Please note: Some of the content on this page was published prior to the launch of Creative Australia and references the Australia Council. Read more.

Arts and Disability: A Research Summary

Dec 03, 2018

Definition of disability

The Australia Council uses the social model of disability, which distinguishes between impairment of the person, and the barriers in society that are disabling. These can include attitudes, discrimination, or the physical environment.

This definition includes mental health. However, not all people who experience a mental health condition identify with disability.

The term ‘disability’ can also include people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. However, members of the Deaf community may not always identify with disability, and may identify as part of a cultural and linguistic group with their first language being Auslan (Australian Sign Language) or another sign language.

Read more about the Australia Council’s activities and commitments related to disability in the arts

The Australia Council believes that art is for everyone, regardless of where we live, our age, background, social, economic or personal circumstances. People with disability have the right to enjoy, benefit from and contribute to the arts and cultural life of Australia.

Click here for more information.

Engagement with the arts among Australians with disability

More Australians with disability are now engaging with the arts – both creating and attending.

Connecting Australians1 found:

  • Arts attendance is increasingly accessible. Respondents to the 2016 National Arts Participation Survey with disability were as likely to attend the arts as respondents who did not identify as having disability.
  • Among respondents with disability, arts attendance increased 12 percentage points between 2013 and 2016, from 61% to 73%, following a stable trend between 2009 and 2013.
  • In 2016 there were increases in attendance for dance and theatre.
  • Respondents with disability are now more likely to attend dance, visual arts and literature events than respondents who do not identify as having disability.
  • Respondents with disability are more likely to attend festivals (51%) than those who do not identify as having disability (44%). This is the case across most types of festivals including music, visual arts and craft, theatre and dance, First Nations festivals and literature festivals.
  • Respondents with disability also engaged with the arts online at the same rate as respondents without disability (81%).


Arts attendance for people with disability by art form, 2009-2016 (%)

  • While creative participation has remained steady among the Australian population, it has increased among people with disability – from 35% of respondents with disability in 2009 to 49% in 2013, and to 61% in 2016.
  • Respondents with disability are now more likely to create art (61%) than survey respondents without disability (44%). This is the case for visual arts and craft, dance, theatre and creative writing.


Creative participation for people with/without disability by art form, 2016 (%)

  • Respondents with disability are now more likely to acknowledge positive impacts of the arts (89%) than those who do not identify as having disability (85%). While there was increased recognition of the impacts of the arts among both groups compared to 2013, the change was greater among respondents with disability for most impacts. This is in line with the increases in attendance and participation among respondents with disability. Both groups now have similar levels of arts attendance, and more respondents with disability now creatively participate in the arts.
  • Research Overview: Arts and Disability in Australia (PDF, 2.5MB)4 identified barriers to arts attendance and participation for people with disability, noting that barriers are worse in regional and rural communities. These may include a lack of accessible and affordable transport, accessible information about the arts, and digital access.
  • Ticket price was identified as a barrier by 67% of regional respondents to the National Arts and Disability Strategy evaluation 2013–15. This is particularly important for audiences with disability, as some will also need to purchase a ticket for an attendant or carer. Providing free tickets for attendants or carers is a way to reduce the financial barrier of arts attendance for people with disability. 4
  • Age and disability may compound barriers to arts access. Disability is more common in older adults, as is social isolation. Further, 56% of Australians with disability over 65 have low incomes, which may prevent them from accessing the benefits of social inclusion from the arts. 4
  • According to the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS), 23% of First Nations people with disability participate in First Nations arts compared with 31% of First Nations people with no disability.5

Work created by artists with disability

Artists with disability are vital contributors to Australia’s arts and culture. They create work that offers excellence and artistry, as well as unique perspectives and lived experiences that challenge and redefine aesthetics.

  • Creating Pathways2 found that the unique perspectives and experiences of artists with disability present avenues for new artistic possibilities. This art can be transformative for the art form and for the audience.
  • Peers involved in the assessment of Australia Council grants have highlighted both the stimulation and challenge of grappling with artistry in areas of practice that are developing new forms, and where vocabularies do not yet exist to explain and fully understand the artistry involved.2
  • Some artists with disability are at the forefront of technological change. Some work with virtual reality and augmented reality in new and expansive ways. Others are working with rapidly evolving assistive technologies – such as eye gaze tracking, motion tracking, speech recognition and facial expression switches – in ways that transform their own and other practices, expand the application of these technologies, and explore technological disruption more broadly. 2

Access, aesthetics, innovation – Take Up Thy Bed and Walk

Gaelle Mellis’s work Take Up Thy Bed and Walk is credited as Australia’s first performance work incorporating ‘aesthetic access’. It embedded the performer’s physicality and communication styles – and those of potential audiences – at the centre of the creative process. The work integrated audio description, captioning, sign language and interactivity uniquely into the core of the work.

What I confirmed for myself and many others, is that aesthetic access can be used in ways that add layer, texture, meaning and richness to a work. Art, at its simplest, is primarily about communication. Aesthetic access, at its simplest, is a form of communication that communicates to everyone.

Gaelle Mellis

Artists Jo Dunbar, Michelle Ryan, Kyra Kimtpon and Emma J Hawkins, in Take Up Thy Bed and Walk by Gaelle Mellis, presented by Vitalstatistix Theatre Company. Credit: Heath Britton

Professional arts practice

Artists with disability are under-represented, earn less than their counterparts without disability, experience unemployment at higher rates, and are more likely to identify a lack of access to funding as a barrier to their professional development.

