Enough with the grand gestures. I want real change.

COMMENT: The highly-publicised practice of giving grants and opportunities to artists with disabilities is good for a few but does little for the many. If you’re serious about helping, you’re going to have to do some hard and thankless work.

Apologies for the long essay here. As they say, I’ve written a long letter because I don’t have the time for a short one.

It’s quite common for acts of hypocrisy or censorship to push me to boiling point, but this is the first time I’ve been prompted to speak out by good intentions. I might be imagining it, but I could swear that in the last few months most of the local theatres have gone into overdrive announcing all the ways they are supporting artists with disabilities. It is not clear whether this was something planning in its own right or it’s a side-effect to theatre’s reaction to the George Floyd murder (presumably by accompanying opportunities for black artists with opportunities with other minorities), but they’ve really gone to town advertising what they’re doing. It varies from theatre to theatre, but it’s a predominantly a mixture of partnerships with disability advocacy organisations and opportunities for artists with disabilities – either in conjunction with partner organisations or schemes in their own right.

Teal Deer sign
Warning! Very long post ahead! (Skip to Summary)

So why should I have a problem with this? In principle I should be delighted that disabilities are being taken seriously, especially mental disabilities. We have been making progress on obvious areas such as wheelchair access for decades, but it’s really only in the last 10-20 years that society has started getting to grips with access for people who think differently. Disability discrimination is quite different from other forms of decision in one respect: whilst you generally need some pretty unpleasant views about someone’s race, sexuality or gender to discriminate on those grounds, disability discrimination can simply come down to thoughtlessness. Something as basic as failure to respect communication preferences can be huge problems for some people, an the fact this is finally being recognised is a good thing.

The problem is a lot of people are way ahead on being seen to be fighting disability discrimination than doing actual fighting. I’m afraid I’ve seen little evidence of any theatre making progress where it counts: identifying where the barriers are and removing them. The unfortunate truth is that the hard work needed for real change is an unglamorous job that requires a lot of trial and error, which offers few opportunities to advertise the good you’ve done. The one recurring problem I observe with the arts is that they will always pick a simple and easy solution over difficult and complex reforms. As a result, superficial changes take precedence over any real attempt to solve the root problems – and this culture of grand gestures is a prime example.

For purposes of this post, I’m going to stick to the subject of disability. I suspect this problem applies across the board for diversity, and I will mention other areas when relevant. However, I do not expect everybody to understand all the complexities of being inclusive to people on the autistic spectrum, so I’m not going to pretend I know all the problems and solutions for everyone else. Any off-message minorities who wish to put their own take on this is welcome to do so.

So, let’s begin why this is such a gripe for me:

Why I hate grand gestures so much

If you’ve been reading this and wondering if I’m having a go at you, I have some good news: my hatred of grand gestures originates outside the arts, so rest assured this has nothing to do with you. Unless, of course, you are from the Passport Office and/or the Civil Service Disability Team monitoring my posts. I know you do. I know you hate criticism whilst pretending you haven’t seen it. I used to work for you, remember. A big hello to you guys.

(And if you want to stick to the subject of disability discrimination in the arts, you may as well skip to the next section now.)

Fun fact: before I learnt of the disability, I was on the Passport Office’s diversity committee. Credit where it’s due, I learned loads whilst all on their committee, but the one permanent embarrassment was HR’s publicity on diversity to the wider workforce. It invariably started with a list of words you must not use in the office because it’s offensive to minorities, and every time I had to listen to complaints from members of said minorities who said they are not offended by these words – and, if anything, they were more offended over someone unilaterally deciding this on their behalf. I did my job and fed up the chain that this didn’t appear to be going down well, and this was promptly disregarded. Apparently, it was more important to be seen to be taking action, whether or the action was asked for or wanted.*

* See also: Twitter’s absurd list of offensive words in programming, such as “sanity check”. I use that phrase all the time and have never found it offensive nor has anybody I know, and the fact that Twitter thinks they’re rushing to our rescue is condascending in the extreme.

