Disability Arts in the North East – A Living Archive
A tribute to all the disabled artists and groups who have made up the Disability Arts Movement past and present
Geof was one of the founders of the disability arts movement in the UK. Sadly, he passed away in 2020. He wrote this article for the Heritage Edition of Mimosa Magazine in 2009 reflecting on his journey and that of the movement.
Geof Armstrong had been involved in disability arts since the beginning.
An important voice throughout the movement, Geof worked in London, with many others to develop the first organised disability arts cabarets and projects. Profiling, for the first time, very many of the established disabled artists we know today. He was involved in setting up London, Northern and National disability arts forums, becoming director of the latter for over 16 years. As the movement grew, Geof became involved in a more strategic way by campaigning hard to influence national policy and practice.
The National Disability Arts Forum closed in 2008 and Geof founded Disability Cultural Projects which continued to deliver national e-newsletter, etcetera.
A statement from Geof
Each of us takes our own journey towards understanding the world around us and how we fit or don’t fit in. On my journey, I learned the big ideas, those that have driven so much of the equality agenda we have today, by working with people who were kind enough and stubborn enough to stick with me, until they finally sunk in. Feminism, racism, socialism, and the social model of disability all passed along, like a magical whisper to which I was invited to add my own perspective.
In the late 70s, a bunch of ‘crips’ who happened to be in the same place at the same time, chose for their perspective, the arts. Radicalized by the women’s movement, captivated by civil rights, emasculated and infantilized by the medical model, for us the time was ripe to mix it up and use the arts to express the social model.
This was an era of chaos. Thatcher, the Falklands War, the minus strike riots, Billy Bragg, UB 40, Gay Sweatshop, the poll tax and much more. There was nothing else we could do other than raise our voices and join the chorus of outrage that was sweeping the nation.
And so, powered by idealism and driven by optimists the disability arts movement emerged. The early days were both romantic and rebellious. There were love affairs, power struggles, huge success and bitter disappointment, tabs, booze, and furious late night debates at disability cabaret clubs with evocative names such as The Ghetto, The Workhouse and Bedlam, all to the soundtrack of Johnny Crescendo’s “Choices and Rights” song, and a backdrop of charmless bits of wheelchair pounded flat by Tony Heaton. into an angry map of the UK.
From this smoky cradle, and alongside the Disability Rights Movement, we used creativity to challenge segregation, to challenge charity, to challenge the authority that flowed from the medical model we were angry, and if it moved, we challenged it.
The North East was no exception to the disability culture shock that rippled across England. As with the rest of the country, many of the region’s arts managers funders and organizations were concerned that we would fail, or would ignore the wider the disabled community, and resisted the notion of self-determination.
However, the obvious achievements of disability arts elsewhere, the popularity of local groups such as The Lawnmowers, with our ability to draw disabled people into venues, a degree of visionary thinking at Northern Arts, and some persuasive talking, secured the funding for a regional conference and eventually the launch of the Northern Disability arts forum, now Arcadea.
The rest is, as they say, history or is it?
In the very recent past [time of writing was 2009], Disability Arts became Disability and Deaf Arts, further strengthening and broadening the sector and adding an exciting new dimension. Our artists’ work is now more sophisticated and retrospective with local visual artists such as Eddie Hardy, sean burn and Neil Tinning. Alongside Grin and Bear It Theatre Company, elevating and expanding our ideas of who we are and what we can do.
Yet, amazingly, there are still those within the arts establishment who refuse to listen to or trust us, or in fact truly care if disabled and Deaf people are empowered by or are even part of the arts. One can only imagine that this is because they don’t understand what we have achieved and are trying to do, assuming that all we want to need is to be mainstreamed, not imagining that we have our own voice to refine and our own culture to contribute.
Having unrestrained access to culture is acknowledged as a human right, being able to participate in or attend what’s on next week at the Sage Gateshead, the Baltic or the Theatre Royal is an aspect of that right, which we must not forget. However, access is not cultural diversity, nor is it cultural equality. These are bigger ideals, both of which are now the next part of my journey as a disabled artists towards understanding how I fit or don’t fit in with the world around me.