News

Technology means disability is no longer invisible, but it’s not enough

11 Nov 2020 /

Article by Gina Fairly, via ArtsHub.

Award-winning writer, Wongaiibon woman, and wheelchair user Gayle Kennedy put her own unique spin on the Artstate Wagga Wagga theme of Walking Together, in her keynote speech.

Not mincing words, Kennedy said flatly: ‘In the space of a short few months you have shown your hand – it suits you [this digital pivot], but it also suits us! And we are not going back.’

Delivering her keynote from her home via Zoom, Kennedy said we were all forced to embrace the COVID digital pivot in record time, which is testament that barriers to accessibility and engagement can be removed. It is a curious head flip on the ides of want and need. She said that we all need to use this moment for sustained change.

For Kennedy 2020 started great. She had been invited to present at Sydney Writers Festival. Then COVID hit and the cancellations started to roll in. But it wasn’t a bad news story for all.

‘For years we have been asking how can we be included in the arts… to be part and parcel of the arts world, and in general, being able to work from home when the need arises. All of this was too hard to consider pre-COVID. All we heard was, “we can’t do that”, but all of a sudden everyone is doing Zoom meetings, Broadway shows are livestreamed and everyone’s working from home.’

‘It happened really quickly, without any real fuss, and the reason was because able-bodied people needed it. To think we have been sitting with our noses against the window panes for so long, and then bang. We are not going to go back,’ said Kennedy.

‘All these amazing artists, dancers, singer, painters, authors were being presented across the nation, and being streamed overseas, and people were seeing them.’ She continued: ‘We know now [because of COVID] that we can be part of these festivals.’

‘We can do it – we have the talent, and now we have the technology! It is up to us as disabled artists to speak out, and make a noise and say, “Stop, you are not going to use that excuse with us anymore”’, said Kennedy.

CLAIMING FRIDA BACK

For too long, disabled celebrities have been co-opted, said Kennedy. ‘Frida Kahlo was severely disabled, but you cut her off at her breast and focus on her monobrow and flowers in hair, and taken her away from us as disabled artists,’ she said.

Kennedy paid a nod to Caroline Bowditch, the experienced Aussie theatre-maker now based in Glasgow, who created the play Falling in Love with Frida, after seeing an exhibition of her paintings at the National Gallery of Australia in 2001.

Bowditch told SMH at the time of the play’s release. ‘I became really interested in how she is just remembered for her art, not as a disabled artist.’

‘Because, in my head, disability and success, didn’t go together. So therefore how could this amazing Mexican artist be in Australia’s national gallery?’

Kennedy said the play was an act in reclaiming Frida ‘for us’, going on to mention Joni Mitchell and Neil Young who both spent many years as children isolated and looking out at the world with polio.

‘You grow up living inside your head – it is a skill that you learn. Most artists with disability are like any other artist in this way. We don’t get bored living with ourselves.’

She added that what totally irked her, and many others living with disability, is that when Stephen Hawking died in 2018, he was depicted, ‘standing in a suit at the end of a golden stairway, where he could run up to heaven because he was finally freed of his wheelchair.’

Kennedy continued: ‘I think it annoyed people that his disability was so in your face. Our wheelchair is part of us. We are not confined by it; we are freed by it.’

She continued: ‘And technology means we are no longer invisible and has given us mobility we have not had before. But the world needs to catch up with us and stop excluding us.’

DIVERSITY & ACCESS GO HAND-IN-HAND

Everyone is walking around woke but it is just rhetoric. Rhetoric needs to be transferred into change,’ said Kennedy. ‘You need to look around your communities and stop excluding people – it’s becoming ridiculous.’

She reminded that we all come from different kinds of backgrounds, and in some cultures they do not allow the use of guide dogs, and in other countries they have no understanding of what a white cane means.

‘In many cultures having a disability is frowned upon, and if you can’t contribute to your community, physically and monetarily, you are pushed aside,’ she explained.

‘We need to look at a more diverse arts scene, because the arts in Australia is white – let’s face it. Yes, we have made black strides happening but  …  [in a similar way] people with disability are not being included in films, on TV show, on panel shows – there are enough “mouthy” disabled people out there to play their role … why can’t we just be shown as part and parcel of a community?’

Kennedy continued: ‘You need to let us to speak for ourselves. We don’t need you to speak for us, but we do need you to provide the equipment so we can speak,’ again making reference to the capacity for access that COVID has enabled online.

MORE TRADITIONAL ACCESS – AKA BRICKS AND MORTAR

Kennedy made the point that just because an artist might be in a wheelchair, deaf or have autism, they are no less professional as artists.

‘Art is like a giant Tower of Babel where we all speak its language. A disability does not distract from the power of the art we make,’ she said.

Why then, should disabled artists be limited when it comes down to festival invitations, theatre billing and live music gigs?

‘I hadn’t been invited to a writer’s festival for a long time, because money is always tight to pay for a carer or mobility assistant to accompany me,’ explained Kennedy.

‘How about those big names invited to festival, why not donate a bit of their business class fare back to festival to allow a disabled artist to attend?’

Kennedy recognised that we have all kinds of barriers put between us. But she asked the audience to consider the thought of trying to go to the toilet on a plane when you are wheelchair bound, or wanting to see live music in a pub – things we take for granted.

‘There have been gigs I have wanted to go to, to see a band, but a 100-year old pub has a heritage listing on it and won’t provide access. I have been to Paris and Amsterdam and all those building are old but didn’t stop me. The Louvre is accessible, so I should be able to go to your 100-year shitty heritage pub and be allowed to listen to live music. It’s easy to create excuses.’

Kennedy’s message was that while these past months have been liberating in terms of digital access – where all can sit in the front row and listen to live music or watch a theatre performance – there is still much change that needs to be made.

‘As able body people – you in the audience – you have to speak up too. One step does not accessible make; one step is not insurmountable. Be aware of your surroundings as well.’

She concluded: ‘We need to work together; we need to unite’, picking up on Artstate’s theme Walking Together.

This article is based on a session at Artstate 2020.