Now, I’m aware that some people are convinced there’s a greater good to this and it’s all about changing attitudes and creating a more inclusive and tolerant workplace. But guess what? This didn’t stop the Passport Office hounding me out of the civil service. One would have thought in a workplace conditioned this mindset, they would know that you do not make stupid judgements about someone’s character based on things that don’t matter, and you definitely do not double down with assumptions on capability to do a job after a diagnosis that explains what the problem is and how to fix it. But no, it’s still accepted as normal behaviour. And not a few bad apples either, but institutionalised with the entire power structure backing them up on demand. So that’s why I call bullshit on any workplace’s “don’t use that word use this word” lists .

The next grand gesture of theirs is one specific to disabilities – and by far the most damaging. As anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of the Equality Act will know, workplaces have an obligation to cater for workers with disabilities if at all possible. For people who are not neurotypical, it can take a bit of effort to understand what’s needed. But if effort is too much for you and you’d rather be seen to be helping, you can unilaterally impose a list of adjustments, don’t bother asking if it does any good, and stonewall any protests to the contrary. This carries the added bonus that if/when it fails to do any good, you can blame the employee for not taking up your “reasonable” “adjustments”. Is this sort of behaviour really justified for a big public sector employer? Of course it is – they pay their HR departments a lot of money to justify this practice.

The final one that rankles the most is the Civil Service’s level of self-congratulatory behaviour. The Civil Service’s media jam-packs all sorts of diversity conferences with numerous partner organisations, but it’s pretty clear that they consider all the worthy rhetoric they sign up to is as best optional, if my treatment is anything to go by. I don’t want to throw stones at the partner organisations whose campaigns are generally good, but they’re not completely blameless. Praising the organisations who come to your seminars alienates people who’ve been wronged in the past, especially those who have alerted you to what they’re really like. The best defence I’ve heard for this practice is that they think they make more difference by always being positive, but if don’t call out bad employers, who does? Without sticks to accompany the carrots, I’m afraid this mutual back-patting is part of the problem.

I could go on, but I want to stick to the subject of grand gestures as there are parallels to theatre. If you want the full blow-by-blow account, you can read it here. I also won’t waste your time with the blow-by-blow account this had on me personally, which you can read here – the only bit I will repeat is that as my lowest point I was feeling indifferent as to whether I got hit by a car on the way to work because they’d leave me alone for a fit, which I’ve since learned is one of the big red flags for being a suicide risk. I’m sorry I have to share that with you, but I have to give some context on why I get so angry about grand gestures with little substance behind them.

But this is a theatre blog. How does the grand gesture culture work there?

The problem with grand gestures in theatre

The thing I will say straight off is that theatre does a lot more right than it does wrong. I’ve have been fortunate enough to spend most of my time in schools, universities and workplaces where eccentricities are accepted and valued – it was my six years in the civil service that taught me that hard way how damaging it is to be somewhere that’s intolerant anyone who’s a bit different. The one thing you cannot accuse the arts of is being intolerant to people who are a bit different.

Where I believe the arts is weak is fighting indirect discrimination. I’ll leave it up to Google to explain the difference between direct and indirect discrimination, but disability discrimination is is particularly prone to the latter. As an illustrative example: sticking a sign at your theatre entrance saying “No disabled people allowed” is direct discrimination. Putting a couple of steps immediately inside the entrance is indirect discrimination. That’s a big over-simplification, not least because this covers only one kind of disability – eliminating every possible kind of indirect discrimination is staggeringly complicated. But a good start is to ask people what indirect discrimination they are facing, and good follow-up is to do what you can to remove it. It’s fine to offer extra support to disabled artists, but that must not come as a substitute for taking away the barriers that necessitates this support in the first place.

