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> > > Edinburgh Festival: 'iF Not Now When?'

Forest Fringe at the Drill Hall played host on 25 August to a day of lively and vibrant discussion: 'iF Not Now When?' produced by Stopgap and hosted by Jo Verrent, Senior Producer of Unlimited. Colin Hambrook reflects on some thoughts from the day's proceedings

photo of Jess Thoms with a big smile, wearing a pink jersey

Jess Thoms, disabled artist and brilliant spokeswoman for disability rights. Image © Jonathan Birch

Do we need labels? - a discussion about how, when and why we identify ourselves as ‘disabled’ is one that has been going around for decades and in no way looks likely to go away.

Those of us, long enough in the tooth to have been part of the first wave of disability arts in the 90s will know that we’ve been banging the same old drum for a long time: it’s not about the labels, it’s about the attitudes towards who we can and can’t be; what we can and can’t do, that creates barriers to full and equal participation in society.

Perhaps for the new generation of disabled artists the term has other connotations that us oldies haven’t taken on board? Although a few younger artists are present within the Edinburgh Fringe we’ve still a long way to go in attracting those under 35 years to the discussion about the relevance or not of disability arts.

Earlier this year at the Awkward Bastards conference in Birmingham James Leadbitter spoke vehemently: “I’d rather call myself a ‘retard’ than a ‘disabled artist’. We fought hard for the Disability Discrimination Act, but we now find ourselves going backwards in terms of the way that the message about challenging barriers is being used against us by the government and the press. 

The perception of disabled people as scroungers and a burden on society needs challenging more than ever. Jess Thoms aka Touretteshero spoke eloquently about her mission to change attitudes. Disability isn’t a label, it’s a part of who we are as human beings. Being disabled isn’t a given or even a solid state of being. Disability is a construct that we move in and out of depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in: we turn to our left and the barriers are gone, then, with a turn to the right there is a step, a disabling attitude and we are back to square one. 

Several of the artists present talked about wanting their art to be seen for its own intrinsic value, rather than perceived within a given framework. Disability and impairment are only ever one aspect of what we present to the world.

So the question arose: does marketing work in a disability context put an audience off? For Jess Thoms it doesn’t matter if it puts some people off; we still have a responsibility to being open about being deaf and disabled people. We need to keep on challenging. We have to keep on saying it. Not doing so means a compromise. It’s about challenging ‘normal’ rather than playing the game and pretending to be ‘normal’. After all disability is an issue that concerns everyone and a state that everyone will enter at some point in their lives.

For me personally the encouraging thing about the discussions taking place now is that the kinds of people who weren’t there ten years ago; the programmers, the producers, the curators; are coming into the room, because they see there is vibrancy and a validity to the work. 

It was refreshing to hear Ant Roberts from Colchester Arts Centre speaking passionately about standing up against the bullshit. He produced Pete Edwards show FAT, a few years ago and found first hand the barriers put in front of him bringing a disabled performer to Edinburgh; coping with having the venue changed at the last minute; accommodation for Edwards with a P.A. being hard to find etc. As one audience member stated there is a need to get across just how difficult life is when you’re persistently having to broker access issues.

Edinburgh Festival was built on an ethos that it is a place where anyone can get an opportunity to perform, rather than it being about programming for perceptions about who venues think their audiences are or what they think their audiences want to see.

That in itself has clearly broken down some of the challenges, although still, out of thousands of shows being presented, only a tiny percentage are produced with access in mind; for artists or audiences.