The word ‘accessibility’ is the starting point in conversations where I encourage non-disabled people to talk about access to the arts for people who are disabled. In my experience individuals and groups talk about a person who uses a wheel chair to best describe what ‘disabled looks like’. When the conversation goes deeper we discuss how in an inclusive diverse community ‘disability’ does not have to ‘look like’ anyone specifically neither is it about fixing labels to people. Can we be open to exploring possibilities of potential and not labels or limits?
Our cultural creativity expressed in art form is best accessed by everyone when we realise that people have different access needs. That’s it really – no need to get to the stage where someone has to be informed they are ‘not disabled enough’ or ‘a type’ or slap them with a label.
Stunning inclusive work is being achieved by Wellington Integrated Dance (WIDance). Their recent 5th anniversary sell-out show demonstrates through contemporary dance remarkable and memorable performances, moments of joy and success. Audiences will get more opportunities to see examples of dance at this exceptional level in the ‘Acquisitions’ tour by Touch Compass Dance Company in Hamilton and Wellington and Jolt Dance in Christchurch.
Touch Compass, WI Dance and Jolt Integrated Dance are three examples where we see the finest standards and intentions that allow cultural artistic expression to up-lift our creative spirits and demonstrate powerful artistic potential – beyond the labels. They are examples in movement of diversity and inclusion, creative cultural expression that we can all share the richness of.
However the riches of cultural inclusion and accessible arts are not equally shared around the world. As I write we are witness to the destruction of Palmyra, one of the world’s wonderful archaeological sites and the expulsion of thousands of people from their cultural and ethnic homelands.
In 2012 the world’s population was estimated to be 12 billion and the issues caused by human habitation have reached unsustainable levels and threats to our existence are now noticeable globally.
We are overwhelmed by news and images that hit us in an ever more ‘informed about everything everywhere’ world where people are being excluded, kept out, shut down, moved on or overlooked. From devastating explosions in China to waves of refugees in Europe fleeing war zones to secret international trade deals, I notice a monumental amount of effort is spent on keeping others out, misinformed, away from and labelled as ‘other’.
How did we get like this? Has it always been so bad? Or are we just able to increase our capacity for human exclusion in a more sharply pixelated digital time package? Is the worst of human behaviour always lurking under the surface? Climate change, geopolitical conflicts, threats to trade and the rise of terrorism – it would seem so. This is the new normal. Even when the crater lake at the centre of our North Island’s volcanic plateau cools - it does not signify down time or a reason to go swimming. Rather – a potential explosion with pyroclastic consequences is in waiting.
Excuse me for catastrophising – maybe I’ve seen too many televised examples of human unhappiness recently. I see them and I feel unable to make a difference. If I look at where my efforts can have an influence – home, family, work and community then my frustration for the pain of mankind can be channelled into local action. This is the place where I meet and share with thousands (perhaps billions) of like-minded people who want to live in peace and have a safe creative community to grow in and prosper.
This type of society has a lack of fear of being inclusive. When gates in the walls are opened, when social media sites are unblocked, when the law is fair there is more opportunity for people from all parts of community to be heard. Less likelihood of social unrest, more chance of happiness. More likelihood of integrated dance companies demonstrating the value that humans can place on art.
New Zealand society reaches for its ideal by honouring the treaty signed with tangata whenua and expanding the vison of forebears who wished to build a secure and prosperous country. Our sense of ‘a fair go’ means the rights and prospects of others need to be included in law. Providing for human rights in a society that is inclusive of all people has been achieved by remarkable women and men taking major steps that get the rest of us to the next level. In 2008 for example New Zealand became party to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and in 2013 the Definition of Marriage Act brought equality under law for same sex couples.
Our cultural, legal and educational institutions, social change advocates and charities are the neurotransmitters in a complex web carrying the messages and ‘how to’ manuals that provide stability, creativity and hold us to account.
‘What’ we may ask “keeps people who work for or in civil society going"? Not the money surely? Upholding the rights of others, advocating for the needs of those at risk around us in order to make the future better than the one we inherited? No matter how ‘under the radar’ our work is it is all a necessary valuable part of the system that binds people into a community that is the envy of other nations.
Politicians and the policies of different parties will have their day (the majority votes them in for a time after all) but wise governments recognise that leadership is obtained in partnership with the institutions, not for profits and creative spaces without which we would be just another imploding human mess, the tragic likes of which we witness on TV or social media.
The work of dance companies that integrate disabled and non disabled dancers explores the potential of inclusion through choreography reflecting back how an audience thinks about itself. When we work at strategy and everyday tasks set by ourselves or our organisation’s founders let’s remember that being inclusive of others provides the opportunity for everyone to participate and contribute to a creative inclusive community.
Richard Benge is the executive director of Arts Access Aotearoa which recently celebrated its 20th Anniversary with a lunch that included its founding trustees.