In the arts world, there is a sense the disabled spoil the presentation

We have no power or influence within the cultural sphere of Irish society . . . we are not seen as having any cultural capital

 

Last month, in the Lir Academy TCD – in the midst of great enthusiasm and fanfare – 10 of Ireland’s best-known theatre companies signed up to the principles of “Gender Equality in Practice in Irish Theatre”. This was a practical follow-up to “Waking the Feminists”.

A weekly column by writers with a disability.
A weekly column by writers with a disability.

The 10 policies relating to gender equality were drafted as a blueprint for fairness and equity. Some of the policies include unconscious bias training for all staff and the addition of dignity at work clauses to employees’ charters.

At the launch of this policy document, the appendices suggested this was learning and a work in progress. In the appendix, there was an acknowledgement that other forms of discrimination, including racism and ableism, would be signposted as a result of focusing on gender equality. The policy itself ties in with the various pieces of equality legislation. The Dublin Theatre Festival is one of the companies that have ratified this policy. The list of measures includes good governance and equality of gender on boards.

There is a lot of pleasure and pride in supporting Irish theatre in general. Particularly the Dublin Theatre Festival – it’s a platform for the best of Irish and international theatre. There’s an artistic, cultural and commercial drive behind this event. On July 24th, in responding to an invitation, once again wheelchair access was an issue. I arrived with the assurance it was accessible.

This year, the launch of the festival was in a venue on Exchequer Street in Dublin. There was a lift. A man who worked at the venue opened it and got in with me. Finding myself in a lift in a tight space with a man I didn’t know brings certain vulnerabilities.

The lift was broken.

It didn’t work. Stuck in a lift at the top of the stairs, imagining people downstairs sipping wine. The music was blaring. Familiar hurts of shame played its role as the soundtrack to my narrative.

Each encounter of this nature triggers memories. The word ‘humiliation’ does not express the totality of the experience. Embarrassment and blame become part of the public and cultural infrastructure of arts in Ireland. Artists with impairments internalise this sense of being unworthy and disrespected. There’s a sense that our aesthetic spoils the presentation.

Rosaleen McDonagh: “It is hypocritical of the Arts Council to issue guidelines on access, diversity and inclusion, while ignoring theatre companies and other arts venues’ disregard for wheelchair users.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Rosaleen McDonagh: “It is hypocritical of the Arts Council to issue guidelines on access, diversity and inclusion, while ignoring theatre companies and other arts venues’ disregard for wheelchair users.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Currently, the Arts Council is writing a policy on human rights and diversity. This is the third policy in this area. Implementation seems to be problematic. We have all inherited bad practice within the arts sphere. That legacy should be questioned when State funding is part of the equation.

Ongoing struggle

The universal issue of access and diversity is an ongoing struggle. Visibility in the context of diversity must move beyond the question of gender, particularly for people with disabilities and those of us from minority ethnic groups. Over the years, many initiatives and indeed many arts policies here in Ireland have included the words “diversity”, “participation’ and “inclusion”. Having been on the edge of Waking The Feminists, my hopes and expectations were raised. The intersection of sexism, racism and ableism, which results in poor practice, could be exposed. In the arts community, hidden biases are very explicit.

Disabled people have no power or influence within the cultural sphere of Irish society. This lack of parity of esteem with our peers in the arts sector is magnified. We are not employed, we are not on boards, and we are not seen as having any cultural capital. There’s a sense that respect and dignity is only afforded to those that are considered relevant.

The Arts Council and other funding streams fund the Dublin Theatre Festival. It is hypocritical of the Arts Council to issue guidelines on access, diversity and inclusion, and give grants while also ignoring theatre companies and other arts venues’ disregard for wheelchair users.

On regular occasions, things are said and done that constitutes mistreatment if not denigration. To protect my sanity, one has to make a choice to let these micro-aggressions slide. The fallout often means colluding with bad practice and normalising discrimination. This makes your relationship with the arts community somewhat toxic.

As with other forms of discrimination, there is the worry of a “backlash” where your work and reputation is compromised by “speaking up or speaking out”.

Platform Series: Rosaleen McDonagh
1) He’d look for a kiss from his gypsy girl
2) Perniciousness of racism and ableism
3) Life should be about living, not existing
4) The disabled spoil the presentation
5) When will there be an official apology?
6) Theatre access for those with a disability
7) Believing disabled sexual assault victims
8) Marginalising disabled feminists
9) Use your vote for change