Take us as we are – empowering neurodivergent and disabled experiences in the arts

The arts industry has a long way to go in accommodating creatives and audiences who do not conform to dominant, ableist narratives.
neurodivergent. disability. Image is a group of people with various disabilities gathered in a space and workshopping drama ideas.

Sometimes we don’t have to look very far to see the barriers of access that exist in our arts infrastructure. The experience of taking my younger sister into an art gallery for the first time showed how these barriers could create a stressful situation for both people with disabilities and their carers. 

Care had to be taken to prevent my sister from touching the art, as the eyes of the security guards consistently flicked in our direction; the sculptures in the middle of the room could have easily become a safety hazard if she had made a run for it. Viewing art seemed almost like a burden – a chore, which meant that neither of us actually enjoyed the experience. 

My younger sister – someone with a severe disability – deserved more that day. She deserved more from me, more from the gallery and more from the arts sector in general. 

The accommodations made for neurodivergent and disabled creatives in the arts world are far from adequate. ArtsHub speaks with several neurodivergent creatives who share what the sector needs to do to pick up the slack and ensure the voices of those who communicate, live and create differently are heard.

Marisa Georgiou works in creative and cultural community development in Meanjin/Brisbane (Australia). Their current practice is concerned with how to artfully navigate contemporary oppressions, which affect how our social and material landscapes look and feel. They work across disciplines such as improvisational performance, social practice, publishing and installation, both inside and outside of institutions.

Georgiou describes themself as someone who ‘ticks the high masking, low needs box’. They tell ArtsHub, ‘One of my worst nightmares is the social element of art. In fact, I detest the idea of “networking” because the format of a networking gathering made for purposes of art production is hostile to many people with neurodiversities. I get an intense “hangover” from the commercial model… How we gather around art affects people as visitors and producers of art.’

Georgiou shares a clear message for moving forward – that the art world simply needs more literacy around social capital. In their view, curators don’t have enough literacy of accessibility in the arts to inform how they make decisions, consequently platforming people who won’t be “read as antisocial”. We need to let go of the default way of doing things because it serves a different kind of person – a more powerful person.

Heidi Everett is an independent producer, artist, writer and mental health and arts advocate, operating on Wurundjeri Country (Australia). She specialises in complex trauma and neurodiverse access for organisations, events and venues.

Everett first encountered art spaces when she was in a public psychiatric ward. The naivety of these spaces for neurodiverse individuals propelled her to create her own art space. She is the founder of Schizy Inc – an organisation that makes space in the arts for people with diverse and complex mental health. Everett describes Schizy Inc as a ‘little bit naughty and a bit subversive’.

The goal of the group is to say and do the wrong things and be proud – there’s a cheeky bit of larrikinism to it. Schizy Inc is not bound by the mental health system, in that it doesn’t have the same rules and regulations. The group operates in the arts world and has protocols and attitudes that more align to the arts and a social model of disability.

Read: How ‘mental health’ has been reimagined in the workplace

Heidi says: ‘We don’t ask people to “get better”.’  In her view, the arts don’t want you to behave and be fixed. In fact, the more broken and wounded you are, the better; the more empowered you are to express those wounds, the better of a creative you are.

Ultimately, Everett’s appeal is this: ‘Arts venues and arts bookers need to actively seek out people like us, like Schizy Inc, who have to compete with everyone else – that is, people without complex trauma and cognitive disability.’ As she says, ‘If you want us, come and talk to us and ask us what we’re doing. Who’s going to be the brave arts space that takes the first step?’

An inclusive and autonomous space for neurodiverse and disabled creatives

The team behind Dreams of Benny are also working in this realm to provide inclusive spaces. The immersive, movement-based creative experience for people with disabilities was presented at the Sydney Opera House in July this year.

Led by Sarah-Vyne Vassallo, working alongside collaborators such as Chris Bunton, an artist with a disability, and neurodiverse artist Keila Terencio, this workshop is the perfect reflection of how neurodiverse and disabled creatives can successfully cultivate a safe, inclusive and autonomous space for other such creatives to find their voices.  

