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> > > A Message from Unlimited's Jo Verrent on UN's International Day of Disabled People

3 December is the United Nations' International Day of Disabled People. To mark the occasion, Senior Producer at Unlimited, Jo Verrent, writes about the state of play for disabled artists.

photo of Jessica Thom in blue superhero costume on a ride in a funfair

Jess Thom as Touretteshero. Photo © Sam Robinson

The International Day of Disabled People is a celebration of what disabled people have achieved – and rightly so. But there is much to be done before we can collectively pause and celebrate: disabled people the world over are faced with discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping. It is rife through all aspects of our society, including our arts and culture.

With Shape and Artsadmin, I deliver Unlimited, a programme that commissions disabled artists in England, Scotland and Wales to develop, produce and show ambitious, high quality work. Since Unlimited’s launch in 2013 we have awarded £935,832 to artists working in dance, theatre, performance, music, visual art and literature, and reached audiences of over 75,000 through 1,318 performances, installations, screenings and workshops. 

Artist Jess Thom received support from Unlimited for the creation of Tourettehero’s Backstage in Biscuitland which went on to receive four and five star reviews at Edinburgh Festival Fringe and tour the UK. Earlier this month Jess presented a version of the show for BBC4 and Battersea Arts Centre’s Live from Television Centre broadcast (read Colin Hambrook's interview with Jess Thom here). She says:

 “Support from Unlimited made me feel valued as a disabled artist. This wasn’t simply because they provided financial resources to help develop my ideas, but because I was nurtured by a community of disabled and non-disabled people in the process. This gave me the confidence to extend my creative expression. And at a time when hard-won equalities are under intense pressure, supporting disabled people’s visibility within cultural life feels particularly important. The beauty of Unlimited comes from the diversity, depth, and quality of what they’ve achieved – not only through the work they’ve commissioned, but also the conversations they’ve initiated, and doors that have been opened (or widened) as a result. I strongly believe that art has the power to bring about widespread social change; Unlimited is a great example of this process in motion.” 

We have achieved a huge amount in the past two years and are immensely proud of everything that's been delivered. Yet it isn’t enough, not by a long way.

Yes, disabled artists are breaking through but not in the numbers that are needed, not within leadership roles, not within programmes for rural area and small towns as well as bigger cities, not as headline acts rather than ones squeezed in on the fringe, not with the budgets, resources and support that many non-disabled artists command.

Change starts with us – in all sectors – making space for young disabled people to develop skills. We have supported 22 young people’s projects, 10 mentees and 22 venues, as well as running three traineeships to help establish the next generation of artists and producers.

Until we have disabled people present within each and every level of the cultural industries – as both artists and audiences - what is there to truly celebrate?

The arts sector hasn’t been cut within the spending review – and a huge hurrah for that. However, disabled people and those needing social care have already been hit up to 19 times harder by cuts than others. The playing field is still not even and it’s getting worse, not better.

So let’s use the International Day of Disabled People to commit to being part of the change. If we all make a conscious effort to change our behaviours and attitudes, at work and at play, we really will be able to make a difference across the world.

Imagine disabled artists at every festival, in every collection, within all commissions programmes. Imagine disabled audiences at every event and performance. Imagine disabled creatives on every selection panel, within the senior management teams of all venues and funding bodies. Now decide what you are going to do to play your part in making that a reality.