An artist creating an illustrated summary of the opening discussions at Unlimited.

Beth Bienvenu, the Accessibility Director in the Office of the Senior Deputy Chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts, shares her experience at the Unlimited Festival and Symposium.

“What should disability-led arts look like in 2020?” 

The Unlimited Disability Arts Symposium and Festival, which were held in London in early September 2018, offered an opportunity to observe the state of disability arts in the United Kingdom. Hosted by three UK-based organizations – Unlimited, ArtsAdmin, and Shape Arts – the symposium addressed how disabled artists can change the “mainstream” arts sector and break down barriers to full inclusion.

Throughout the symposium I considered which factors led to the development of such a robust disability arts field in the UK, and what we in other countries can learn from them.

The first factor is leadership support. Arts Council England founded the Unlimited program in the lead-up to the 2012 London Olympics to commission new work by disabled artists and to fund research and development. This investment has helped the disability arts field flourish over the past decade and has demonstrated that committed leadership is an important part of field development.

Second is strong partnerships. Unlimited’s work cannot be accomplished without its partnership with Shape Arts, a disability-led organization that works to improve access to culture for people with disabilities through arts funding, exhibitions, and accessibility audits; and with ArtsAdmin, an organization that supports artists through advisory services and support for creation and presentation. Together, these partners address barriers faced in both the disability and the mainstream arts environments to support disabled artists.  

Third is a strong disability culture. The disability community in the UK were early adopters of the social model of disability, which asserts that disability comes from physical and attitudinal barriers, and not the individual. This is in contrast to the medical model, which says that the problem is rooted in the individual, who must be fixed. It is apparent that the disability arts field in the UK was able to flourish in part because of it developed in an environment in which removing barriers is more important than trying to fix people. 

Finally, disability-led work, supported by not only allies but accomplices. One key recurring theme throughout the symposium was emphasizing that this work is led by people with disabilities. Those working in the field who do not have disabilities should also step back and let artists and others with disabilities take the lead, “holding space” for them to be in the center of the work. This is why everything at the symposium was disability-led and the disability voice took center stage. And, in addition to being allies in this work, people without disabilities should be accomplices by working hard to ensure that change is made. 

So the challenge for those of us who work in this field is determining how we can take these observations and build a strong disability arts field that supports artists with disabilities and the organizations that commission and present their work.