Many people working in the arts, or who love going to the theatre, will know the work of the indefatigable Jenny Sealey, artistic director of the disabled theatre company Graeae, who was co-director with Bradley Hemmings of the London 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony. Her recent productions include the fabulous Reasons to Be Cheerful andThe Threepenny Opera. She is a theatremaker of international standing, who is regularly invited to work abroad.
Like the 80 or so deaf and disabled artists that Graeae employs each year, Sealey requires help so that she can do her job via the government’s Access to Work scheme. In her case she needs sign language interpreters, without which she cannot access her own projects both here and abroad. It’s the same for others working for Graeae, whether they are artists brought in for a particular show or core staff. Without the right support in place they cannot go to work, just as those who took part in the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games would have been unable to participate without adequate support.
But just two years after the euphoria of the London 2012 Paralympics and the marker for change that it laid down, many disabled artists are finding it increasingly difficult to get the support that they need to make work because of cuts to the Access to Work scheme. At Graeae, key members of staff face losing up to 70% of their support which means that they will be unable to create the projects that in turn enable other disabled people to work.
As a result of the profile created around the Paralympics there was significant interest in the skills of deaf and disabled people ininternational co-productions. But those co-productions cannot get off the ground if there is no access to sign language interpreters and other support. Sealey has been told to reduce her hours and that only scientists – not artists – are allowed access to the highest level of interpreters. She is also having her hours reviewed on a month-by-month basis, which makes it impossible to plan ahead. In a really bizarre twist, the Access to Work application is now only by telephone. Because Sealey is deaf, she does not use the telephone.
Graeae has always been at the forefront of disabled arts. There are many actors, writers and directors who would not being doing what they do now without Graeae. But what’s happening with the Access to Work cuts severely compromises the organisation’s ability to operate and provide training and opportunities for disabled artists. 2012 seemed like a moment when it was finally being understood that disability arts are not an optional add-on, but an integral part of the arts ecology, and society itself. It’s also an area of the arts where we have a significant contribution to make worldwide. But the problems accessing the right support needed to make great work that Graeae, Sealey and other disabled artists face suggests that we could easily return to a situation of reduced opportunity and access where theatre is once again the domain only of non-disabled people.