Unfortunately, the reality is that most of the time this extra support does come as a substitute. The fundamental problem is that arts organisations are desperate to be seen to be open and inclusive, and the things they can do to demonstrate this are often just superficial. I suppose the good intention behind this is that if you’re seen to be welcoming to everybody, then artists who feel excluded will be more likely to come forwards. Perhaps they believe that the only barrier they face is not enough people like them being in the arts. If so, that is a very naive belief – the barriers run deeper than that, and without proactive moves to dismantle this there will be no real change.

Meaningful help varies a lot from organisation to organisation. From the point of view of an artist with Asperger’s, the groups that specifically deal with Asperger’s are really on the ball, and those who deal with mental health as a whole are also generally clued up. Groups generically advocating for artists with disabilities are a bit more of a mixed bag – but theatres as a whole, along with groups pushing for diversity in the arts in general, are seriously losing their way. They are eager to made grand gestures to show how committed they are to disability inclusion, but I’ve seen little evidence it does what’s needed, and even less evidence they’ve asked anyone if this was what they wanted.

I’ve already written about the barriers I think I personally face, which you can read about here, but that is very specific to me and others in a similar situation. The culture of grand gestures, however, affects everybody. In reverse order, here are the reasons why I think theatres, and the art world in general, is missing the mark:

7) Neurodiverse people welcome – in the audience

One gripe against the civil service I didn’t mention were there “inspirational” stories showing how there’s room for workers with autism – in the post-room (and definitely not in any position of responsibility). That is one of the few things I’ve seen for change the better and now neurodiverse senior mangers are valued too. Only the ones whose faces fit, mind. I presume that if your face doesn’t fit, it’s still open season on the mentals.

The parallel mistake made in the arts is to assume that being neurodiverse means a neurodiverse audience. A lot of effort is made to ask prospective audience members what can be done to make theatres more welcoming to them – this, I assume, is where the sensory backpacks for autistic children come from. If only there was the same interest asking people within the arts what’s a barrier to them. One can but dream.

The comparison to the post room is not entirely fair – the arts are much better at opportunities for people with disabilities than the civil service ever will be. Those, however, have their own problems. I will return to them later.

6) The words “representation” and “community”

This is a minor issue, but I really don’t like the choice of words. It is quite right that everybody should have a fair chance to make it in the arts, and ideally the people who make it should be an even cross-section of society as a whole. But the problem with the word “representation” is it implies the few artists with disabilities who have a platform in the arts is that they are the designated representatives of people with disabilities, everybody else is just like them, and they get to speak on behalf of the rest of us. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I never had a vote for who my representatives are. I’m open to suggestions for better words – I suggest “inclusion” is worth a try.

Also have a gripe with “the disability community”. What the hell does that mean? “The black community” or “the LGBT community” just about makes sense, but are all the disabled supposed to band together and hang around with the other disableds? Are those of us who just want to carry living normal lives not worth engaging with?

Now, I realise this is semantics, and people will probably tell me that I’m taking this too literally and the real meaning is something else. But the problem it that, in my experience, one you use words with literal meanings, there are always people who will use the literal definition when it suits them. I do not want to be treated like my experiences don’t matter if my so-called representatives are saying something else. I’ve been talked over enough times for that.

5) Generic training/support/advice

I don’t want to sound ungrateful here. I have occasionally made use of sessions only open to artists with disabilities, and they’re good. The problem with these is that there’s very little specific to disabilities. Instead, it’s generic information, such as how to go about writing, or finance a production, or get yourself programmed. (And, as far as I can tell, other minorities have similar generic advice on offer to them.)

Surely this elementary kind of support should be on offer to everybody? Why does this need to be tied into support for a minority? I can think of two explanations, neither of which make sense. The first is that minorities need to be brought up speed on the basics because cis white straight men with no disabilities know all of this already – I can categorically tell you this is not the case. The other is that minorities might not be disadvantaged on this particular issue, but they’re disadvantaged by society in general so this sort of training will offset the imbalance. But when it’s a service that should be available to everybody, all you’re really doing is withholding help from a different group.

