Is Theatre Failing to Include and Represent Artists with Disabilities?

In this article, George explores the lack of equality within theatre, with focus on the deficits faced by artists with disabilities.

Is Theatre Failing to Include and Represent Artists with Disabilities?

"As of 2016, no theatrical organisation has a percentage of disabled staff that is representative of the working population."[1]

Inclusivity is an ongoing issue within UK theatre; with the demographics of BAME[2], women and people with disabilities forever at the forefront of neglect. Having said this, a recent article published in The Stage Newspaper[3]pinpoints that the representation of BAME artists within Arts Council England Funded[4] organisations is consistently improving in increments; with a rise in employment from 13.9% to 17% of the BAME working population from 2015-16. ACE Chief Executive, Darren Henley, was cited in the article as stating "this improving picture for BAME representation proves that the arts are moving in the right direction". If this is the case, why is it that 10% is the highest percentage any ACE funded organisation can offer to account for their number of disabled employees? Figures gathered by Gov.UK[5] outline this imbalance further in wider employment; with a 30.1% (equating to 2 million people) gap in between working age people with disabilities and those without disabilities in employment; highlighting this negligence further. Although these statistics do not necessarily cover artists, they give a clear indication into the scale of the oversight that is directed towards those with disabilities in the UK.

Having worked closely with young people and adults with disabilities of all mediums over the past 3 years, this is an issue I consider profoundly concerning in terms of their career choices and possible pathways. With the aforementioned figures in mind, I am interested to explore if there is a reason as to why some demographics are receiving a surge in representation in comparison to others such as the disabled community – their work is just as valid and important as those of any other background. Several theatre companies dedicate their catalogues of work to strive for this equal representation by creating innovative and thought provoking statements through their projects; proving that it is time that disabled artists are given a voice. All the while, factors such as government cuts to the arts are bearing down over organisations such as Graeae Theatre Company[6] which hinders the progress they are attempting to make in British Theatre; creating a vicious cycle of "one step forward and two steps back".

So just why are the figures so bad?

Lyn Gardner[7] is a columnist for The Guardian who holds strong beliefs surrounding the impact of theatre involving deaf and disabled artists; devoting a lot of her publishing's to their work or the lack of. Across 3 months in 2016 alone, she wrote two pieces entitled: "Diversity in Theatre: Why is disability being left out?"[8] And "Disability arts left hanging by a thread"[9]. In the latter of the two, Gardner discusses in depth the "driving force for disability arts in the UK", Graeae Theatre Company, with particular reference to their long running and award winning artistic director Jenny Sealey. Within her article, Lyn makes an interesting contrast to the 2012 London Paralympic Games and the "marker for change that the event laid down" for those with disabilities in the UK and how much awareness of their innovative work this created to how circumstances are now with severe cuts to the 'Access to Work'[10] government scheme. An 'Access to Work' grant can pay for practical, working support in aid of any form of disability to assist:

  • Someone to start working
  • Someone to stay working
  • Someone to move into self-employment/start a business

The second and third options are the ones which the majority will comply with; working as a freelance artist from company to company or to get a substantial fund for their certain organisation/work. Gardner highlights that key members of staff at Graeae face "losing 70% of their support which means they will be unable to create the projects that in turn enable other disabled people to work", enforcing the concept that disabled artists are being failed in their field of interest. In reference to her point regarding the Paralympic games, there was a significant interest in the skills of deaf and disabled people in international co-productions which arrived during the event, sparking the belief that this was to be a definite turning point for disability in modern culture. But in reality, the money has been stripped from them; forming unavoidable obstacles which have lessened the chances of innovative, collaborative work. The 'Access to Work' scheme has also been made far less accessible in what Gardner calls "a bizarre twist" by making applications for the grant, telephone only-building unnecessary barriers for artists with hearing impairments.[11] In further conversation surrounding funding; her former article gains the opinions of leading disabled artists such as Paul Darke[12]. Being an active artist and activist for disabled creatives, Darke argues that "arts organisations should be made to programme and support disabled artists and companies and, if they don't, the Arts Council should apply sanctions and remove funding." As this viewpoint derives from someone within the disabled community, it is clear to see that this is an incredibly prominent issue breathing through the theatre in this modern age where these kinds of collaborations could lead to new and exciting pieces.

Are there any redeeming factors for disabled artists in UK theatre?

