BLOG 24th March 2021

Remembering, solidarity and the Divine Bodies

This guest blog was written by Damien Coyle, Chief Executive of the University of Atypical. He has a background in arts management, education and training, counselling and guidance, public funding and health and social care. He established Queens Street Studios and the PGD/MA course in Cultural Management at Ulster University. Damien served as Vice Chair of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for eight years and was awarded an MBE for his services to the Arts in 2016. As a visual artist, he has exhibited locally, nationally and internationally, and has published writing in a range of publications on art, history, culture and architecture. Damien is hearing impaired and neurodivergent.

This blog series is funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Organisations Emergency Fund.

The views expressed in this blog reflect the opinions of the writer. Thrive is providing a platform for people who work in arts and culture to express their dreams for the sector post-Covid and to create constructive debate and discussion. Publication does not mean that thrive endorses the views expressed.

An article published by Disability Rights UK in September 2020 reported that two-thirds - 59.5% - of the people who have died of Covid -19 were disabled. Adjusting that figure for region, population density and socio-economic factors, disabled women were 2.4 times more likely to die, and disabled men 2 times more likely to die than the rest of the general population. The article was based on statistics compiled by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) for the period from March to mid-July 2020. Remember that time frame.

It was a shocking statistic and must be considered alongside the fact that disabled people represent 16% of the UK population. The statistics were shocking but not surprising. Remember the failure of the Government at Westminster to react, to provide coherent leadership and informed actions.

We live in a world of rolling news and we tend to move on to the next story before we have fully consumed and reflected on the last. Have we forgotten the complete lack of understanding of the rights of disabled people with the application of Do Not Resuscitate notices? This practice is more suited to the pages of a dystopian novel rather than the actuality of life in early 21st century UK. Remember that this effectively took away the right to life for disabled people.

There were Government failures in recognising the risk to those living and working in care and nursing homes, for staff working in the NHS and in social care especially those from Black and minority ethnic communities. There was the failed messaging on risk and the use of PPE and the application of social distancing measures, as well as corrupt tendering practices. Alarmingly, polling shows that the Government in Westminster is now leading in the polls due to the recent success of the rollout of the vaccine. Surely, we should instead celebrate the successes of the scientists at Pfizer and in Oxford and at AstraZeneca, the NHS and health centre staff across the UK and ensure that they receive credit beyond clapping? The Government must take responsibility for its failures with apps and test and trace. These failures cost lives, and a disproportionate number of those lives were the lives of disabled people. Remember this when you go to the polling station.

There have been many positives in the last year and some of those are rooted in a collective sense of solidarity. There was an overwhelming sense that we – as individuals, as a society and as communities - had to work together to defeat the virus. And, to a great extent, we did. We clapped for the NHS, we lived with restrictions in and upon our daily lives, we found new ways to engage with each other, we volunteered to support others, and as artists and arts managers we continued to provide sustenance for people who were living their lives in bubbles. Our support may have taken different forms – both from one another and from that of ‘essential workers’ - but we contributed to the continuity that our society needed in a time of flux. Remember that feeling of solidarity and making a contribution and the importance of maintaining it.

Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain and Daniel Defoe have all been credited with coining the statement about the two certainties in life being death and taxes. We have had the deaths and it won’t be long until we have the taxes. My concern is that Government will take the default neoliberalist position and apply the burden of debt on the ordinary worker. Of these ordinary workers, there will be fewer and fewer; reduced to the number of us who will be lucky to have jobs. The period after the 2007 - 2008 crash, which was the deepest recession since World War II, and the period of the current pandemic, witnessed the growth in riches for the wealthy and the sickeningly wealthy. My concern is responsibility for the national debt burden – and it does belong to us all - will fall, as it always has, on those who have no, low and moderate incomes. In the last recession, it was local authorities in England who were hardest hit with cuts to social care, housing, arts and culture, and education. UK-wide, it meant cuts to benefits to the most vulnerable in our society. Those without employment will still pay through restrictions and taxes on benefits. Many of us are more than willing to bear our share of the costs of paying for furloughed employees, for increased NHS costs, top-ups to Universal Credits or through Covid-19 emergency funding to the arts and to artists. Without a fair and equitable distribution of responsibility, the sense of solidarity we have witnessed will fade and the feeling of being disenfranchised will re-emerge. Remember the sense of solidarity and togetherness, the NHS staff, Captain Tom, and the artists and arts venues who give us a lifeline online.

