Further thoughts on the Disability Arts Sector in Ireland

After recovering somewhat from the shock of the Irish Arts Council withdrawing from the ADAI scheme, I finally remembered another piece of news from December that sheds a different light on this decision.

Arts and Disability Ireland announced the Ignite programme, three large-scale commissions of work by professional artists with disabilities for 2014.  I was interested when I first read the headline, “Ignite Commissions Announced: Largest ever investment in Ireland’s arts and disability sector”.  But I felt a bit let down as I read the accompanying press release, since it wasn’t a call for submissions, but an announcement of a fait accomplis.  Three established professional artists with disabilities have already been commissioned to produce high-profile works with community groups of people with disabilities in Cork, Galway and Mayo.

I have no wish to take away from the importance of high-profile professional art created in Ireland.  But it now appears that this project has been undertaken instead of continuing to support a range of artists with disabilities in progressing their careers.  With the withdrawal of the Irish Arts Council from the cross-border Arts and Disability Awards Ireland, there is no longer a support mechanism for those of us who are not yet (nor may ever be) in a position to work full-time as artists and get international recognition.

This got me thinking about an issue that has nagged at me since my days at university.  People with disabilities are not expected to have careers.  Some of us may get jobs, but we are not presumed to have a specialist skill-set, personal ambition or take a hand in deciding just what we want to do with our lives.  For example, an employment scheme set up by government agencies to “encourage” employers to take on one of these dregs of society is structured on the assumption that an employee with disabilities will be between 50% and 80% as productive as employees without disabilities.  The scheme is designed to compensate employers for the inevitable loss of productivity associated with taking on a lesser person. This precludes the possibility of an employee with disabilities being either as productive or even more productive than other workers.

The shift of focus from the Irish Arts Council from supporting career development to high-profile projects, which involve only 3 artists who are already established in their arts careers, is another example of the neglect of people with disabilities’ wishes and ambitions.  I feel that this initiative is a way of making it look as though we have a thriving disability arts sector while simultaneously withdrawing the means for developing that sector.  This feeling is intensified by the structure of the Ignite commissions, where the work will be created alongside voluntary participants from community-based disability groups.  The majority of us are expected to be participants, not leaders or instigators.

Again, while I support the overall work of Arts and Disability Ireland, (the Republic’s counterpart to the Northern Irish Arts and Disability Forum), I have long felt that they have not prioritised supporting the career development of artists with disabilities. Rather, their focus seems to have been on people with disabilities as spectators, audiences, passive consumers of “mainstream” art.  I have no complaint about the availability of audio-described theatre productions, (even if they are mostly in Dublin and mostly mainstream popular shows), but this does reinforce the vision of people with disabilities as a passive, homogenous mass without individual tastes and desires.

It’s unsurprising, since most impoverished and excluded groups are treated this way by a thoughtless “mainstream”.  Gay men are not expected to have various tastes in clothing and music. Moslem women are not expected to have differing opinions about their role in society. The poor everywhere are expected to take the scraps they’re given and be pathetically grateful. So while it may not seem as though this move by the Irish Arts Council and Arts and Disability Ireland will affect many people, it is nonetheless symptomatic of an out-dated attitude from which we in Ireland have never really broken free.