Whilst exhibiting these facts which illustrate just how those with disabilities are being failed within theatre, it would be neglectful to ignore the high degree of work that several specialist British companies are producing even without the help of ACE. There are numerous theatre associations which strive to provide development and exposure for disabled artists of all ages across a variety of platforms including performance and writing.

Residing in Winchester since 2005, Blue Apple Theatre Company[13] have epitomised themselves as a key figure in displaying just what disabled performers can do when given a stage to express themselves upon. Their all accepting, no boundaries attitude has attributed them to 24 successful runs of productions since their origination including; 'The Happy Prince', 'Twelfth Night', the upcoming 'It's a Wonderful Life' and their ground breaking tour of 'Hamlet'[14] which visited 12 venues across the south of England; bringing a considerable amount of attention to the group. Alongside this, the core actors of the troupe graced the Sam Wanamaker stage of The Globe in March 2016; displaying just how significant the organisations work has become. Blue Apple promotes their work as "empowering people through theatre, dance and film" on their website and advertise themselves as "open to both people with and without learning difficulties – what matters is the desire to take part and make a contribution". They also proudly signpost their "intensive training programme"[15] for disabled performers through the creation of their renown touring company Apple Cores which has raised the organisations profile hugely and acts as an "alternative education system for disabled artists". All in all, the companies focus on advancing the skills of both young and old disabled artists is astonishing; offering a fantastic array of opportunities to those looking to test the waters of theatre without having to do it on their own. Blue Apple is solely funded by trustees and patrons; with the only assistance from ACE received support with their theatre tour costs such as 'Hamlet' which is most likely how they can continually produce to such a high scale. Their overall plan for continuation is summed up neatly on their website: "We plan to continue to raise the profile of our inclusive work and the talent of our members, and to challenge attitudes to disability across the country."

Whereas Blue Apple provides an incredibly practical approach to promoting and representing all-inclusive work; other British foundations have create a voice that can be heard for artists with disabilities. Mediums such as those provided by Unlimited[16] and Disability Arts International[17] offer discursive platforms as well as networks outlining opportunities/events for disabled artists to be involved with. After receiving funding from ACE alongside the National Lottery Fund, Unlimited has worked on altering its approach from 2013-2016 to "offer talented disabled artists funds and mentoring support to develop, produce and show ambitious work" through digital conversations. The company has dedicated itself to a friendly and approachable output; creating dialogues with anyone who would like to apply for one of these funding schemes for artistic endeavours. Whilst also promoting their financial support, the organisation have consistently organised further exposure for disabled artists; setting up showcases at The London Southbank Centre as well as Glasgow's Tramway to international and national delegates who can give feedback and mentor anyone who they wish; acting as a sort of agency system. Disability Arts International (which is fuelled by the British Council) is a totally digital organisation which has a frequently updated directory, utilised to publicize different associations which work closely with disabled artists. Any company can contact Disability Arts International and request to be promoted; creating further cohesion in the representation of disabled artists within the UK. The site works to form a collaborative network between specialist organisations and create awareness for artists as to the unique companies which are available for harmonious work.

What do industry professionals think?

For the last 10 years, Jenny Sealey, MBE, has been the Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Graeae Theatre Company. Since becoming deaf from the age of 7, Sealey excelled in education relating to dance and choreography; eventually directing the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Paralympic Games. Holding an incredibly prolific career whilst being a disabled artist herself, she is a fantastic example of someone not allowing their disability to hold them back within theatre; constantly defying boundaries. Despite this, a blog post she added to The Guardian's Blog site[18] conveys a rather defeated side to Sealey in light of the funding cuts mentioned in Gardner's articles. Published publically on the 13th of April 2015, Jenny outlines the damage these cuts will have on disabled artists trying to make a living out of theatre; with particular referral to the cuts of the 'Access to Work' and the scrapping of the 'Independent Living Fund'[19], deeming them "terrifying to contemplate". Whilst her article is full of the issues these deficits will give way to such as "budget caps" for freelance disabled artists and the stripping of "accessible support such as sign language interpreters" due to costs, Sealey seems defiant in the face of these financial changes, stating; "We will not let government cuts make us invisible." In further writing she created this audacious and inspiring paragraph which reflects on her company's work as well as displaying their innovative nature:

"Graeae is a company that makes theatre that matters and there is no way I am going to let the cuts to ATW and the closure of the ILF thwart the company's ambition. Neither am I going to let us be relegated to the side-lines. We have a huge responsibility to pave the way for the next generation of artists, leaders and thinkers. We are back to the very heart of why Graeae was set up in the first place: to be brilliant, to challenge perception and to fight exclusion. We will survive because we like a challenge, and we will survive because we have to."