“But why should I care about that?” some might say. “We have enough in our way, we deserve everything we’re offered.” Well, you can look at it that way if you like, but you must be aware this allows basic stuff that should be standard for everyone to be rebranded as “diversity” – and relieve people of the need to go any further. Especially funding bodies. Why bother with the difficult task of understanding what’s getting in the way of people with disabilities when you can just allocate some money to generic training and say job done? As I said, I have no issues with the organisations who do this training, but I fear it gets used as a convenient substitute for real reform.

4) Focus on offence to the exclusion of everything else

From here on, it’s dominated by parallels with the civil service’s grand gesture culture I have come to loathe. Nothing as bad as them, but still too much for comfort.

The fourth place, it’s a parallel to their favourite game of “Hey mentals and disableds, aren’t we nice, we’ve decided you’re offended by these words.” The arts world are a bit of an improvement here – when they speak up about offence, they do at least have a valid reason why. The most attention ever given to performers on the autistic spectrum was the fallout over the stupid idea of paying an autistic child with a puppet. As I’ve already talked about in depth before, I wasn’t offended, but I can see why a lot of other people were. (And, grief, what did they think was going to happen?) I do agree the offence here was genuine.

What I object to here is that half the people making a big song and dance about high-profile cases of offence never speak up the rest of the time. Tactless though All In A Row was, it does not prevent artists with autism getting involved in the arts. There are plenty of other hidden problems that do prevent us getting involved – but you very rarely hear anyone talk about that. When the issue has got everyone’s attention, it’s easy to express your solidarity to the world; but when the arts news moves on and the issue is forgotten, the barriers that were there before are still there. If you spoke out against All in a Row but also speak out against lack of provision the rest of the time, well done, my gripe is not against you. If joining in the dogpile was the first and last time you spoke up for us, you are part of the problem.

3) Assuming we want to “see ourselves”

Whilst the arts world’s eagerness to speak out against material considered offensive has some basis in reality, I’m not so sure that holds on the other side of the coin: the idea that the best thing you can do for us (or any minority) is let us “see ourselves”, if by “ourselves” you mean other people on the autistic spectrum, which they apparently do.

I loved Glitch at this year’s Vault Festival – Krystina Nellis’s play inspired by personal experience really resonated with me. I also loved Curious Incident and I don’t care if Mark Haddon wrote that with no research, it was spot on. But I still take exception to anyone who assumes I’m going to like a play just because it’s written by, stars, or is about someone with Asperger’s. What I enjoy is my business and no-one else’s.

And what exactly is the basis for this assuming that “seeing myself” is based on one characteristic? I have a lot of respect for Chris Packham and Greta Thurnberg’s achievements, but, nice people though they are, I don’t relate to them at all. I do sometimes relate to characters with character traits sometimes associated with autism, but it’s the character traits I relate to, not the disability. To pick an example, in Breaking the Code I related to Alan Turing’s naivety in the face of uncompassionate officialdom. When The Imitation Game decided to make Alan Turing more autistic-looking, I found it horribly horribly condescending.

There may be other people who don’t share my outlook and make watching someone with the same minority status as them their number one priority. That is fine. What is not fine is the widespread assumption that this is what we all want. I have seen no evidence that anybody has bothered to ask what we want to see on stage and screen, and definitely no evidence of interest in what we actually say about it.

2) For the few, not the many

This is the one that set me off. I need to be careful here. There are far too many people who use diversity as pretext / beating stick for some pre-existing agenda, and I don’t want to do that here. Nevertheless, I have a long-running gripe against the top-down culture of regional theatre, and I believe people with mental disabilities lose out more than most.

