Disability arts grew out of the disability rights movement, and the wider struggle by disabled people for equality and the right to participate in all aspects of society.
Informed by the radical political activism of the 1960's and motivated by creative ambition as well frustration at their exclusion from mainstream arts, disabled people came together to form their own organisations. These organisations provided a space where the needs and aspirations of disabled people could be realised, and their creative talents developed. Shape was founded in 1976 by Gina Levete MBE as part of this movement.
With project funding from the Gulbenkian Foundation and others, Shape launched several projects in schools, prisons, arts centres and colleges across Greater London. As the artists and the organisation gained momentum so did its reputation, leading to revenue funding from the Association of London Government (London Councils), several London Boroughs and Greater London Arts (Arts Council). In its early days Shape worked with everyone who was 'excluded'. However, as the organisation evolved it has concentrated on working to enable deaf and disabled people to access the arts. During the 1980's the Shape model was repeated around the UK by the establishment of regional Shape services. Many of these remain, though over the years may have changed their name, or their focus.