Written almost 2 years ago, her article clearly made an impact: Graeae are still running as one of (if not the most) important theatrical companies for artists with disabilities in the UK. Founded in 1980, the organisation looks at assisting disabled artists at any stage of their career on a personal, social and practical basis. They offer their own playwriting development scheme for five disabled up and coming writers to have new work developed, staged, and published. Overall as an organisation, they work fundamentally with disabled artists; currently employing 80 artists with the majority freelance. Even with budget cuts posing a looming threat, the company have gone from strength to strength in recent years; forming a circus company involving well renowned actor, director and activist Jamie Beddard[20] and, in 2014, staging their all-inclusive production of 'The Threepenny Opera' which was lauded as "dissipating the fear of disability". Alongside this modernised tour which expanded their outreach and created more attention for them, their newly written play 'The Solid Life of Sugar Water'[21] enjoyed a month's run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2015 before transferring to London's National Theatre in 2016 for a lengthy run and earning several wealthy reviews[22]; proving that disabled arts deserves a space on mainstream stages.

Is modern theatre failing to include and represent artists with disabilities?

In light of all of my research and given debate, I am inclined to suggest that the theatre industry is not offering an equal quantity of opportunities to represent disabled artists; whether they are performers, designers, writers or directors. A new question which has derived from researching companies and their working strategies is what can mainstream organisations do to bolster the importance of disabled artists to the public eye? From exploring the matter more and learning about the programmes of work on offer by certain associations such as Blue Apple and Disability Arts International, I feel there is a strong foundation for disabilities in theatre to grow expansively; with digital platforms being appropriated to create mediums for disabled artists to communicate their ideas and viewpoints. The networks these companies are forging for these creatives is astonishing and can only progress into the public eye through diverse projects as times move on; but circumstances, in my opinion, are threatened by the looming risk of further cuts to this sector which would prove disastrous for artists with disabilities, possibly "making them invisible" and obstructing the path to innovative theatre. I personally believe that more large scale arts corporations need to be supporting disabled art through offering performance spaces, mentoring and outreach projects which can enable further development and exposure for these artists. At this moment, I think the basis is there to begin this work, but more funding is required for disabled artists to be seen by larger audiences and be represented equally in theatre.

[1] Taken from an article from The Stage Newspaper headlined "Theatre is failing people with disabilities".

[2] An acronym defined as: British, Black and Minority Ethnic.

[3] Georgia Snow's 15th December 2016 article headlined: "Theatre is failing people with disabilities". The piece acts as a report to showcase figures and areas of alarm in relation to the annual National Portfolio Organisation diversity report.

[4] Arts Council England offers different levels of funding to theatre companies/organisations under their National Portfolio scheme based on certain criteria's:

[5] Information sourced from:

[6] About Graeae:

[7] Lyn Gardner's profile on the Guardian:

[8] Full article:

[9] Full article:

[10] Information about 'Access To Work' Grants:

[11] An E-mail is available for the grant, but the government wants to create 'open dialogues' with those with disabilities over the phone.

[12] A Cultural critic, disability rights activist and columnist based in Wolverhampton. Heads the Wolverhampton disability film and arts festival. He has been a spearhead in changing cultural perceptions on disabilities.

[13] More information about Blue Apple's work:

[14] ACE funded tour produced in 2012. More info:

[15] All quotes in this section taken form their site.

[16]Unlimited's Website:

[17]Disability Arts International's Website:

[18] Full Blog:

[19] The Independent Living Fund: set up in 1988 to fund support for disabled people with high needs in the UK, enabling them to live in the community rather than in residential care. It was closed in 2015 and responsibility was passed to local councils.

[20] Jamie has performed on mainstream stages such as the National Theatre in its 2016 production of 'The Threepenny Opera' playing 'Mathias' in the Olivier. He was also the Diversity Officer for ACE for many years.

[21] Written by Jack Thorne. Review by Financial Times:

[22] Review by The Guardian:

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George Bailey

George Bailey

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  • Luke Taylor

    On 12 January 2017, 10:17 Luke Taylor Contributor commented:

    I'm loving the effort put into this Gold Piece - well done! This is a very important issue as well.

  • Sienna James

    On 13 January 2017, 13:55 Sienna James Voice Team commented:

    What a fantastic essay; loving the thorough research :)

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