What can I say? What should I say? For a fair play symposium, I have to say that the treatment of myself and fellow artists with disabilities was pretty… unfair.
In February, Diversity Arts Australia along with Creative Victoria hosted a Fair Play Symposium in Melbourne. This event launched Creative Victoria’s ‘Fair Play’ program’, which offers two years of equity and inclusive training to 20 creative organisations in Victoria. You can read more about the program here.
Thanks to Regional Arts Victoria and Murray Arts, I was offered a promo ticket to attend the symposium. As a regional emerging theatre maker, performer and teaching artist who is totally blind, I grab any opportunity that comes my way which will benefit my arts practice and allow me to network with others in the industry. So I was keen to get ideas, and hoped to be able to have input into the discussions – sharing from my own, rare experience. As an attendee with a disability it was made clear early on that too many people didn’t consider our so-called minority group a priority. If you are involved with the arts in some way – be that a practicing artist, someone who works in marketing or a person who works front of house at a theatre – please, please stay with me to have a read and a ponder, because it’s you I am writing to. You need to read this.
The first shock I received was whilst planning to attend the symposium, I learnt that provisions had not been made for potential attendees with blindness or low vision. A professional audio description (AD) service provider had been in contact with Diversity Arts Australia before I even knew I would be in attendance, to ask whether or not they would set aside a budget for AD and a sighted guide around the venue, as another blind artist had expressed interest in the symposium. DVA said they would not do this, but could offer a friend/sighted companion a free ticket. Thankfully, after I wrote to them explaining that locating food, bathrooms and generally avoiding getting lost, as well as being made aware of any visual displays in presentations is just as important as captioning and Auslan interpretation, they agreed to cover the cost of this service. Thanks to the representative from DVA who made this happen. However, this situation should not have occurred in the first place, and it is more common than you might think. I shouldn’t expect a “friend” to give up two days of their week so they can describe an event for free. Furthermore, refusing to pay trained professionals – who also need to make a living and who are qualified to know what sort of information and assistance I will require – is inconceivable. We need to live in a world where these provisions are standard practice, or at the very least, when the service is requested it should not be questioned. Just make it happen! I’m the person who lives with the disability, so stop making assumptions about what accommodations I do and don’t need because I – the person with lived experience – am far better qualified to make that call. While I am an experienced independent traveller, had I not had someone to guide me around the rather large venue with multiple levels, I might have been in a panic every time I needed to locate a bathroom, find the catered food or move to sessions in various rooms throughout the venue. In a crowded space, especially when it is a crowd of unfamiliar people in an unfamiliar environment, I can’t easily get somebody’s attention when I require assistance. There were also occasions during talks when visual displays such as power points were utilised, and without somebody to describe these I may have missed vital information. With all this in mind, and considering one third of the symposium was supposed to focus on the inclusion of people with disabilities, access for blind participants should have been implemented immediately after it was requested.
I was mortified to hear remarks such as “We just can’t employ people with disabilities or make our work accessible for them. It just isn’t a priority for us and we don’t have the resources.” Okay… Why were you at the fair play symposium then? If you don’t want to discuss strategies for making your work diverse and accessible, don’t come to an event that is designed for just that purpose. Someone else could have had your ticket who actually wants to make us a priority. Also, I enjoy art both as an audience member but also as a practicing artist. Are you saying that you don’t care for my work or the skills I could bring to your organisation? Are you saying you don’t think I would be interested to come and look at your work? Sorry to shock you but you are actually quite wrong. I love supporting art created by other people but unfortunately, I am often prevented from doing so because no effort is made to ensure it is accessible.
The last two sessions on the last day were related to intersectionality. Quick definition: Intersectionality relates to the interconnecting nature of social categories such as race, gender and disability. So, it’s about recognising that we must make provisions to ensure all of these groups are included in society, but also recognising that some people might fit into multiple categories. For example, an Indigenous Australian who uses a wheelchair would fit into the category of someone with a racial difference as well as a person with a disability. As I listened to these talks, I couldn’t help reflect on the irony: I didn’t feel that Diversity Arts Australia demonstrated intersectionality well at all during the symposium. At the end of each day participants were segregated into separate debrief sessions where we could reflect on events of the day. People with disabilities went off together, people with culturally diverse backgrounds gathered as a group and so on and so on. At no point were we able to come together and share those reflections. One of the speakers made an observation: “Looking around at this audience I’d say we have the interested people in the room; we need to get the disinterested in here.” To be honest, I don’t think the disinterested would have had their eyes opened by attending this symposium, because there was no time where we could all debrief together. Sure, we should be allowed some time to connect with those from our own minority group, but the constant segregation demonstrated the very opposite of equity and inclusion. It also meant that those who fit into more than one of these categories had to make a choice about which group they would connect with. Perhaps the event organisers might like to revisit the definition of “intersectionality” and how to put this into practice.
Still along the lines of intersectionality: I was astounded when I heard that the organisations who are selected for the ‘Fair Play’ project only receive training for one of the categories in question. Meaning that if a company decides they would like training in making their art more inclusive for people with linguistic and culturally diverse backgrounds, they cannot receive training in disability access. How is that encouraging equity and inclusive art? And it certainly isn’t demonstrating that “intersectionality” thing they are apparently so passionate about.
I also couldn’t help noticing that during the breaks, aside from the few people I met in disability debriefs and attendees who were acquainted with my audio describers, NOBODY came to talk to me. If I was a non-disabled white Australian at that event, and I saw someone with a different cultural background; someone in a wheelchair; someone with a guide dog… I would take the opportunity to walk up to them and say “Hi, I work at a theatre/art gallery/ library etc, can we talk about your access requirements and whether there’s anything my organisation can do to ensure our venue and works are fully accessible?” Come on folks! Make some new friends and meet some new colleagues whilst enjoying your cup of coffee. Use your initiative. We don’t bite and I assure you, my condition is not contagious: you won’t catch blindness by talking to me; my guide dog won’t eat you. COME. AND. TALK. TO. US!
In conclusion, I am an emerging artist with a disability. I hoped the ‘Fair Play Symposium’ would be a place where I could network with others whilst sharing and learning strategies to utilise when advocating for equity and inclusion in the arts. I was not satisfied when those with lived experience of the chosen minority groups were segregated and unable to share our reflections with those participating who needed to hear them. The organisers should not have assumed that people with certain disabilities either wouldn’t come or wouldn’t require the services they requested. Nor did they consider the fatigue brought on by these events and the extra concentration and energy used by those who are disabled and chronically ill. Some were unable to even participate in the debrief sessions and some could barely focus if they were present. Diversity Arts Australia and Creative Victoria should have consulted further with Arts Access Victoria during the planning process. I think this symposium proved that it’s time for arts organisations and artists to re-think their approach to equity, inclusion and diversity. Where is the equity and inclusion in diversity?
For further recommendations regarding accessibility specifically related to blindness and low vision, please read this article written by blind critic Olivia Muscat following a community engagement workshop run by Description Victoria.