Exchanging Knowledge through Creative Practice: What do disability arts and culture mean to you?

On Saturday 29th and Sunday 30th September, disabled and non-disabled academics, artists, and activists from across the UK came together at Theatre Deli, Sheffield, in a collaborative Knowledge Exchange exploring the question: What do disability arts and culture mean to you?

I’m a Research Fellow and disabled feminist researcher in the School of Education and Institute for the Study of the Human (iHuman) at the University of Sheffield. Along with my collaborative partner Touretteshero, including Directors Jess Thom, Matthew Pountney and Will Renel, our disability arts and culture Knowledge Exchange was our first foray into having critical conversations with a diverse group of people about the power and meanings of disability art and culture and the intersections of arts and academia. The Knowledge Exchange is part of Tourettehero’s Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellowship, which I’m supporting on behalf of the University of Sheffield.

Touretteshero is an organisation that raises awareness of the challenges people with Tourette’s face, and embraces humour and creativity in its approach in order to take ownership of the laughter that’s often associated with the condition — to provide a genuinely funny cultural alternative. You can read more about Touretteshero’s work here. This accessible, yet radical proposition informs and underpins Touretteshero’s philosophical, artistic and practical approach to our endeavours in its Engagement Fellowship. For us, a key aim of the Fellowship is to make cutting edge, creative and innovative contributions towards thinking about disability and its many intersections, at the same time as engaging varied audiences both inside and outside of the Academy.

Through bringing together a group of approximately fifteen artists, academics, and activists we spent two days engaging in a creative exchange about disability, culture, arts and accessibility. We began by co-creating a collaborators agreement — how we would work together ethically within the Knowledge Exchange. The aim of the agreement was to be sensitive to creating a space that was open, safe(r), and acknowledged the various needs and desires of those in the room, and how these could shape conversation. We then asked some attendees to give a five-minute provocation about their research and/or arts practice. These provocations led to open space discussions about the meanings of radical access in the context of disability arts, practice and cultural spaces, and the importance of giving attention to lived, political, artistic, academic and activist knowledges. We also discussed the power of the arts to record forgotten disability histories, leave meaningful legacies, and imagine alternative futures. Our conversations also emphasised the importance of affirming intersectionality within disability culture (the interconnected nature of disability, race, class, gender, sexuality, age, and nation).

School of Education PhD students Antonios Ktenidis and Sophie Phillips were key contributors to the Knowledge Exchange. Sophie said “I enjoyed being at an event where the space was not only thought provoking but inclusive and adapted of the needs of all participants, which rarely occurs in society.” Antonios said, “Knowledge should be shared and shall not be owned’: with this phrase in mind, I attended the Knowledge Exchange, excited about making knowledge together, collectively, one with another. I entered a space where all bodies and minds were respected and listened to, literally and metaphorically. Not only I felt listened to, but I also listened to and learned from bodies and minds similar to and different from mine simultaneously.”

Excitingly, all of our discussions were recorded by a graphic note-taker Amber Anderson (pictured here) and disseminated on Twitter. We are now working out our next steps in the Fellowship: how we can build upon and mobilise the dialogues we had within our Knowledge Exchange, and how we can work together to reify the criticality and power of disability arts at a deeply precarious time in disabled people’s history. Disability arts and culture offer forms of power to resist oppression and confinement and challenge stereotypical representations of our lives, but they also offer chances for affirmative understandings of disability to flourish, showing disability in all its nuance and vibrancy. So, watch this space for future updates!

Kirsty Liddiard, School of Education and iHuman.