Whaikaha Ministry of Disabled People launched with considerable fanfare, and a mix of cautious optimism and jaded cynicism from disabled people.

“Nothing about us without us” is reportedly central to the Ministry’s work and so let’s be optimistic that this principle will remain at the heart of all its decisions. Nothing less. Ever.

Whaikaha means “enabling”. The arts are all about enabling, creating and growing possibility.

Traditionally, government policy ministries and disability service providers have not referenced the arts in their work. Other priorities such as supports, benefits, employment and education take precedence. The arts are viewed, if at all, as therapy; not taken seriously as professional practice; and the work produced considered inferior.

The mental health community values arts in the toolbox of recovery and gainful occupation but mental health services remain in the Ministry of Health, along with chronic conditions producing impairments, resulting in a medical approach.

Developments in accessible arts programmes and professional disability arts practice, here and internationally, along with this pandemic, necessitate new approaches.

The emphasis on the contribution of art to wellbeing and healthy identity has been clearly documented recently in the mainstream and arts media.

Rapid, fundamental change is needed

And yet disabled people are still not faring well, with endemic poverty, high unemployment, isolation and loneliness. Rapid, fundamental change is needed as the disability arts world evolves.

The arts matter to disabled people. Findings from Creative New Zealand’s 2020 research, New Zealanders and the Arts, show 67% of disabled people attended arts events in the previous year, in line with the national average (68%). However, they attended Pacific arts and literary arts events more than most. They also attend arts events significantly more frequently – with 29% attending arts events eleven or more times a year (the national average is 24%).

The findings also show that disabled people participate in the arts more than the national average across all artforms. 61% of disabled people participated in the arts in the previous 12 months, a figure that’s significantly higher than the national average (52%).

Participating the arts

In addition, they participate in the arts more regularly, with 25% participating more than 12 times in the previous 12 months (the national average is 19%).

Technology and interpretative sophistication have enhanced Deaf and disabled people’s access to arts and cultural events. But providing access can cost!

In addition, disabled people often have little control over what arts events are made more accessible. Arts organisers will lose money and goodwill if disabled patrons don’t attend their events because they haven’t been consulted about what they want to experience,

Disabled people need more than access to arts events, shows, exhibitions and culture, important as that is. Talented disabled people are artists and creators already, and there is scope for more, not only from a fairness perspective; our rich stories and worldviews are a valuable cultural contribution.

Disabled people are creative. We have to be if we are to live in a disabling world. The arts are risky but life is already risky for many of us. Risk has dignity and potency.

Here in New Zealand, disabled people are already taking charge of their own destinies as career artists. Touch Compass performers are well-known in the New Zealand and international dance world. Caitlin Smith is a respected singer.  Steff Green and Helen Vivienne Fletcher are successful, established, self-published authors. And there are others: writers, fine artists, musicians, cartoonists, comedians, actors.

Disability exceptionalism is dead

Disability exceptionalism, the ableist notion that successful disabled people are always the exception, is dead. Fortunately, there are more opportunities for us to share our own voices and stories.

Arts careers are achievable for talented Deaf and disabled artists but they need support that will enable them to be in control of their own creative practice.

Whaikaha, the new ministry, works across government, and with disabled people and our organisations. It also has the opportunity to partner with government-funded arts organisations, NGOs such as Arts Access Aotearoa, other arts organisations and, most importantly, the disabled community to facilitate communication and support disability arts participation and access.

Arts development can also be co-ordinated within other work, such as accessibility, education and employment initiatives, as well as within the arts sector.

The arts and personal wellbeing

Returning to the Creative New Zealand 2020 research, other findings show that 43% of disabled people feel the arts are important to their personal wellbeing, compared with 40% of the national average. And only 17% say it is not important to their wellbeing – significantly lower than the national average of 24%.

So what does this mean? It means there's an opportunity for the proposed access legislation to help relieve the cumulative negative effects of the debilitating everyday struggle for access that most disabled people experience by enabling disabled people to access arts information and venues of all kinds.

But it will need to be comprehensive and have teeth to succeed.

Arts and culture are an essential thread woven into the human fabric. They are enshrined in the Disability Rights Convention and other core human rights treaties that Aotearoa has agreed to and regularly reports on.

Robyn Hunt ONZM is the recipient of the Arts Access Accolade 2019, presented by Arts Access Aotearoa. She is also a member of Creative New Zealand’s governing body, the Arts Council, and the co-founder of Crip the Lit.


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