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Disability Equality in the Arts at ARC

January 2016

The brilliant thing about Cultural Shift happening at ARC is that we were all clear that it was to be an artistic project from the outset – about disabled artists creating new work, creating new opportunities for disabled people, and developing new partnerships. Placing the work in that context meant that the first impact the project made was on Artistic Policy, and we created a new Artistic Policy within the first six months of the project taking place. You can read the artistic policy here. It is not insignificant that this has been our approach. It means that we weren’t hampered by fears about access or language, we just got on with it and have been able to make some brilliantly inventive improvements to access, we’ve had open conversations and we’ve involved and included disabled people on our journey.

It’s tricky to get Disability Equality Training right. The aims are always the same: to change peoples’ perceptions of disability which have been based on a certain model of thinking around disability and to get them to engage with change in a positive way. I always say that to understand disabled peoples’ current status in society we first must look at both historical and cultural influences which have shaped how disability is viewed as a construct.

There is a lot of information to share but it’s important to get a balance between existing knowledge and practices, the space to ask questions, the context of the training, and interactive elements. The worst kind of equality training I have experienced is where people are talked at for three hours and made to feel that either they are personal oppressors or guilty for not knowing all this in the first place.

I have a long history of delivering disability equality training and adapting it to fit the situation. I’m delighted to say that I have now delivered Disability Equality Training to over 50 people at ARC, including Board members, Senior Executive Staff, Departmental Managers, Project Managers, and customer facing staff. We talk about ‘organisational buy-in’ but what we really mean is that everyone in the organisation, and in particular at a Governance level, is open to the changes which  learning about disability inequality brings.

To fully appreciate what is involved is to accept that equality cannot be an ‘add-on’ like old fashioned Equal Opportunities, it has to be embedded into the organisation at every level, but first it has to be understood.

That’s why getting the training right is so important. And inevitably everyone attending will have something different they want to get out of it, so it’s of great benefit to take time to get to know the organisation.

My training covered all the things you would expect to find in Disability Equality – statistics, definitions, different models of disability, disability in history, stereotypes, language and access, and then each department is asked to identify how what they have learned may impact on their role as a department, on individual staff members and as an organisation as a whole. It’s a brave thing to do really. Many organisations are fearful of ‘opening a can of worms’ which might expose them in some way, or cost them a lot of money. It’s not ever intended to embarrass people or organisations and there have to be clear rules about openness, honesty and confidentiality. No-one is expected to disclose anything about themselves or family members, nor any bad experiences they may have had, but the platform for discussion is created.

In Equality training sometimes people can get defensive or concerned that it’s political correctness, so it’s important to share that it’s about demonstrating a knowledge of equality for all people, and especially those who have historically been discriminated against and treated less fairly, that it’s about respecting disabled peoples experiences and voices, and accepting that there are ways of doing this identified by disabled people themselves over decades of a civil rights movement. It’s also about clarifying that in some parts of the country one in four people are disabled, and these are people in our communities and in our families, and as 70% of us become disabled as we age, ultimately it could be anyone of us. It makes sense, then, to want to create a fair and accessible world for those closest to us.

The training also covers the Disability Civil Rights Movement and the world of disabled artists, and puts the cultural connections to identity and representation in context, and also the value in embracing such vibrant cultural work the voices of classically unheard people. Innovative, experimental, high quality work has been created in the fringes by disabled people for over 30 years, and in recent years, larger scale and higher profile work has begun to be created by disabled artists, albeit still low in numbers. We also have to keep in mind our local and regional context, the area we know well and the communities we serve.

And so we journey on, the training was all delivered, people had time to process the workshop and we also needed to plan ahead so every department has had one or two follow up meetings, we have reviewed and contributed to ARC’s Equality and Diversity Plan 2016-2018, and now are developing our Cultural Shift Plan for Organisational Development 2016 -2018, with input and actions from and for everyone. It’s a really exciting time.