Shape's work with young disabled people in youth settings goes back to the earliest days of the organisation in the 1970s, when Gina Levete MBE first founded the organisation. 

During the following decades we have developed a wide range of networks and relationships with practitioners to support our work in this area. In recent times we have been running our Big Lottery-funded youth project, Inspiring Futures, engaging with young disabled people interested in working in the arts and creative industries, or who are in transition, and making their first decisions about life after education.

As it’s our 40th anniversary year, we’ve looked back over what we’ve garnered from our work with young people and have put together our ten key learnings, listed below.

Contact details for our team are at the bottom if you would like to know more about what we do or how you can get involved.


  1. On early engagement: Whatever the intervention, the first contact with creativity is, as is well known, generally a positive event in itself for the young person. But when presented by a role model, someone ‘like themselves’ who has stepped in from the outer world (often outside the protective shelter of family and school), a sense of creativity linked to potential can begin to grow. Repeated in the right way, this creative engagement can often link to a better sense of self, and through empowered means of communication, the young person can more easily begin to see themselves in an active, independent and positive light


  1. On working with the right teacher, the right artist, the right environment at the right time: For the student seeing their work exhibited in public, the effects can be momentous ... we have seen ripples going back through a school to an entire community of families and friends. One of the most essential things we see in need of improving among our cohorts is confidence, and being confident about discussing or relating to disability on their own terms. One young person told us: ‘I don’t feel judged (by you). Here, I am truly able to express myself.’


  1. On ‘disability’: When we are dealing with or discussing this subject with young people (as well as teachers and employers), we have learnt to steer away at the earliest opportunity from all talk of healing and therapy. Our focus is on aspiration: all forms of growth, we believe, can then proceed in the right direction.


  1. On ambition: The young people we worked with did not have some ‘vague notion’ about working in the arts and creative industries. Their response was strong and clear – over 70% had a clear focus on working in these fields, which they saw as a destination they fully deserved to arrive at.


  1. On what young disabled people have asked for: Not to be treated in a different way to non-disabled young people; to be given accessible opportunities to study or gain paid employment (pre-employment roles are hugely valued, but young disabled people do not want to subsist on endless voluntary roles); personal and financial independence is seen as having the most paramount importance, and too often seen by others as a futile goal; having information, signposting and the right career advice surfaces again and again: the request to our sector is to provide resources which are accessible and easily available to young disabled people – not buried in the information maze


  1. On working with employers: The majority of employers we have worked with often have the best, and well-stated, intentions around wanting to ‘diversify’ and bring more disabled people into their organisations. The greatest fear we see is of things going wrong, or of doing the wrong thing. Our learning here: disability equality training has proven worth in instilling the confidence that lowers the risk of things going wrong; our cohorts tell us they believe that such training (with its focus on removing society’s barriers) should not only be for non-disabled people but also disabled people regardless of age or identity status. 


  1. On tackling barriers: our learning here is to translate an employer’s fear into an articulation of the barriers that exist between them and the young people they may want to take on or engage with. We find that once we are discussing barriers instead of someone’s disability or impairment, the conversation moves away from fear and turns towards practical solutions.


  1. On ensuring sustainable solutions: One significant learning was that working on a project by project basis can lead to stops and starts that cannot act anything like as effectively as longer term interventions. Some of our work with young people takes longer than comparable programmes, and as a result, more time and resources is required - something which is widely appreciated, but not always catered for, through traditional funding streams.


  1. On entering the creative industries: While the arts endure famine in its funding, the creative industries ‘feast’, and appear to grow mightier by the day. Our learning is this: it is one matter to equip young disabled people to enter this complex and fast-moving realm of work, but quite another for opportunity holders to have the confidence to tap into this pool of ambitious talent. The creative industries thrive through the diversity of their makers and producers: imagine the potential if such industries were fully inclusive and accessible as well.


  1. On belonging to the current generation: Our learning is that many young people are angry and afraid of their circumstances. The great risk is that we have an entire ‘hayseed’ generation who will scatter about rootlessly, never settling into pathways of success and professionalism - thereby depriving those individuals of a chance to lead, and depriving a better society of its future leaders.

These themes have surfaced time and again over the last 40 years throughout all strands of our work with young disabled people; above all with the common overriding notion: their voice matters.

This piece is published concurrently with Take the Space’s “WDDM: Lessons Learned” text, which explores ten things they learned during their project “What Difference Does Difference Make?” The project focusses on the impact of Naseem Khan’s landmark publication “The Arts Britain Ignores”, published 40 years ago at the time of Shape’s birth.

For more information on Inspiring Futures and how you can be involved, click here.

You can help us celebrate our 40th anniversary by donating to our Art Without Barriers campaign, enabling us to continue our work for years to come.


Image: Tamisha Archibald speaks at an Inspiring Futures workshop