Are we in danger of a “can’t-do” attitude for disabled artists?

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This is a post I am syndicating to both my theatre blog and the web page of Devoted and Disgruntled. For theatre blog regulars who don’t know what this is, Devoted and Disgruntled is a series of theatre networking events which broadly works as a free-for-all discussion forum where anyone can lead a discussion and anyone can go to any discussion they like. They do occasional forums across the country on an open theme, but there’s lots of these in London on specific themes. Last week there was one on artists with autism and learning disabilities at the Vault Festival. I was coincidentally in London for the Vault Festival that week, and I have an interest in this. Those of you who know me will already know why I have an interest. Those who don’t … well, you will know shortly.

It was an interesting afternoon, and the main lesson learned was how complicated this issue is. So many issues were interlinked to other issues about theatre in general. There’s plenty of other topics on the D&D site that’ll interesting reading; for now, I can say that the most surprising observation was that – even though the attendees were all supportive of inclusivity in theatre – there was little support for quotas. Anyway, enough of that. I need to got on with my particular topic, which was to ask if there’s a danger of creating a “can’t do” attitude. Confused? Let me explain.

In order to talk about this, I need to talk about talk about something that happen to me not so long ago. This comes with a content warning: if you are senior manager at the Passport Office, this may trigger you to erupt in a rage and reach for the phone to set your lawyers on me. (“How dare an ex-employee speak about how he was treated. We do diversity training!”) But although I don’t like using this blog to settle scores, on this occasion it is relevant to the matter in question.

So, just to take a break from my auto-rant, I have a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. I don’t make a big deal of it because I do not want any special treatment – that was virtually the first thing I decided when I found out about this five years ago. I have no idea whether this has helped or hindered me in theatre. On the one hand, I don’t have the best networking skills, and I’m not good at registering when people are happy or pissed off. On the other hand, I can push myself with writing and directing long after most people give up, and I’m pretty good and constructing intricate plots and sub-plots in my head and keep track of it. In short it means I’m good at some things and shit at others, same as everyone else. Obviously some people are in a different situation to me, but I have never considered myself disadvantaged by this condition. If anything, the only thing I think might be disadvantaging me is living in Durham when north-east arts is very heavily centred on Newcastle, but that’s another story.

My condition also never disadvantaged me in work or education, with one exception: my six years at the Passport Office. [Warning: auto-rant resuming.] There were a lot of problems there, but things came to a head in ten hellish months between July 2010 and April 2011 when I found myself facing capability charges (which I believe were trumped up as payback for me correctly predicting their cherished ID cards scheme would be binned). Amongst them was my inability to understand complicated instructions given over the phone (never put in writing), and difficulty minuting complicated meetings even though I was in an IT job. I personally think that’s a bad idea for anybody, but I discovered that it affected me particularly badly because I had undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome, which my parents had known all along but chose not to tell me.

Now, the sensible solution would have been to move me back to my previous job, which was more IT-based, never a problem, and this solution was backed by medical professionals, my union reps and the managers of my old job who were anxious to get be back. The Powers that Be dug their heels in. The excuse they eventually gave to refuse to allow me to move back was that it’s the company’s position that if someone does not have a full diagnosis of a medical condition, you can’t move them to another job until they have a full diagnosis that says they can do the job. By this point, I’d already decided to take voluntary redundancy because I didn’t like the way the Passport Office was going in general and I didn’t want to work for people who pissed me about like that, but I was still nonetheless shocked that a public sector body would handle disability discrimination cases on the basis that a people with disabilities should be assumed to be not capable of a job until medical evidence proves they are. And that is what I mean by a “can’t do” attitude to disabilities.

So how does this “can’t do” attitude relate to theatre? I have no reasons to believe this is going on in theatre – certainly not by the 50-or-so people who come to this event. What happened to me back then was the doing of people who had no intention of helping me. But I wonder if there’s a possibility that this same “can’t do” attitude may be inadvertently adopted by people with the best of intentions.

Here’s the problem: I don’t need help in theatre – at least, no more help than a person with no disabilities. Obviously there are other people who do need extra help: I’ve seen the challenges of people further along the autistic spectrum and I’m under no illusions. There are a lot of schemes in place to help people with disabilities, and a lot of kudos for companies who take part in this. It does a lot for your reputation to be seen to be helping people with disadvantages in life that aren’t their fault, and disabilities is no exception. But not everybody with a disability needs help. Or if they do, it’s not necessarily the help you think they need.

My worry is that, such is the push in theatre to help people with disabilities, we may end up assuming everyone needs help, whether or not they asked for it. I worry that in the haste to be seen to do the right thing, we may end up assuming, because of a disability, that people can’t do things which in reality they can do perfectly well. Could we end us refusing to give responsibilities to people with learning disabilities because we’ve assumed they won’t be up to it before we’ve given them our support?

So, how did the discussion go? Well, as with many of the discussions, it raised more questions than answers. Needless to say, no-one thought we should adopt the “can’t-do” attitude, but this is something that’s easy to say in principle, and not necessarily easy to do in practice. The most dangerous assumptions we make are the ones we don’t think about. If anything, the discussions highlighted the extent of the challenge. I suggested that it’s harder to know what people can and can’t do with a learning disability than an obvious physical disability like using a wheelchair – but it was pointed out, quite rightly, that even a wheelchair isn’t straightforward. An individual wheelchair user might be able to manage steps, or even be able to act out stage without the chair for short periods. As with many of the issues discussed that afternoon, it seems this is a problem that’s easy to identify, but hard to find an answer to.

So feel free to continue the discussion on either page if you wish. I’ve no idea what to do about this, but perhaps someone else has a better idea. But the message I hope to put across is that I, and many people like me, don’t want money, or pity, or quotas. We simply want to be included.

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