So, the thing that’s received the most fanfare this year is the opportunities pretty much every regional theatre is encouraging artists with disabilities to apply for. Now, I have my own personal reasons why I’ve chosen not to go down that route; however, that’s a personal choice and other people decide differently. I’m sure for a lucky few whose applications are successful, it can be a great help. But what about the rest of us? There seems to be a zero-sum fallacy at play here: artists with disabilities are disadvantaged in general, therefore if we give a leg-up to some of them it redresses the balance. But hearing that some other artists with disabilities got commissions/grants doesn’t remove the barriers you face. If theatres offered supports for selected disabled artists and made an effort to deal with the barriers that affect the rest of us, that would be better. But sadly I cannot think of any theatre company that does both.

To give credit where it’s due, the organisations who fund these opportunities do seem to realise a leg-up for the few isn’t enough, and actively encourage theatres to get their own houses in order. I have seen some of the material they give to theatres, and it’s good. However, it’s up to theatres to actually implement this, and I’ve seen little evidence this is happening. I really hope I can be proven wrong about this, but worst-case scenario is a repeat of the fallacy that opportunities available to a few does everybody a favour. There’s no getting round the fact that most people don’t get anything out of this – when it’s supposed to be about disability inclusion, it becomes another excuse to ignore the barriers facing the majority of disabled artists.

1) Whose voice is it anyway?

I’ve raised this question before, so apologies for raising this again – but so far, I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer (or indeed, any kind of answer). Quite simply: when they talk about putting disabled voices on centre stage, which particular voices are these?

To state the obvious yet again, we are not a monolith and we have a huge range of experiences and views. Picking anything on artistic merit is subjective enough as it is, but when the purpose is to a give voice to the voiceless there’s no getting round that fact that’s you’re choosing who gets a voice and who doesn’t. It would be nice to think that an effort has been made to ensure these voices are broadly representative of all people with disabilities, but it could just as easily be someone assuming what topics they want to talk about and what their opinions are. The most cynical scenario is that the people with the power to make these awards cherry-pick the applicants whose views validate the ones they already hold, and try to pass them off as representative of everybody else. (That is one of the reasons I dislike the word “representation” – it’s open to this sort of abuse.)

The other problem is the intrinsic assumption that artists with disabilities only want to write about what it’s like to be an artist with a disability. I don’t, and I can’t believe I’m alone here. The first thing I decided when I had an interim diagnosis is that I did not want to make this my defining characteristic – it is only as I’ve seen support of mental disabilities go so badly off track that I have to identify this way whether I like it or not. It’s still not what I’m inspired to write about, but it might surprise you to learn that problems I face such – as theatre’s informal networking culture being stacked against people like me – don’t magically disappear just because I make theatre about different topics.

I have many problems with the system of cultural gatekeeping that is set up (be it knowingly or inadvertently) in the arts world, but gatekeeping the voices of minorities is about the worst. I really hope I have the wrong end of the stick, but now and then I hear form people who feel marginalised, not for being a minority, but for being an off-message minority. If that’s not true, it’s up to the people in charge to say why.

What could change for the better

So, now that I’ve said what’s wrong with the current culture of supporting artists with disabilities, I’m now going to try to suggest something productive. I will start with ten things theatres could do better:

