In a Guest Editorship focusing on emerging artists, Lisette Auton questions the barriers facing artists before they even become emerging. How do we ensure that the opportunities afforded by disability arts are visible and accessible to all?
On my first day at Junior school (the little blue building 63 steps from my front door where the freshly cut grass would make me be off for a week) I declared I was no longer to be known by my given first name of Rebecca, but I was now to be known by my middle name, Lisette.
There were four other Rebeccas in my class. They had already stolen the Becky, Becks and the Becca and the ‘actual’ Rebecca was perfect for the name with her long plaited hair and access to Nice N’ Spicy NikNaks as bribes. I was sickly, forever off school, and swotty, and fed up of being a Rebecca afterthought.
So I changed it. And blow me, everyone just did it. Apart from my Gran who always called me Re…Lisette. I’d thought about it, I’d analysed it, I’d worked it out at age eight and there it was written on my exercise books and called out on the register. Then dad and I changed it by Deed Poll which cost a fiver we couldn’t really afford and it was done.
That name made me, be me. It unlocked something inside, and bravery and art and writing occurred. It didn’t stop me being sickly and swotty, but it somehow let me embrace them as me on my terms. And then school was really, suddenly, alright. There is power in choice. There is power in a name.
Choice disappeared at the age of twenty-one when dreams of changing the world, acting, campaigning, travelling and partying hard vanished into isolated bed-bound days and being cared for by my parents. I shrank and disappeared. When I was well enough to think, my overriding thought was of grief, and more so, of shame. Why did I feel that? Because of the lack of role models. Not inspiration porn.
Visible disabled people working, living and creating in the mainstream. The radio was my only friend. Did I hear them there? The TV was eventually a window back into the world – a window that dictated shiny boundless energy, working legs, and a must be perfect body to succeed. A non-disabled utopia to which I was very much not invited.
Not that I knew the phrase non-disabled, not that I considered myself disabled. Not in the way I do now. I shied away from it because disabled was shame and pity and there-there-pat-on-head Tiny Tim territory.
I lost a decade due to this thinking.
Can we just stop and focus on that for a moment.
Ten long years of thinking that creativity by someone like me was not allowed or wanted.
Eventually I became a secret scribbler, because the need to make and wonder oozed out and needed to be set free somewhere. Secret is key. Secret steals one’s soul.
My impairment means I can have varying levels of ability. I would only venture into the world on the days I could keep it invisible. I would push myself to ridiculous limits and pay the price because it must not be seen, it must not be discovered. I lost every single friend because I couldn’t come to terms with who I was, never mind tell someone else. Shame steals lives.
The ridiculous thing is that I saw myself as liberal, open minded, as a champion for equality and there was me striving to hide something I would fight for others to own. So what scared me so much? Being other. Being rejected. Being told I couldn’t, shouldn’t, mustn’t. Not seeing anyone who said I could, should, must.
There are many debates on the future of and the need for Disability Arts. I was fortunate enough to be part of a panel at DaDaFest on this very subject. For me Disability Arts is imperative, as a movement, as a force for change, as a bastion of exceptional accessible and inclusionary art; as a life-saver.
Disability Arts saved my life.
Disability Arts will save other lives.
Disability Arts matters. Now. Today.
For me though, finding it was too hard. It took too long. It was not on my window on the world TV and it was not directly at my fingertips on my laptop. Search for Disability Arts, stick it in as a hashtag and you will find a plethora of glorious wonderful work. But let’s rewind that a step; it’s really easy to find something once you know it exists.
I was ludicrously lucky that I happened to take a course at ARC in Stockton, where one of the sessions happened to be run by Vici Wreford-Sinnott and I happened, by pure chance, to find a window into the world that saved me. That made me be me, own me, be proud to be me, become an unstoppable creative campaigning fire-brand, but within my own parameters and absolutely and utterly my way.
What if I’d never signed up? I went along having ignored the disability and access needs tick box, thinking that I wouldn’t be allowed to go, that this invalid would be in-valid. What if this fluky chance had never occurred? I dread to think.
What’s in a name? There is power. There is choice. That’s why I choose to call myself a disabled artist on every application I fill in, on every brief biography I’m asked to write, on every piece of PR, on my website, on my social media accounts, for every workshop I run, and to everyone I meet. I will not be hidden. Because those people who could be reading or listening, could be a me. Could be scared of being found out. Could be lost and alone with a wealth of sensational work just ready to be unleashed if they knew it was allowed.
That’s why I also take on work outside of Disability Arts, slinking into and fighting to be acknowledged within the ‘mainstream’. I want to have a seat at the table, to subvert the table, to break the table, to remake the table. To invite everyone to the table. To make those at the table listen, learn, watch, change and commission. Then it’s on TV, on the radio, in theatres and galleries and it does not need to be discovered by chance – it’s visible and proud and says; join us, you will be welcome here.
That may be a pipe-dream. You may pat me on my head and go; “There, there pet, we’ve tried that for years, bless you.” True. You have. I am only able to be here because I stand on your shoulders and I am proud and grateful to do so. But there’s a woman I remember from a decade ago that no longer wanted to exist. There will be a woman in a bedroom now, scared and alone, who no longer wants to exist.
There is power in a name. There is power in choice.
Hello, my name is Lisette Auton, disabled artist, and I’m ready to change the world.