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Creating awareness around arts and disability

Oct 29, 2013

As part of the process of writing the next three year Disability Action Plan, the Australia Council for the Arts ran three internal panel discussions around Leadership, Accessibility and Arts Practice with leading artists and arts administrators within the sector. These discussions were designed to assist the Council in measuring performance, gathering ideas and also raising staff awareness.

Physical, intellectual and attitudinal access were identified and considered especially relevant as more and more peers are invited into the building to do assessments. Morwenna Collett, the Australia Council’s Disability Coordinator who facilitated the panel sessions, highlighted the fact that the new Disability Action Plan is coinciding with a significant period of change in the Council, with the redesign of funding structures, processes and the review of the building.

Access Champions, who are a group of staff advocates within Council, are vital to the development and implementation of the Disability Action Plan. They represent all sections of Council and approximately 20% of total staff. Joanne Simpson, Program Officer for Literature and an Access Champion, would like to see genuine change, including more people with disability on assessment panels and employed within Council.

Emma Bennison, musician and CEO of Arts Access Australia, and Gaelle Mellis, theatre designer and Creative  at Access2Arts, stressed the urgent need in Australia for arts organisations to appoint qualified people with disability to leadership positions. They believe there are skilled people with disability ready to take up board and senior positions but they often face structural barriers and discrimination. The task now is to identify and address these injustices. There is also a need for capacity building programs to increase competence and create future leaders. Both speakers described the pressures and isolation they face due to lack of peers in the sector. They suggested exchange programs with international peers with disability as an invaluable step towards alleviating this isolation and building leadership skills amongst people with disability in the arts in Australia.

Speaking on the panel about Accessibility, Alex Jones from AI Media  described how disheartening it is for a person with disability to find they cannot enjoy the full benefits of an event because there is no captioning, audio description or other access needs have not been met. Bruce Maguire from Vision Australia told Council that arts organisations should engage a person-centered approach when considering access. He insists that good market research and audience development has to happen in consultation and collaboration with people who have access needs. Panelists also emphasised the importance of focused marketing of Disability and Deaf Art to both people with disability and wider audiences.

All four speakers on the Arts Practice panel spoke of the need for a person-centered approach, flexibility, the importance of leaders, mentors, role models with disability and long-term investment in community and capacity building. Michelle Ryan of Restless Dance  described this trajectory and how they start working with young people at community level, commenting that those artists go into the youth ensemble where they begin to learn to work as a team. They are invited to become facilitators and go on to lead their own workshops. She emphasised that it is  important that young people have a mentor with disability that they can identify with. Otherwise it is as though they are being preached to.

Some panelists also emphasised that it is essential that the intersecting and compounding dynamics of discrimination experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability is understood and represented by the new DAP. This is in line with Council’s recognition that opportunities to participate in and enjoy the arts for people with disability may also be affected by issues relating to cultural diversity, youth, Aboriginality and living in regional or remote communities.

Affirmative action was mentioned many times during the discussions. Kristian Pellissier, Access Champion and Program Officer for Dance, comments, ‘Employment, leadership and access to grants have all been topics of recent discussion around the Disability Action Plan and will inform the finished product.’  However, Emma Bennison points out that affirmative action must be about ‘inclusion not tokenism.’

Bruce Maguire expressed the ‘ need to create environments where people with disability are not regarded as atypical’.  Authentic voices of people with disability in the arts and media are essential to exploring new form and the diversity of human experience, and to changing the culture of disability in Australia. The Australia Council is taking a huge step in this direction. With vision, it may be that in three years time the Council will be at the point suggested by Frank Panucci, A/Executive Director of Arts Funding, where artists with disability will be mentors based on their skills, working with artists with and without disability.

It is an exciting time in relation to disability at the Australia Council and as Gaelle Mellis said, ‘The energy around this is nothing like I’ve ever seen.’

Gaele Sobott  is Associate Director and Artists with Disability Co-ordinator, Sweatshop Western Sydney