Speaking with Vassallo, Benton and Terencio, it’s clear they are an inspiring example of a dream team.

Vassallo, who identifies as an artist with a disability, notes that this was the first time a fully creative team of individuals with disabilities – making something for others with disabilities – was in residency at the Sydney Opera House. She says the workshop ‘brought all these beautiful minds in a room together’. Each artist brought their interdisciplinary knowledge to the table, informed by their unique voices and experiences to create something magnificent.

Based on Benny, the Sydney Opera House’s resident seal, this workshop was all about the qualities of the animal – balance, strength, adaptability and playfulness. On the first day of workshop brainstorming, Benny himself made an appearance, in what the team say was an act of ‘divine providence’. Terencio adds, ‘Benny was just taking up space. Taking up space – that was a big essence of the workshop.’

The workshop itself involved lots of movement, storytelling and sensory elements, such as different kinds of textiles. These elements can all improve the experience of people with sensory needs.

As the workshop facilitator, Benton says he was drawn to the project because of his history as a disability advocate and as someone with a disability. An award-winning gymnast turned puppeteer, he loved that the workshop had a ‘little bit of spice’ and used the idea of balance – something he was familiar with using in everyday life, as well as his gymnastics.

In putting the program together to make it as accessible as possible, all three creatives say they didn’t really need to research the methodology because they were the data – all of them had their own lived experienced of disability or neurodiversity, as well as having experience in art making and facilitating. Strategies they considered to make the space accessible for others included having an audio describer trained up for people who were vision impaired or AUSLAN interpreters on hand, if there were d/Deaf participants. Accessibility was not just a tick-box, but embedded in the whole process, considered in every part of the workshop’s curation. ‘For all of us, that’s our normal’, says Vasallo.  

These processes and considerations were possible because adequate time was given to the creatives. It was time that was integral to testing ideas and supporting the needs in the room. It was time allocated to having more breaks throughout the day, and being patient in figuring things out while having 30 different, diverse participants present.

The team’s message to curators, directors and arts spaces is “invite us in”. As Benton puts it, ‘Greatness is inside all of us… People with disabilities need to create their own stories’.

Terencio adds that if people with neurodiversities or disabilities are invited to have a space in this industry, you can guarantee ‘we will be there with our full hearts’. However, the opportunity to jump in has to be created.

It is an emotional topic of discussion, and Vasallo is visibly moved, hearing her collaborators, and also friends, speak. People with neurodiversities and disabilities have always felt the need to shift and change to fit into the creative process. But in this workshop, no one had to “mask”.

Read: Access Rights in the arts: a shared responsibility

Benton will be co-facilitating the next workshop, run by DirtyFeet, a contemporary dance company supporting early career dancers, choreographers and young people with and without disability. Dreams of Benny will also be running again next year – I’m already reserving two spots for me and my sister.

These conversations have made me realise that it was not only stress I felt that day at the gallery with my sister, but also that I was ashamed of my behaviour.

People with disabilities deserve to have the space, freedom and ability to tell their own stories. We have a long way to go in ensuring that this sector provides a safe and comfortable environment for people with neurodiversities and disabilities to be who they want to be.

One lesson to take away is this: individuals outside of the dominant ableist narrative carry multiple forms of expression; they see the world in ways many of us may not be able to comprehend. For as long as the arts sector chooses to omit and ignore the voices of those with diverse needs, it will continue to fall short of being the best version it can be. And that is a great loss to us all.

This article is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Satara Uthayakumaran is a young writer, currently studying a Bachelor of Arts/Laws at the Australian National University. She has previously written for publications including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Sydney Morning Herald and the ACT Human Rights Commission. She is a Board Member of the Domestic Violence Crisis Centre and a Youth Ambassador for Anti-Slavery Australia. Satara has also appeared on national television, most notably for her conversation with previous Prime Minister Julia Gillard, on women of colour in leadership.