  • There were 4.3 million Australians with disability in 2015, or 18% of the population.4
  • According to analysis of ABS data, 9% of the 569,400 people in creative and cultural occupations in Australia have disability.4
  • Making Art Work3 also found that around 9% of practising professional artists identify with disability. This varies across art forms:


Artists with disability and artists with no disability by art form, 2017 (%)

  • There are significantly more female artists (57%) identifying with disability than male (43%).3
  • Artists with disability are more likely to live in rural areas (17%) than artists without disability (8%).3
  • Some artists see their disability in positive terms, as a stimulus to new avenues of creativity and as a challenge to the form and content of the ideas they want to express. For others, coping with disability is a difficult aspect of their lives. The majority of artists with disability (89%) say that disability affects their creative practice at least some of the time:3


Effects of disability on creative practice (%)

  • Artists with disability earn on average 42% less than their counterparts without disability. A lack of financial return is the most important factor limiting professional development for all artists, with and without disability. However, the second most common reason given by artists with disability was ‘disability/injury or sickness’.3
  • While artists with disability applied for financial assistance at the same rates as artists without disability between 2010 and 2015, they were more likely to identify a lack of access to funding as a barrier to their professional development.3
  • Unemployment is a more common experience for artists with disability. One third of artists with disability experienced unemployment between 2010 and 2014 compared to one quarter of artists without disability.3
  • The 2016 National Inquiry into Employment Discrimination against Australians with disability and older Australians found widespread, ongoing and systemic discrimination in employment. 2 The findings point to additional layers of complexity and limitations in protection from discrimination for people with disability who are self-employed or freelance. This impacts artists with disability, as practising professional artists predominantly undertake their creative work on a freelance or self-employed basis.3
  • Income support and other government policy measures can impact the range of options available to artists with disability. Access to essential disability support is a factor for artists when considering choices and options for work.3
  • Intersecting identities for artists with disability may compound the barriers they face:
    • First Nations people experience disability as a significantly higher rate than the wider population.
    • Migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds and refugees may face additional stigma and disadvantage.
    • People born overseas are less likely to access support services.2
  • Actors with disability face specific barriers in casting. While actors without disability will often be cast to play characters with disability, the reverse is not often true.4 Diverse actors (including those with disability) are not cast due to lack of recognition, but are then excluded from gaining the audience recognition they need to be seen as good investments, reinforcing a damaging cycle.4

Audience engagement with the work of artists with disability

There is growing opportunity for artists with disability to reach broad audiences, but challenges remain.

  • Connecting Australians1 shows that art has the power to connect audiences with experiences different from their own. It indicates that Australian audiences have an appetite for diverse perspectives, and potential to build audiences for art by artists with disability.
  • Creating Pathways2 highlighted a public discourse pointing to increasing audience appetite for work from diverse perspectives; and an increasing willingness from programmers and presenters in major platforms and venues to prioritise and program work by diverse artists, including artists with disability.
  • In 2016, Screen Australia found that casting more actors with disability is driving new audiences.4
  • However challenges remain for artists with disability in reaching broad audiences, including attitudes, accessibility and financial barriers.2 Community expectations may be barriers to audience development for art by people with disability.4
Julia Hales performing in You Know We Belong Together, Perth Festival. Credit: Toni Wilkinson/Perth Festival

Insights on support for artists with disability

The support needs of artists with disability are complex and diverse. Research points to the importance of disability-led practice, visible success stories and role models, and equitable access to compete fairly for opportunities and support.

  • Creating Pathways found that it is crucial for artists with disability to have ownership and agency over their work. 2
  • Applications to the Australia Council’s Arts and Disability funding initiative that demonstrated the self-determination and voice of the artist with disability were highly regarded by peers assessing them. 2
  • Arts and disability stakeholders identified an ethical imperative for artists with disability to be in control of their own art, particularly where they have intellectual disability and complex support needs. 2
  • Creating Pathways highlights the importance of visible success stories, role models and mentors, and this recurs throughout literature on arts and disability. Role models and mentors provide inspiration for their peers and demonstrate the capability for leadership for other artists with disability. 2
  • Relationships and networks are also crucial for artists with disability to maintain sustainable work.4
  • The evaluation of the Australia Council’s Arts and Disability funding initiative noted that the elements most valued by artists with disability were: the ability to budget for access requirements; peer assessors who understand the experience of disability; and accessibility features including the ability to submit applications in multiple formats.2
  • Other research has highlighted the importance for arts governance to be accessible, particularly in making physical meeting spaces accessible and in arts workers undertaking disability awareness training. Governance processes can often be ineffective or even ‘hostile’ for artists with disability.i

Catherine Grant, ‘Participating in arts- and cultural-sector governance in Australia: Experiences and views of people with disability,’ Arts & Health 6 (2014): 81. Referenced in Research Overview: Arts and Disability in Australia, Meeting of Cultural Ministers 2018.

The National Arts and Disability Strategy

The National Arts and Disability Strategy is an agreement between the Australian, state and territory governments to work together to improve the opportunities and choices for people with disability to engage with and participate in the arts.

The Meeting of Cultural Ministers (MCM) has agreed to renew the National Arts and Disability Strategy for 2019.

Click here for more information.