  1. Listen to us. Training and partnerships with external organisations can teach you a lot about access, but there is no substitute for listening to the people who you’re supposed to be helping. We’re the ones who find out the hard way whether or not it’s doing any good.
  2. Listen to all of us: You might be able to get favourable quotes from a few people. That’s not good enough – there may be many more of us who don’t feel that way. And definitely don’t rest on your laurels just because you’ve gone out of your way to support a lucky few hand-picked artists – of course they’re going to think it’s great, that doesn’t help the rest of us.
  3. Make it clear you’re listening: A common excuse used by organisations who don’t make an effort to remove barriers is “Nobody complained.” Chances the the real reason nobody complained is because they think it’s a waste of time and don’t bother. You have no problem shouting from the rooftops that there’s a few opportunities that artists with disabilities can apply for, so you can just as easily ask people to come forwards and tell you – good or bad – what it’s like trying to engage with you.
  4. Listen to the awkward squad: I get it. It’s a right pain in the arse that you’re proudly showing the world what you’re doing to be inclusive and the same few people keeping saying “Actually …” But they are your early warning system. We may be telling you the problems that everyone else is too polite to mention. (True, there are the professional complainers out there who will never be happy with what you do, and if you spot one of those you have my permission to take no notice.) The correct procedure is to listen to what we say. Assume good faith, keep an open mind, don’t talk over us and don’t try to re-interpret it into your own worldview. If, after you’ve heard us out, we haven’t talked you round, that’s fine. But definitely don’t dismiss a complaint out of hand just because we’re sounding negative.
  5. Sign up to good practice: The people who face barriers with your organisation are the people who count, but you don’t have to re-invent the wheel. There are organisations who have come with guides for what you can do to be a neurodiverse organisation; this one is particularly good. That doesn’t guarantee it’ll solve everyone’s problems, but it’ll give you a much better chance.
  6. Don’t treat us as a monolith: Yes, sensory backpacks are a help to some people with autism; no, it definitely doesn’t help to anyone in my position. I’m sure there are some on the spectrum who want to plays about people just like them, but a lot of us aren’t that bothered. “Fit to work” is pretty unpopular, but there are those of us who have different/bigger gripes. There is no one size fits all solution, so don’t act like there is.
  7. Be prepared for some tough choices: Listening is the easy bit. Doing something about it is harder. My own requests are quite modest – nothing harder than thinking about theatre’s informal networking culture – but there’s some harder decisions to make. The nightmare decision I have in mind is what do you do about people who have intermittent attacks of depression or anxiety who may stop working without warning. The status quo is to play it safe and not offer them any work, but entrusting someone with an important task that they may not deliver is a massive risk for any theatre. There again, I’m not sure it’s a bigger undertaking than providing wheelchair access to major buildings, and we achieved that. I don’t know, maybe there needs to be a similar push supported by government so that they get a fair chance to work.
  8. Come clean on how you pick successful applicants: More specifically, how much of this is down to what artists with disabilities have to say? Are we restricted to talk about our disabilities, or can we write about something else? Will our applications be binned if our views don’t coincide with yours? If it’s got nothing to do with what we have to say, how is it judged instead? There may well be some good answers to this, but we need to hear them. Until then, it feels like we have to jump through hoops to get support without evening knowing where these hoops are.
  9. Give fair consideration to artist who are making it without your help: Apologies, personal bugbear time, but you have to realise not everybody is willing to do this aforementioned jumping through invisible hoops. Some of us don’t wait for help that may never come, and instead do our things which may or may not come to anything. Unfortunately, there is a very strong culture in regional subsidised theatre of only reaching out to artists they already have a relationship with, meaning those who go it alone and make it get overlooked. That is not healthy at the best of times, but it’s really bad for artists with disabilities. Artists with disabilities who don’t like the terms they’re being offered must not be shut out because they strive to succeed on their own terms.
  10. Resist the temptation to chase good headlines: This is the hardest but also the most important. As I hope I’ve explained here, what looks good and what does good are two very different things. Unfortunately, it is entirely possible to do things that are seen to be helping artists with disabilities – earning praise for peers and support from funders – but do little or nothing to help the majority of people it’s supposed to benefit. The harsh truth is that asking people what they want and trying to deliver it is often an unglamorous and thankless job – but if you’re after the thanks, you’re fundamentally doing diversity wrong.

Now for a couple of suggestions for advocacy groups who work with theatres. If you don’t want to be used as cover for bad practice with all this mutual practice, here is what you need to do, over and above 1-10:

  1. Know when to take away the carrots and bring out the sticks: I understand it’s a lot more comfortable for everybody if advocacy groups working with arts organisations (or indeed any organisation) work with organisations eagerly embracing reform that name and shame those who don’t. Unfortunately, this is very easily abused. As I know from bitter experience, it makes them loo good, but there is no obligation for an organisation partnering with you do to practice what you’re preaching. There are times when “pretty please” doesn’t cut it. Have the courage to call out those who are using their association with you as a substitute for being diverse or inclusive.
  2. Listen to complaints: Most of all, if people come forward and complain about the way your partner organisations have treated them, take it seriously. Sorry if this spoils the party, but anyone who tells you stories of what they’re really like are your early warning of what might be happening under your nose. If you ignore and stonewall these complaints and carry on with the mutual pack-patting, then sorry, but you are part of the problem.

