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International approaches to disability and disability arts

February 5, 2018

(Part 2 of 10 in a series of blog posts evaluating the Unlimited International programme)

What did the Unlimited International stakeholders tell us about international approaches to disability and disability arts?

Many of the Unlimited International stakeholders told us that they considered the UK to be at the forefront of disability access and disability arts.

“UK is very strong about disability.  People there have more rights and they stand up for their rights.  There is a system in place to support their voice.”  (Cambodia)

“He was so blown away with things like ramps coming off trains.  Access.  He said the UK cares about everybody.  The thought that goes into cultural spaces.”  (Uganda)

“A lot of us internationally look at the UK as the best practice example.” (Australia)

Through personal experience, many stakeholders observed that other countries often approach disability in less positive ways.

“Uganda is hugely different.  It is really dire. People are not used to being confronted by disability.  It is still quite a stigma.”  (Uganda)

“There is a different angle in UK and Cambodia.  In Cambodia the self confidence of people with disabilities is quite low.  We have the medical model, not the social model like the UK.” (Cambodia)

“Telethons and charity events are still existing and much access to the disabled is about being tolerant.” (Singapore)

This impacts on the disability arts scene in a variety of ways:

“Here is Australia we’re so disparate it is hard to see high quality work.” (Australia)

“We try and do the care model, giving support and care to artists who are disabled and include them in work that able bodied artists are doing.” (Singapore)

“People are still trying to test the water of whether to say things or not.” (Cambodia)

“Disability arts is an unrecognised genre.” (Singapore)

“A disability arts sector is sometimes even unimaginable.” (Uganda)

Consequently, international artists are keen to learn from the UK.

“The scene is UK is much more developed and has a longer history, so it’s something we in Singapore can learn from in many ways, i.e. don’t have to reinvent wheels and such.” (Singapore)

“It helped them to learn more about the UK sector and gain knowledge of different ways of working.” (Japan)

“The opportunity to experience the arts and disability sector [in the UK] first hand, up close and personal, in an international setting.” (Australia)

That said, the UK isn’t perfect and this was noted!

“The UK doesn’t know it all yet. The UK can be seen as a pillar of empire.  But you go there and see there’s so many other stories rather than them just being my oppressors.” (Uganda)

“Seeing that the UK is not perfect either was useful, we’re all still trying to figure it out and make it work.” (Australia)

Even so, the stakeholders were certainly looking to the UK as perceived leaders in this field.

“The UK has taken a leadership position in disability arts.” (Singapore)

“The UK is the real leader in this. The rest of the world is watching.” (Australia)

What can Unlimited International learn from this?

Having the reputation of ‘world leader’ puts the UK disability arts sector under considerable pressure to live up to the status that our international colleagues place upon us.

If we are indeed ‘world leaders’ we should be ready and willing to share our ideas and experience.  However, being ‘world leading’ does not always manifest in a positive way.  We would not wish to present ourselves as superior, arrogant or patronising.  Furthermore we must always be mindful that we have an imperial history of being the ‘oppressor’ and we must work to ensure that this does not continue to permeate our practice.

Unlimited International must therefore consider how it presents itself – and the UK –when working internationally.  The working style should be open and collegiate, and it will be necessary to manage the high expectations that others have of the UK.

The UK is not perfect and still has many areas of weakness when it comes to disability and disability arts.  This is not in itself a problem.  Indeed, some international colleagues have found it comforting to learn that the UK is imperfect too.  The UK has much to learn from other cultures and perspectives, and the Unlimited International programme provides a substantive opportunity to do this with international collaboration at its heart.


Image: Koji Nishioka with his work as part of an Unlimited supported exhibition taken at Southbank Centre. Photograph Outside In

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