The National Arts and Disability Strategy highlights the need to act now to ensure that people with disabilities have access to fulfil their entitlement of a culturally expressive life. Emma Bennison discusses the need for a fundamental cultural shift if the strategy is going to be fully realised….
When the Cultural Ministers Council endorsed a National Arts and Disability Strategy (NADS) in 2009, it was met with a sense of optimism by the arts and disability sector. While there were concerns at the lack of funding to support its implementation and the absence of measurable targets, there was general agreement that this was a landmark first step toward genuine inclusion for people with disability in all aspects of arts and culture. This was the first time a Federal Government had developed an arts and disability policy to be implemented in collaboration with State, Territory and Local Governments.
Since then, two hundred and twenty nine projects around increasing access to arts and culture have been cited in the NADS update report. Given the lack of targets within the strategy, it is impossible to determine how this compares with previous years and whether the NADS has been the driver, or whether progress would have been made regardless. It is also too early to say how successful cross-Government collaborations will be in leveraging additional funding and support for the focus areas within the strategy.
Despite the challenges which remain in terms of the collaboration still required from Governments at all levels to implement the NADS, it has not necessarily been a missed opportunity. History will judge its success on whether people with disability enjoy full and equal access to arts and culture at all levels. Arts Access Australia (AAA) estimates that $24 million will be required in order to fully implement the NADS. The Office for the Arts has recently provided $500 000 in new funding to AAA for implementation of various aspects of the NADS and AAA is partnering with the Australia Council to deliver Cultivate, a funding program to support professional development. An excellent start, but more needs to be done.
But as is the case in the broader disability sector, the major barrier to full and equal access remains attitudinal and this is equally in need of attention if the NADS is to leave a lasting legacy. This is not to discount the numerous examples of inclusive arts practice already evident across the country. But in order for systemic change to occur, there needs to be a fundamental cultural shift which even the most effective strategy will not deliver by itself.
It has long been my view that the most successful way to influence community attitudes and Government policy is to ensure that people with disability are empowered to have a voice at all levels regarding decisions which affect them. This is why access to education and training are critical, as is the employment of people with disability at all levels across the arts and cultural sector. Considering that the arts is generally viewed as an innovative sector which embraces diversity, this is an opportunity for the sector to take the lead in an area which needs urgent attention, not tokenism, but real career pathways and real jobs for people with real skills and talents.
The NADS has laid the policy foundations for removing barriers to arts and cultural participation for people with disability. Governments are taking some strong initial steps in the right direction. The missed opportunity is the enabling of a rich, (perhaps at times dissonant) but ongoing dialogue with people with disability across the sector every day, not only when it’s time to build the accessible website or the new ramp, (though of course these are important and valued initiatives.) What’s needed is an arts and cultural narrative where disability is part of the story, not a separate book to be dusted off every so often. Only then will the real opportunity created by the NADS be realised.