Beyond access, beyond society

By Kath Duncan

I’m an adopted Victorian waking up in Perth. It’s a steamy morning in Perth and I’m on a mission. I’m researching people like myself – artists and performers who are disabled and Deaf: where we are across Australia, what we want, and what’s stopping us from reaching our goals. I’ve been tracking this project for nearly 2 years, and we have one year left to complete our findings.

It started when Veronica Pardo approached Eddie Paterson, to collaborate on a pilot project about how Deaf and disabled performing artists work together, how we create what we call inclusive space, where people with different impairments and access requirements can work together on a creative level playing field. This project resulted in five videos called Beyond Access, which you can view online: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7-6pUKIb_wH2hBsHNEkno6P4d_PItlz9.

Beyond Access was the beginning of something new, exploring how the inclusion strategies we employ as Deaf and disabled performing artists can also transform mainstream practices. We’re talking about the aesthetics of access, where the sort of assistive technologies we use – like captioning and audio description, and employing Auslan interpreters, like making a relaxed audience atmosphere for people with neurological and other sensory issues – can revolutionise what we think of as theatre, music, and all the performing arts.

My project, ‘Disability and the Performing Arts in Australia: Beyond the Social Model’ (https://www.artsaccess.com.au/the-last-avant-garde-research/) builds on this work but we have much ground to cover.

The reality is, most of us performing artists are under- or unemployed, and not through lack of talent or drive. The reality is that disabled peoples’ arts engagement is dependent on being able to access classes, groups and schools, venues etc, and it’s not just about physical access alone, it’s also about the attitudes of people running these classes and universities.

My own trajectory echoes the same tracks as other Deaf and disabled performing artists – a train continually stopping, forced to divert, find other tracks and try to gain speed before getting stopped again.

I started drama classes when I was six as my parents were told it would make their double congenital amputee daughter more confident. It did. What they didn’t know was that I would not just see this experience as therapy; that I would see it as a life path that I couldn’t resist.

But, as an 18 year old, while I could get into performance classes, I kept being moved to the back of the room because I was told I was distracting the other students with my unconventional movements.

Eventually I ended up outside, moving into radio and film-making. The frustrated performer in me did not get another airing until I was in my late 40s, with the creation of our queer disabled and Deaf spoken word cabaret troupe, Quippings. There I finally found my belonging place, one where I was good enough, my skills were welcomed, and where we could set to developing each other, as nobody else was particularly interested.

You can see these problematic attitudes when the stories and lives of Deaf and disabled people are considered fascinating characters but not performers. Or in fact, pretty much any characters in films whatsoever. It’s the chance for an Oscar for everyone except a Deaf and disabled performer. Even when we make the entire project from scratch ourselves any success is fleeting, as Daniel Monks found with his own film Pulse (2017), with no career opportunities here in Australia after the film, forcing a move to LA to have any chance of being an employed actor.

This is why I wake up in Perth – we are travelling around Australia holding inclusive workshops for Deaf and disabled performers in most capital cities. We have now been to Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart and Alice Springs, and workshopped with 80 artists across those sites, we’ve employed 11 expert disabled and Deaf arts leaders and theatre makers to facilitate the workshops, and right now, communicated with around 300 people and 30 companies and disability arts organisations.

What artists are telling us is that their training and career development opportunities are slim, and that most of us are making them happen ourselves, which gets exhausting and frustrating over time. The more experienced artists complain that they are forever relegated to being Special, and that their place will always be with other Special people, although they are hungering to take their work further, to collaborate with non disabled performers, and to be taken seriously by their chosen industries. What we’re seeing is  brilliant, determined and pioneering artists making work that nobody else is making, or could make.

I wake up in Perth, to a day when Caroline Bowditch (the Victorian disabled dancer/choreographer and current Exec Director of Arts Access Victoria) is having her work, The Nature of Why, premiere in Australia at the Perth International Arts Festival. Caroline also left Australia for the UK, as she wanted to develop her profession where there were actual opportunities for her to do so. We will visit her rehearsals today, and tomorrow start the workshops. I am forever hopeful that we can change the world, or even just our own lives, here in Australia.

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Kath Duncan is research associate and chairperson with the Australian Research Council, the University of Melbourne and Arts Access Victoria research project, Disability and the Performing Arts in Australia: Beyond the Social Model.

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