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Access and Disability: Small Changes for Great Creative Roles

Sarah Houbolt considers how we ensure that creative success for people with disability is not just a once-off rarity or token act of good will. It all starts with access and attitude...

Ten years ago I sat on the bathroom floor of my share-house, vomiting in the toilet after receiving a nonchalant response to my access requirements not being met in a well –funded, high profile Queensland youth arts project.  I became another statistic – another tick-box inclusion of a young performer with disability, disadvantaged and disregarded through a project that did not secure accessibility nor listen to my voice. The barriers to finding a pathway from participant to professional artist seemed insurmountable, but I kept going. In the same year, on the other side of the world, the idea of a new BBC TV mockumentary series, Cast Offs, was being born. Cast Offs changed the landscape for many performers with disability forever.

The six -part series placed actors with disability firmly centre-stage, with a script that reflects the lived experience of disability.  On its release, millions of viewers heard our voice. Subsequently, access to the arts rose considerably in the UK, with the Unlimited Festival commissions in 2012, quota systems in place and peer support for artists with disability reaching epic, global proportions. America was also making waves. A cultural shift occurred – people with disability became not just a variation of the human condition played out as sick, weak or hospitalised characters, but a recognised and powerful cultural identity depicted through a variety of roles.

In Australia and New Zealand, we have had very few recognised artists with disability on stage and screen, yet we have some very strong creatives contributing on this side of the world. Philip Patston (NZ) was a forerunner, starring in Shortland Street. Kate Hood (VIC) currently stars in Neighbours. A number of Australia Council for the Arts Artist with Disability grant recipients have made successful solo full length shows. In Queensland, there is a small handful of wonderful artists being supported by arts organisations at the moment. But what does it take for us to have a sustainable career in the arts and truly launch into a professional practice? How do we systemically ensure that creative success for people with disability is not just a once-off rarity or token act of good will? How do we generate more roles on stage and screen for our artists with disability?

It all starts with access and attitude. As an artist, it takes guts, persistence in the face of constant rejection (like any other artist), and the know-how to talk about access in the arts. It takes

  • arts venues and organisations to acknowledge the importance of disability action plans
  • awareness training
  • inserting access provisions within venue hire agreements and budget lines
  • actively programming and employing artists with disability
  • board members holding staff accountable for creating these mechanisms under the provision of good governance
  • tertiary institutions, producers, directors, agents, and fellow artists to get excited that accessibility is the key to innovation and engaging new forms and stories in the performing arts.

There is also much to be learned from the independent, grass roots and experimental arts scene, which has supported diverse artists for a very long time without recognition of this inclusion. And it takes celebrating those who have gone before us, so we don’t lose sight of the achievements of artists with disability in history.

Looking back over the last ten years, my pathway to professional practice has been laced with the highest wall of barriers and bad attitudes to break through. Everything from being cursed in a post-show email for bringing up access, to complete exclusion, to inflexibility in our wonderfully creative profession, and an absence of listening to solutions already present but not harnessed. I’ve seen it all. So have the roles for people with disability changed in the arts in Queensland? Yes, but there is still a lot of work to do. Best practice is seeing artist with disability on stage and screen with access secured rather than a backstage drama or blame game landing on the lap of the artist with disability. Best practice is having writers, producers, directors and CEOs with disability, authentic casting and the message that uniqueness is an asset. There are amazing things happening around the world, made possible by the influence of performers with disability, and it all starts with small access changes locally.

Sarah Houbolt author imageSarah Houbolt is a bold and daring, professional circus and physical theatre performer with a unique style and something to say. Born in Queensland and now based in Sydney, Sarah enjoys making new work that provokes thought, challenges perceptions and creates space to use her body to greatest capacity, both physically and conceptually. Sarah trained in aerials, acrobatics and hula hoops with Vulcana Women’s Circus.  From 2009 – 2014 she worked in New Zealand with companies such as The Dust Palace, Touch Compass Dance Co., and Tim Bray Productions, and also featured on TVNZ’s Shortland Street and Cirque du Soleil’s Worlds Away. In 2015 Sarah performed at Adelaide Fringe Festival, made and internationally premiered her one woman show Kookoo the Birdgirl, and was an artist on ANAT’s ‘Unfixed’ residency. In 2016, Sarah organised the 5th biennial national arts & disability conference, Arts Activated, at Carriageworks, and spoke at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney Opera House. Sarah is currently passionate about side show, and  KooKoo the Birdgirl is a new story of curiousity, based on the history of side show.

Image supplied by author - KooKoo hula hoopin in show