Looking at art websites & wondering, not for the first time, what a residency for disabled artists would look like & how much support it would need?
Of course a lot depends on the disability in question, some may be much easier to accommodate than others.
Personally, I’m almost entirely excluded from residencies because of my ME/CFS. I’ve never even applied for one because I can’t guarantee that I’ll be well enough and I hate to let people down. But I also don’t apply because arts organisations often demonstrate such poor disability provision.
There’s so much more to access than ‘but we’ve got a ramp & a disabled loo’.
Even when an organisation or space is physically accessible, there’s rarely any obvious understanding of the support a disabled artist might need to participate in something like a residency.
For example, I often see residencies held so far away that just getting there would exhaust me or with such unrealistic timelines that I’d be unable to make work without instantly having my illness flare badly.
Obviously not all art opportunities can be accessible; that’s impossible and I don’t expect it. I accept that there are things I can’t personally manage. I’m not going to be hiking up a glacier to make art any time soon but I wouldn’t want to remove that sort of exciting opportunity from other artists. This isn’t sour grapes.
However, I would like to see evidence that art organisations at least understand the issue. Yet I so rarely do. It pisses me off how many arts organisations apparently have no clue just how much they’re excluding disabled artists.
Disabled artists are not particularly rare. Disabled people as a whole constitute at least 15% of the population and I know many working artists who have an illness or a disability, sometimes this is apparent but often it’s an invisible condition. But if you looked at the way the art world is structured, you’d think we were some kind of mythical sparkly unicorn.
If you’re from an art organisation and you’re bristling because you feel you already do disability access well, you need to show us. It could be that there’s ‘best practice’ happening everywhere around me but if is, I can assure you that it’s very hidden. And if I can’t see that it’s there, my previous experiences are going to lead me to assume that it’s basically not.
You need to demonstrate that you’ve thought through access issues.
When you’re coming up with opportunities ask yourself how accessible they really are. Is there somewhere that a disabled artist can rest if they need to? Have you budgeted for an assistant or interpreter if they are required? Are you offering assistance with installation? Does your schedule presume the artist has good health and lots of energy? What could you put in place to make an opportunity more accessible?
Ask yourself what a disabled artist might need – better still, ask us what we need!
Put disability issues front and centre. Don’t assume that disabled artists can somehow intuit that they’re welcome. Put policies in place to ensure that they are and then reference them on your website and in your publicity. And that means more than sticking ‘disabled artists welcome’ in tiny writing somewhere down the bottom.
Normalise disability. In particular, please stop putting disabled artists in the uncomfortable position of having to bring up their own needs. It’s dispiriting to always be the person who has to bring stuff up; it feels awkward and embarrassing and can really add to the sense of exclusion that disabled people often feel. Instead ask ALL the artists that you work with if they have any specific access needs.
Look, I’ve been disabled for more than 20 years, with a condition that’s slowly getting worse. I used to be able to hide it much better than I can now. At one point, I quietly rejected the term ‘disabled artist’ as it always seemed to mean ‘go and sit in this ghetto that we don’t take seriously’. I didn’t want to be the ticked box on anyone’s Arts Council form.
But as my health has worsened, my ability to both access and be visible in the art world has correspondingly decreased and I now recognise that the art world needs to get much better at dealing with disability.
I’ve done my part by continuing to make my work despite my restrictions and taking responsibility for my health by being increasingly upfront and clear about my needs. But I need the British art establishment to get off their arses and start visibly meeting that commitment on equal terms.
I’m not an expert in all this, just a disabled artist who feels very excluded by the art world. If you’re interested in learning more about disability within the arts, check out the following UK organisations. Other areas of the world will hopefully have their own organisations.
ETA: I’m not the only artist who feels like way, check out this article by Stacey Guthrie, which makes similar points.