That same sense of solidarity has echoed throughout our sector. Groups such as the Arts Collaboration Network invested a staggering amount of time and energy in ensuring the voice of the sector was heard. It was this voice that made the case for the allocation of emergency funding to the sector to support artists and arts organisations. We’ve witnessed the risk to well-established organisations, the massive reduction in income generation opportunities for artists and a cataclysmic impact on the freelance staff the sector depended on. I know that I am not alone in hearing from freelancers who continue to struggle to feed their family and who are at risk of losing their homes. There is a consensus in the sector that we cannot return to the old landscape, in which the NI arts sector saw year-on-year cuts in real terms to their operational budgets. We all remember the burden of forecasting projections with 5%, 10% or 15% cuts and living with the fear or the reality of those cuts manifesting. The sector does not have the stamina to go back to those volatile days. What we need now is certainty, the space to plan strategically and the security of multi-annual funding. Remember what the sector needs now is stability and solidarity.

In recent weeks, I’ve been perplexed by the debate in India on the proposal by Narendra Modi’s Government in India of to change the terminology used to describe disabled people. The current term, Viklang, is Hindi for someone with ‘non-functional body parts’. It is to be replaced by the term Divylang, or a ‘divine body’ in Hindi. The Indian government’s census of 2011 found that 21 million disabled people live in India. Whilst a societal debate is taking place, I don’t believe this 21 million will be fully distracted from the more important issues of poverty, disability and equity by reflecting on their government’s nuanced semantics. Remember that a change of terminology does not resolve the issue of disenfranchisement.

There is learning to be assimilated from the last twelve months: the solidarity, the significance of both individual and collective voice, the acceptance that some things are unacceptable; along with new ways of engaging and adapting, and burgeoning realisations of just what can be achieved with new ways of thinking and pragmatic levels of investment. These are global lessons, which can equally be applied worldwide: We must all be more vocal in calling out injustice. Can we - as disability rights, race rights, and gender rights campaigners - forget about Black Lives Matter, and simply ignore the last 12 months? Remember the voice you have had and use it often.

We should all make a commitment to change. As part of a personal manifesto, I’m committed to exploring intersectionalism, and workshopping ways in which we - as communities - can celebrate Disability Pride. I’m committed to rolling out a new Equality and Access Standards Initiative to support arts and cultural organisations address inequalities in the physical infrastructure of their venues, in the content of their programmes to include non-tokenistic representation, and through their current procedures and processes that exclude disabled people. The pandemic provided an opportunity to research and test new methodologies in engaging with new and existing audiences. Some of this must carry over into a post-Covid environment, setting in place new approaches to delivering, managing and governing the arts and arts organisations. We have to examine recruitment practices, the profile and make up of boards of trustees, how we embed best practice on issues around race, gender, sexual orientation and disability in everything we do. Remember that disabled people will bring a wealth of new knowledge, understanding and perspective to your organisation and practice.

I’m committed to advocating for true representation for, of and by disabled people and we’ll be asking you to support us and join us on this journey. We owe it to the tens of thousands of disabled people who have not, and will not, survive the pandemic. We owe it to the legacy of our friend and former CEO Chris Ledger, we owe it to d/Deaf and disabled artists and d/Deaf and disabled audiences. Fundamentally, we owe it to ourselves and one another because it’s the right thing to do. I remember there’s a saying from Saint Francis of Assisi that my Quaker friends use, ‘Preach the gospels always and sometimes use words’.

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