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What's up with Disability Arts

A middle-aged white man looks at the viewer while reading a book.

What is a disabled artist? Colin Hambrook asks some questions about disability and the role of Disability Arts.

Why is it so embarrassing, difficult, compromising, etc. etc. to talk about being a disabled person? Why do we do all kinds of mental and emotional gymnastics to avoid the issue? You get fed up with having to explain that you grew up in the belly of a demon; that it's something you live with, that affects who you are in profound ways. You get tired of people asking What's wrong with you? and other classic comments along the lines of It's not that bad is it? or You're over it now aren't you? It's that strange compulsion people have, to feel they have a right to own your disability, as soon as it comes out into the open. And it's hard not to internalise the sense that disability means that you're not okay - and maybe you're going to suddenly grow fangs or wings or both. I never met a doctor who didn't want to fob me off. But then I've never surmounted my fear of doctors enough to feel safe talking to them.

I have only ever met one person who grew up with a schizophrenic parent, who subsequently has lived with a periodic, ongoing psychosis, in the aftermath. When the demon takes over, it is hard to know where the boundary between oneself and the fear, lies. For that reason I've always felt uncomfortable with the idea that disability is something to be celebrated. Perhaps there are positive things about schizophrenia from a creative point of view. And I'm very glad that the Disability Arts Movement has been there as a receptacle. But the approach, to my mind, of Disability Arts organisations, has often seemed glib.

Nowadays Disability Arts organisations talk about the drive to make partnerships and get Disability Arts into mainstream spaces. But how do we overcome the embarrassment, when it comes back at us, of a mainstream media that doesn't want to handle those aspects of being a crip that perhaps even crips don't want to face? Peter Street talks about those things in his poetry. He was recently commissioned by Turnpike Gallery, in Leigh, to respond in poetry, to a retrospective of paintings by the internationally acclaimed painter, Tony Bevan. In a review in The Guardian Robert Clark talks about the paintings in the context of a brave tradition and Art History. Street's poems, in contrast, are dismissed as stressing an embarrassing air of unease. The review quotes the poem, weirdly out of context of the disabled person, in a hospital bed, stripped and vulnerable, trying to reconcile being robbed of dignity. It's a bit like a Ricky Gervais character from the recent comedy series Extras. They shuffle their toes, before blurting out inane comments, as soon as they come near a disabled person.

Here is the poem, printed in full, with Peter Street's permission.


Spinal Ward B remember
I am the one who got you into
Astral Projection
And we ghosted out of the ward
To the nearest chip shop
And brought back new spinal cords
For everyone
Yes me the one who took the piss

Out of that neck prop
And do you still look up
When they are washing your bollocks
And go all red… I bet you do