I arrive at Graeae’s Bradbury studios to talk to Amit Sharma about their Write to Play scheme. Graeae are pretty much unique – a theatre company run by Deaf and disabled artists that creates internationally celebrated work, most visibly their involvement in the 2012 Paralympic opening ceremony. Amit and I are supposed to be discussing their development programme for new writers.
Except it all goes horribly wrong. The problem?
Politics. More specifically, changes to welfare that are drastically altering the lives of Deaf and disabled artists and performers – the abolition of the Independent Living Fund (ILF), changes to Access to Work and the Disability Living Allowance, the Bedroom Tax, and Personal Independence Payment (PIP). The support that’s required to live independently and be employed, is being slashed – just as the level of support drops and the bureaucratic obstacles to obtaining it are raised.
That might sound dull. But it’s technical language with real consequences. In measured tones, Amit outlines what’s happening to Graeae and the people it works with:
“Graeae started up thirty five years ago to challenge the idea that disabled people could be side-lined. And 35 years later, it seems like we’re coming full circle. Particularly with the ILF – we’re talking about people going into care homes.”
“We’re talking about people who are going to be sat without any support whatsoever. And I’m talking basic support – going to the bathroom. People who have trained, people who have taught, who have worked for years and years are going to be sat in nappies waiting for someone to take them to the toilet, or to cook them food.”
“It’s a disgrace.”
It’s the abolition of the ILF that seems most callous. A fund set up thirty years ago to support disabled people to live in communities, the government has used misplaced economic arguments to justify jeopardising the living situation of 18,000 disabled people. After a series of appeals, it’s been deemed lawful and will cease to exist on 9 June 2015. Something the Equalities and Human Rights Commission warns will “result in loss of dignity and independence for many ILF recipients.”
For Amit, “there’s a real lack of understanding of what talented people disabled and Deaf people are, and what they can bring to society.” The attitude in government seems encapsulated by Lord Freud’s comments – a remark at the Conservative party conference that some individuals “were not worth the full [minimum] wage.” You can see Graeae’s response here.
And while Natasha Lewis has written about how the importance of the ILF, and how key performers in Graeae’s gorgeous, ambitious, thrilling production of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera need the ILF to be employed, and Amelia Cavallano on the death of Stella Young and the need to fight Access to Work changes that mean Deaf people will be deprived of interpreters, the conversation feels confined to (mainly Deaf and disabled) artists. It’s a conversation that’s still outside the mainstream. Which means the stories go largely unheard.
For Amit, non-disabled people need to add their voices in order for the problems to reach a wider audience: “it’s so hard to make the right noises without sounding like it’s ‘those lot complaining again or it’s those lot moaning again’ and we’re not complaining, we’re not moaning, we’re telling the reality of what it is.”
In addition to campaigning, Graeae currently have two verbatim shows in development – Sorry and Sick – each looking at a different aspect of benefit change. As a consequence, Amit’s hearing a lot of what he bluntly calls “horror stories.” He says he’s noticing a change in attitude, a hardening of hearts.
“Some of those stories you just go – oh my God. Are we really treating people like this? That’s the thing – there’s no compassion. The compassion’s gone. It’s been changed into vitriol.”
Part of that is the demonization of those claiming benefits. Which, of course, includes the disabled.
“That word benefit is becoming a really dirty word. Before it was ‘benefits’ it was called a welfare state – and there is a reason why it was called a welfare state, because it was helping people who, needed the state to support them. And a lot of people who are using the welfare state are also in work.”
Simultaneously, hate crime levels have risen – “We know of cases where people, where wheelchair users have been pushed into oncoming traffic. Who have been spat on, who have been beaten. There was a case of a wheelchair user got into a bus – the bus driver wouldn’t allow him on – he put his foot in the door and the bus driver started kicking his foot. It’ just horrendous, really. The responsibility has to be ours. Ours as a society.”
In theatre-world, Amit sees an ally in Peter Bazalgette – the new head of the Arts Council England (ACE) has been publicly articulating the artistic and economic value of diversity, “thank god he is making the creative case for diversity because it seems like diversity has gone out of fashion, but it’s one of the fundamental tenets for the Arts Council, which is great. It’s about making those NPOs accountable for the diversity of employees, which I then hope will have a knock on effect within the industry too.”
In the meantime, outside the industry, there’s an urgent fight for disability rights. A starting point is for more and more people to find out what’s happening and make their voices heard. As it stands, Amit’s contemplating something nearly unthinkable – Graeae, a world-leading and acclaimed theatre company that has pioneered Deaf and disabled artists might shut up shop.
“The way things are at the moment the company will probably close in six years. If we don’t get the level of support that we do get – from Access to Work as an example – there’s no way Graeae can support Jenny, who’s our artistic director, her access requirements, or mine, or other core staff members.”
It already feels like the 2012 Paralympic games is a long-distance memory, and the changes underway threaten to push it entirely out of sight. We’re in danger of losing three decades worth of gains made for Deaf and disabled people.