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> > > Art, Disability and Community Integration - a report by Matthew Edmonds
sculpture of a series of life-size figures in vivid colours in Museum of Modern Art's Sculpture Garden

'Figurengruppe' by Katharina Fritsch, sculpture in The Museum of Modern Art, Sculpture Garden, New York

With an award from the Winston Churchill Memorial Fellowship, writer, Matthew Edmonds undertook research, looking at the importance of integration and the need for accessible artistic forums. He posts his report on Dao.

I left for four cities across America and Canada to research best practice in September 2012. It was an interesting time to leave. London was still basking in the glow of the Paralympics, while many with disabilities were waking up to a new dawn of slashed benefits and lost opportunities.

This is a report of a phenomenal 6 weeks I spent visiting New York, Toronto, Seattle and Hawaii on behalf of The Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. It was a journey on which I met a vast array of inspirational people and projects and learned a great deal about the world, disability, integration and of course myself.

People from different communities have less chance to meet and enjoy each other's company and creativity than they did twenty years ago. As community and faith groups have declined in membership, socially we have become less diverse.

Today it is harder for people to find themselves amongst individuals whose circumstances they hardly know. What this has meant for the disability community is a peculiar isolation. A gap has developed between its self-understanding and the knowledge those outside the community have of it.

In the last few decades the disability community has achieved so much. It has redressed many civil rights injustices, and misplaced actions of the majority community, But there has been little space for the majority community to learn from the disability community, or for the two communities to pursue shared interests, chiefly because of a lack of accessible forums of common ground.

For artists, from both communities, a lack of fully accessible spaces for exhibiting or developing practice has seen opportunities for cross-fertilisation of ideas stunted. This might all sound a bit theoretical, but according to a 2010 survey by the charity Scope nine out of ten British people without a disability have never invited a disabled person into their home. The same report found that just two out of ten British people who identify with a disability have non-disabled friends. For those of us who support the importance of integration, for whatever reason, these statistics seem far from utopian.  

So where to begin? How might you 'do' this kind of integration? And are people actually interested in doing it? How could it not be patronising? 

The thought that art and culture might provide an interesting opportunity for people from diverse backgrounds to engage with each other's work, as well as each other, is one this report seeks to discuss. In the world of artistic practice, difference is vital and exciting, new interpretations and perspectives are conducive to new work.

The British project Magic Me brings together people engaged in art from different generations to learn together, and more importantly from each other. But there are few projects like this providing the requisite access for people with and without disabilities to engage with or create art in the same space. 

This research comes from a trip to North America in 2012 to find best practice, from huge public art institutions to tiny creative projects. Rather than drilling down into my specific area of experience of artistic work with people with non-normative developmental and intellectual conditions, I wanted to learn lessons widely, and visit projects working with individuals from the Disability community, the Deaf community and those with mental health issues intersecting the ideas of art, access and integration.

It was an interesting time to leave the country. London was still basking in the glow of the Paralympics, while many with disabilities were waking up to a new dawn of slashed benefits and lost opportunities. 

I'm hugely grateful to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and Disability Arts Online for providing forums for the work to be explored and published.