is Bannon's identity as a disabled woman that the work focuses on, and this in itself shakes up preconceptions around disability and gender.

Festivals like Unlimited give a platform to a multitude of disabled voices and identities, which allows the conversations around identity and stereotypes to evolve and become more nuanced. Disabled artists, like all disabled people, still face stereotyping, but they have also developed different strategies to counter this. However, there are still steps that arts organisations should take to support them in this endeavour, both in the UK and abroad. A good first step for any organisation is to involve disabled artists at an early stage in conversations about programming and marketing their work — and to be ready to listen.


Nina Mühlemann produces disability arts events in Switzerland and writes regularly for Disability Arts Online. She recently completed a PhD at King's College London exploring representation of disabled artists and the Unlimited initiatives.


Find out more:


> Get an overview of Unlimited 2018

> Watch a live stream of the Unlimited Symposium on 4–5 September

> Read Nina Mühlemann's blogs about disability and culture for Disability Arts Online

> Watch an interview with Kaite O'Reilly

> See Tarik Elmoutawakil's tips on how to avoid tokenism

> Follow the Unlimited 2018 series on our blog




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