Those two suggestions also apply to some extent to funding bodies, but here’s a couple of more important things for funding bodies to do, especially the arts councils, on top of 1-12:

  1. Listen first, make proposals second: No-one can accuse Arts Council England of not consulting anybody – they run open consultations all the time. The problem is that by the time we get a chance to have our say, funding bodies appear to have already decided in principle what they’re going to do; what’s more, the proposals are so steeped in public body-speak (expect to lose count of the word “excellence”) it’s difficult to understand how this is going to affect us. The very first stage should be asking artists with disabilities what problems we may face, with as little prompting as possible. And if that’s what you’re already doing, make sure we know about this.
  2. Beware of metrics: I realise that funding bodies, especially the big ones, have to be seen to be fair, which is why there are a lots of measurable targets (such as visible initiatives to be inclusive and number of artists with disabilities involved) instead of anything subjective. However, I fear this is falling foul of Goodhart’s Law, which that the moment a measure become a target it becomes meaningless. Highly-publicised initiatives can be useless on the ground; meeting a quota can disguise the absence of support for all but a hand-picked few. I shall refrain from suggesting what to do instead, because I know any proposal will displease someone; but it might be a good start to ask ordinary people if they’re seeing any benefit, rather than look a sheet of figures and declare it a success.

Those were all suggestions for disability access in general. However, I’m going to make one specific request for Asperger’s, which you have absolutely no excuse not to do:

  1. Stop making stupid judgements over things that don’t matter: I’m not going to name names – you know who you are – but by far the thing that’s given me the most shit over the years is the apparently widely-accepted proactive of jumping to conclusions about someone’s character based on stupid things such as not making enough eye-contact, not quite confirming to confusing arbitrary social convention, or saying something that is open to wilful misinterpretation. And should you find yourself on the receiving end, they’re not in the wrong – it’s your fault for not expressing yourself properly and allowing yourself to be judged that way. No prizes for guessing who suffers the most for this. Now, one difficulty in not making judgements about anyone who’s autistic is not knowing who’s on the spectrum*, but there’s a simple remedy to that – don’t make any stupid judgements about anybody. It’s really not that hard.

*: Also, in my experience, no-one ever backs down with “oh, sorry I didn’t realise”. They always double down with the original stupid prejudices.

So there you go. If you have a problem with any of 1-14, I’m quite happy to enter into discussions. If you have a problem with 15, you are part of the problem. And fuck you. But let’s not dwell on that. Let’s assume you want to help. Well done on being seen to help. Now please think about what actually helps.

The TL;DR summary

The culture in theatre of supporting artists with disabilities, especially artists with mental disabilities, is deeply flawed. Most theatres appear to be more interested in showing off how supportive they are than thinking what good they actually do – but more often than not these grand gestures help only a few. The barriers that are in place for the rest of us remain in place. Some good advice comes from advocacy groups for disabilities in the arts, but so far there is little sign of this feeding through to theatres where it matters.

If theatres are serious about making a difference for the better, they have to accept there is no easy solution, and most of the donkey work required has little or no PR value to the theatre. But there’s no getting round the fact that the only long-term solution to the barriers disabled artists faces is to remove them. In order to remove them, you have to identify what the barriers are. And in order to identify what the barriers actually are, you’re going to ask us. So make these grand gestures if you like – but only if you proactively embark on a proper listening exercise as well.

The TL;DR summary to the TL;DR summary

Listen to us. There is no substitute for hearing what we have to say.

One thought on “Enough with the grand gestures. I want real change.

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s