In mid August I was attending a panel discussion on Indigiqueer Intersections and Futures and was struck by an opening comment from one of the panelists: “Should this conversation be a separate panel, or just part of every discussion?” And why not? This is what intersectionality supports, and this is what inclusion looks like.

The comment also reminded me of a quote from fellow neurodivergent artist Anna Berry, writing for disability arts online:

"There is so much conversation in the art world about identity (arguably too much) – race, gender, culture, sexuality – but we’re still not on an equal footing in that discussion when the identity is one of disability. It’s the poor relation of identity politics. Disability is not afforded anything like the same graceful acceptance, tact, and recognition about the need for representation in that discussion."

In my thirty plus years of arts practice and advocacy, I have never attended a panel discussion on disability culture. It is still the invisible identity, never really present at the table when diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are discussed. 

To address this problem four artists—Paul Power from Newfoundland and Labrador, April Hubbard from Nova Scotia, Isabelle Vautour from New Brunswick, and Alexis Bulman from PEI—were invited by the JRG Society for the Arts to organize and stage the Disability Atlantic Arts Symposium online in late October of 2021. During the two days, three panels were hosted: “Strange Avenues,” “Funding Access: Where’s the Money,” and “Conversation with Funders.” Of the three panels, only the final session was open to the public.

“Strange Avenues” featured personal stories from several artists about how they navigated their way through their various practices. The remaining panels where focused on access to public art funding, and began to examine existing policies and structures. A number of issues quickly came to prominence in these discussions. There were questions concerning disclosure and what happens when you begin defining your practice within disability funding models. Because these funding models are so unsophisticated in examining disability, it’s usually just a check box—you are either disabled or you aren’t—that one can’t help but think that it could easily leave an artist vulnerable to the inertia of stigma and stereotype. 

A number of artists on the panel were clearly comfortable with gaming the system—with the awareness that they were doing it—to make work that engaged specifically with their disabled experience, while others were uncomfortable with that vector circumscribing their practice. This speaks directly to the fluid nature of identity and disability, running the gamut of person-first language to identity-first language. While this can be fuel for art making, disabled artists are not going to operate within any recognized model of identity politics. Add to that pervasive ableist constructs like inspiration porn, and one can see how easily misguided funding programs imposing a narrative, rather than facilitating authentic voices, can just add more barriers. We have all seen the arts funding tail wag the dog in the past. This is where “Nothing About Us Without Us” is key.

Screenshot of artist Vie Jones presenting at the Disability Atlantic Arts Symposium. Photo: Alexis Bulman

While the discussion with funders highlighted the current lack of targeted programs for disability artists within the four respective provincial agencies in Atlantic Canada, this conversation needs to spread to the art institutions where the majority of public cultural funding is spent. While many of these organizations may have DEI policies on disability for their employees and audience members, few have the same policies for engaging artists. This problem was recently articulated by Kate Adams of Project Art Works, a neurodiverse artist collective nominated for this year’s Turner Prize. Speaking to the Guardian UK she states, “It’s been really hard to open up the cultural sector, It is incredibly conservative, especially contemporary visual arts because it’s so aligned with theory, commerce and ego.” 

Moving from the margins to the mainstream is aways work, and that burden is always unfairly born by the marginalized. Alexis Bulman recognized this inequity while engaging with funders. She said, “We don’t want to do work. We want to be

invited to, you know, have a conversation.” Those conversations will take time, but the Disability Atlantic Arts Symposium has created a place for those conversations to take place. It has helped bond a community so that the load can be shared. Disabled artists will still have to carry it but hopefully one day there will be a panel discussion on Disability Intersections and Futures, and someone will feel comfortable wondering “Should disability be a separate panel or just part of every discussion?”