Number 10 in our countdown of '70 Ways Art Improves Our Health' highlights the role of art in disability rights…

Over the past 30 years, there has been a substantial change in the way that disability is perceived. But according to January’s Arts Council report, Making a Shift, people with disabilities are still under-represented within the arts and cultural sector in all role types and levels.

The struggle to improve attitudes towards disability and achieve equality for people with disabilities has been a long and difficult one. We are most familiar with legal changes, like the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995. But art, as in the LGBTQ and women’s rights movements, has played a key role.

Art is the language that moves us forward...

Tom di Maria, Creative Growth

The social model of disability first emerged in the 1970s. It introduced the idea that disability is created by society. If you’re unfamiliar with the different models of disability, this online artwork by Ju Gosling could be enlightening.

This idea that disability was created by social oppression rather than by a person’s impairments was revolutionary at the time and spurred the Disability Rights Movement. Disability Arts was born from this movement and continues today. It began with a group of disabled people, and their allies, who used art to break down barriers.

Creative Growth Art Center in California was the world’s first centre dedicated to offering artists with disabilities the space and tools to utilise their talents. Since 1974, the centre has served hundreds of artists with disabilities who were excluded from arts education. The studio provides the means for them to grow into professional artists, some of whom have since been invited to the Venice Biennale, had works acquired by MoMA, and are in high demand around the world.

In the UK another pioneering organisation was Shape Arts, founded by dancer Gina Levete in 1976. Shape aimed to introduce creative opportunities for those in the community who had no opportunity to participate in or contribute to the country’s culture. Shape formed a network of individual artists, establishing groups and environments for people who were isolated through illness, disability or social disadvantage.

Key artists involved in the Disability Arts Movement in the UK include: Tony Heaton, Tanya Raabe, Caroline Cardus, and Mat Fraser - to name just a few. Some of their work can be seen in the new National Disability Arts Collection & Archive (NDACA) - a £1-million project that brings together the history of disability arts. The NDACA website is currently the only place to see their catalogue of 3,500 images, and also offers some fantastic learning resources. Alongside the website, NDACA will be opening research facilities at Buckinghamshire New University later this year.

The last remaining avant-garde movement

Yinka Shonibare, speaking about disability arts

Many saw the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act as the culmination of the Disability Arts Movement. Today, artists like Yinka Shonibare (MBE RA) are part of the mainstream. He says: “…although people do talk about my disability, the way that I work is in fact not very different from how most artists work now.” But as the recent Arts Council figures show, there is still much further to go in terms of ensuring equal opportunities and access for all.

In 2016 Shape Arts and Arts Admin receive funding to produce Unlimited International, a programme that will tour the work of disabled artists around the world. Unlimited is a programme that aims to change perceptions, supporting ground-breaking work by outstanding disabled artists working in theatre, dance, music, literature, performance, painting, sculpture, photography, digital, installations, films and more.

You can find out more at the Unlimited festival, celebrating the artistic vision and originality of disabled artists, at the Southbank Centre from 05-09 September 2018.

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