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Disability and the arts

Photo of the Restless Dance Company performance of Perfect Match, 2002.

Restless Dance Company performance of Perfect Match, 2000. Image courtesy of the Restless Dance Company.

Art forms such as dance, theatre, writing, music and the visual arts draw on the creativity and interests of Australians of many abilities. Having a disability in one area does not discount a person's many and varied interests and abilities, but it may present some disadvantages. According to the Australia Council, 'Some 19 per cent per cent of the Australian population lives with a disability and close to one million Australians with a disability develop, create and experience the arts.'

Disabilities can take many forms and affect people's lives in different ways. It is not always obvious when someone has a disability and people can experience a disability for a short period of their life or throughout their life. Disabilities can be physical, sensory (including visual and hearing disabilities), intellectual, neurological (including acquired brain injuries) and psychiatric. Children, men and women of all ages and from all parts of the community may experience disabilities.

Australian laws such as the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act (1992) recognise the barriers that can work against people with disabilities, and protect these people's rights.

Facing barriers and disadvantages

Enjoying visits to arts venues, being entertained and learning new things are just a few benefits of the arts, but these activities can also show up the many barriers facing some people who have disabilities. In everyday situations, people can miss out on an experience because it is not presented in a way that they can access. If a play is held in a theatre that only has steps, and no lift or ramp, how can anyone with a wheelchair get in to see the performance? If a novel is only available in small print, how will anyone with a visual impairment read it?

Providing better access to the arts is often not as simple as adding wheelchair ramps to buildings. It also depends on improving community awareness and attitudes, overcoming disadvantages and discrimination, and keeping everyone's interests and needs in mind. Public awareness of issues can make a big difference.

The Australia Council, Arts Access Australia, [formerly Disability in the Arts, Disadvantage in the Arts (DADAA)] and other groups recognise that much better access to arts venues, information, events and training opportunities is necessary so that Australians of all abilities can enjoy and participate in the arts if they want to.

A lot of progress is still to be made. For example, Gareth Wreford, Director of Arts Access Australia National Network, highlights the need for creating many more training and work opportunities in his article Place of disability in arts, health and wellbeing .

The Australia Council provides arts funding and research. Arts Access Australia and its member organisations provide advocacy, information, training and strategies related to disability and arts events.

Improving access to the arts

Photo of Auslan interpreter Lee Papworth, 2003.

Catherine Acin, Auslan interpreter Lee Papworth signs the word for 'dance' at the 2003 Melbourne International Arts Festival . Image courtesy of Arts Access Australia.

Arts venues, performances and products can be planned and presented in ways that make them more accessible to more people. Regulations and guidelines help guide building designs so that that all people can use them. Access audits can be used to find ways to improve all kinds of buildings for better access.

Theatres, art galleries and other venues can ask people with different kinds of disabilities what they want and need, for example, access to assistive listening devices and signs in braille. Arts venues can then find ways to provide these facilities and promote the fact that they are available.

Websites can be set up in certain ways that make them easier to read and use. The Web Guide provides information about website accessibility for users with special needs in its <a href=">Internet development guides. Written information and books can also be presented in formats including large print, braille or on audio tape as 'talking books'.

There are many ways to approach performances too. For instance, Arts Access worked with Melbourne's 2003 International Arts Festival to make sure that some events included Auslan-sign interpreting. The festival was promoted with information about the ways it would be accessible for people with disabilities.

In other examples, the Vision Australia has introduced the audio description of plays as well as concession ticket prices. These are available at most venues and can be helpful for people on low incomes.

Artists - people on the 'doing' side of the arts

Everyone is different and people get interested in particular art forms for many reasons. Sitting in the audience is only one side of the arts - what about being a performer or a painter, a make-up artist or a costume-maker?

Different art forms offer different opportunities, challenges and rewards. Writers and artists can present their articles, poems, stories, paintings and drawings in magazines, books, exhibitions and on the Internet. Performing arts such as theatre, dance and music put artists on stage and under the spotlight.

Individuals and groups are bringing their creative and imaginative talents to the attention of Australian audiences in many different ways.

Arts groups

Image of work of an artist from Arts Project Australia.

Work of an artist from Arts Project Australia.

Some Australian arts groups focus on developing and presenting the work of people who have particular disabilities. Only a selection is listed here.

Arts Project Australia is a Melbourne organisation that provides services for people who have intellectual disabilities. Its programs include education and training in the visual arts, a studio workshop, regular exhibitions and an animation and film-making studio. The work of a number of artists connected with Arts Project Australia has been featured in exhibitions at commercial galleries and in magazines.

The Australian Theatre of the Deaf in New South Wales presents theatre for non-hearing and hearing audiences.

Actors with intellectual disabilities are bringing their talents to the stage with Back to Back Theatre and Rawcus Theatre Company. Ignition Theatre Training, a drama course for people with intellectual disabilities, is offered by The Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE in Victoria.

The work of the Restless Dance Company in South Australia finds its inspiration in the cultures of disability and the company includes members with disabilities.

The BiPolar Bears and Club Wild are two groups bringing people together to play and listen to music.

Solo artists

Not all artists work as part of a group, or with an organisation associated with disability. Lalita Henry, in her article Enabling art lists film maker Sofya Gollan, stand-up comedian Elizabeth Navrati, dancer James Cunningham, dancer and choreographer Marc Brew and performer Jane Muras among some the Australians performing solo, who also happen to have disabilities.

Arts festivals

Arts festivals across Australia bring together different art forms, artists and audiences. A number of arts festivals celebrate the work of artists with disabilities. These have included the Sydney 2000 Paralympics Arts Festival, Rewind in Perth (2003), the bi-annual High Beam Festival (2004) and the 24/7 Festival (2004). The international event, the 7th Asia Pacific Wataboshi Music Festival was held in Perth in 2003. Australian artists have appeared at similar festivals internationally.

Useful links

Last updated: 14th November 2007