Disability arts – a Paralympic boost?

As the Paralympic Games get underway, many disability art organisations and artists are hoping that London 2012 will help raise the profile of their work and challenge existing ideas around disability arts.

But can a Games really help disability arts to take centre-stage in the long term?

One hotly anticipated cultural event, which aims to overturn prejudices and create lasting opportunities for artists, is Unlimited – part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, which runs alongside the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Taking place from tomorrow (30 August) until 9 September at London’s Southbank Centre, Unlimited will bring together nearly 200 deaf and disabled artists in a series of new commissions, “to think big and develop dream projects that they would not otherwise have had the resources to create”.

Highlights include performances by Dame Evelyn Glennie, the Grammy-award winning percussionist who led the beat in Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony, and the British Paraorchestra, which was founded last year and features world-class musicians with disabilities.

According to Ruth Mackenzie, director of London 2012 Festival and the Cultural Olympiad, the event is “unprecedented” in its breadth, commissioning more disabled artists than any other festival to date. She says it represents a significant opportunity to overturn existing notions of disability arts and what its artists can achieve.

“We are delighted to have had the opportunity to work with world-class artists who have created brilliant work that will inspire and change perceptions,” Mackenzie explains. “I hope this will be one of our most important legacies for future Games, and for disabled and deaf artists both in the UK and internationally.”

Jude Kelly, artistic director at the Southbank Centre, also says the festival is a major step forward: “The Paralympics changed sport forever in terms of people’s understanding of the talent of disabled people. Unlimited provides the same platform for deaf and disabled artists.”

There are many other Paralympic-inspired cultural events taking place around the capital, including the Liberty Festival, featuring the work of deaf and disabled artists in various venues, such as the National Theatre and BFI Southbank. Elsewhere, posters commissioned for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, including Tracey Emin’s Paralympics Birds sketch, are available to see in a free exhibition at Tate Britain.

While attitudes are slowly changing, it would be unrealistic to say that disability arts yet operate on a level playing field with mainstream arts. Barriers and misconceptions still exist, while issues such funding cuts only add to the difficulties experienced by many disabled artists.

However, high profile festivals such as Unlimited can undoubtedly make a difference. They can help to change mindsets, open up valuable opportunities for disabled artists to show their work and reach new audiences, and even nurture collaborations between disability arts organisations and mainstream players.

Here at Children & the Arts, we hope to see more events like Unlimited take centre stage in the future, to help pave the way for talented artists to show their work and encourage children with disabilities to access and participate in the arts.

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