Artists with disability create work that is aesthetically and technically brilliant, that present unique perspectives and that challenge perceptions. So how can Australia’s arts community elevate more unique voices? Musician, writer and disability advocate Eliza Hull has a few ideas.
Research from the Australia Council for the Arts has found creative participation among people with disability is growing. But artists with disability are also 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.
To carve out a career as a musician is challenging for anyone. But for people with disabilities, ambition is often no match for inaccessibility.
“Our society sees disability as a negative, a deficit, something we should fix or get rid of completely, “Eliza says. “For a long time, I believed that narrative. The world does not want me to be disabled. Without role models the world can feel very isolating and inaccessible.”
Eliza is a contemporary musician, audio producer and writer who describes her music as “emotive, dramatic and thought provoking, and a mix of indie folk with electronic soundscapes”. Eliza’s compositions have featured on television programs and her music played around the world. In 2021 she was the recipient of the Arts Access Australia National Leadership Award at the 2021 National Arts and Disability Awards.
Eliza has a physical disability called Charcot Marie Tooth. “Today I’m proudly disabled and it hasn’t always been that way,” she says.
“When I was five, I started falling over all the time and I remember feeling confused about the many conversations and hospital visits. I remember wanting it to go away and be fixed. As a young person I was always trying to mask my disability. I would wear black pants to school to hide the splints and oversized shoes I had to wear to fit my splints.”
Singing became an avenue of escape and validation, and by 15 Eliza was writing her own songs.
“I remember, as a teenager, watching the ARIA awards and my favourite band ran up a flight of stairs to accept their award. I thought: ‘I can’t do that. I can’t get up on that stage without a ramp’. That message was very powerful.”
Sharing the message through many media
Eliza is now using several artistic media to change this message.
As the editor of We’ve Got This, for instance, she brought to life a collection of stories from 25 parents with disabilities from around Australia. “There was no book out there for parents with disabilities – even though more than 15% of children have at least one parent who is disabled. I wanted a resource for disabled parents – so I created it.”
Come Over to My House, a collaboration between Eliza and bestselling children’s author Sally Rippin, is set for publication in September. The book shows “families that are like everyone else but where disability in the home is what makes that home interesting, positive and unique.”
Eliza is also working on a new album, her fifth but the first to reflect on her experience of disability, which includes collaborations with disabled dance artist Roya the Destroya.
With support from the Australia Council’s International Engagement Fund, in 2022 Eliza represented Australia at South by South West, a series of parallel festivals – film, interactive media and music – held in Texas each March.
Eliza performed in SXSW’s first-ever disability showcase with Lachi, a blind singer, activist and founder of Recording Artists and Music Professionals with Disabilities, and Ruth Lyon, a singer, disability advocate and wheelchair user.
“It felt so powerful to have three disabled women perform together,” Eliza says.
“Growing up, I never saw myself as a leader. But now, as a member of the disability community, I see great leaders can really listen, be vulnerable, amplify others and make change as a collective.”
What does change look like?
The Arts Access Australia National Leadership Award came with $10,000 investment which she used to attend a leadership training program, run by Visibility Co. Eliza says it changed the way she looks at leadership. She is now using her voice to champion accessibility and inclusion.
There are many ways to enhance accessibility in the arts that require commitment rather than big budgets. “If you make a video clip – or any video for that matter – ensure it is captioned for deaf or hard-of-hearing audiences. Use Auslan interpreters at live performances. Ensure images are accompanied with image descriptions. Make websites accessible by giving people the option to change text colour or size and offer warnings for people with sensory issues,” Eliza notes.
One of the most powerful changes any venue manager can make is to install ramps. “A chairlift up to a stage is not good enough as it doesn’t provide access for everyone. I lose my balance really easily, so I can’t use a chairlift. Ramps are equitable and ensures everyone can roll, move or walk up on stage together.”
“Twenty per cent of Australia’s population has a disability. But it’s only been in the last five years that I’ve felt safe to acknowledge that I am disabled.
“I think now is the time to shift our attitudes, ingrain accessibility and inclusion into everything we do, build true representation and enable future artists and voices to share their important messages. Because diversity is what makes our world beautiful.”
Nominations for the National Arts and Disability Awards are open until 3pm AEST Tuesday 4 July. Find out more.