Shape’s Georgia Macqueen Black, NDACA’s Marketing Officer, tells us just how much the Archive has to offer and achieve.

NDACA team holding the Heritage lottery Fund banner

As the Marketing Officer for the National Disability Arts Collection & Archive (NDACA), the Shape-delivered archive that will chronicle the heritage story of the Disability Arts Movement, I pay direct attention to an impressive social and creative history. NDACA is the archive of a political, arts-based community of disabled people who from the mid-1970s onwards argued for a positive alternative to oppression through a shared culture of creativity and direct action.

The past year I’ve spent working on NDACA has taught me that the art in our collection, which will go live in April 2018, should be understood in a political context. Artworks were created through personal encounters with the Social Model of Disability, which separates impairment from disability and locates the root of oppression in a disabling world - click here to read about it. Take, for example, Shape’s Chair Tony Heaton’s protest performance piece ‘Shaken Not Stirred’ (1992), which you can view here, staged at a press conference designed to register disabled people’s opposition to ITV’s charity Telethon, a programme which raised charitable donations for the disabled community. Heaton took aim at the mainstream view that disabled people were pathetic and needy through his artwork, forming a pyramid from 1,683 charity collection cans, and using a prosthetic leg to topple the representation of hierarchal structures of disabled people’s oppression. To me, this artwork is a powerful register of a politically-charged moment in the NDACA collection, showing how disabled artists more than understood societal barriers – they were angry and unafraid to overcome them.  

Shaken Not Stirred - Tony Heaton

As a rights- and arts-based heritage story, NDACA is collecting both the artworks and political documents of disability activism. I have been able to understand disability politics and disability arts through the archive’s textured outline of how disabled people defined the fundamental principles of disability; the main goal was clear: disabled people taking control of their own lives. Whether artistically or politically, to me this aim always seems centred upon a rejection of dominant cultural narratives – Heaton rejects pity and asserts disabled people’s rights in ‘Shaken Not Stirred’, and this political resistance is also noticeable in many other deposits. For example, in a booklet of meeting notes of the founding organisations of the Disability Rights Movement, the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) and The Disability Alliance, I see this assertion of rights once again, this time argued in a very different form.

To me, art is one route for looking at the world in relation to disabled people, and the political documents of the NDACA collection are another. This booklet in particular outlines a 1975 debate between the UPIAS and The Disability Alliance about the key economic struggle faced by disabled people. As activists and campaigners, disabled people embarked on the serious task of becoming experts about their interior lives and exterior battles. They recognised the oppression of being excluded from mainstream activities and therefore the ability to earn an income. If disabled people were institutionalised and reliant on limited state support to live (as was the case for many in 1975), they would not be allowed the social identification which a job can bring, the shared community of being a worker and having some kind of purpose. The activists and artists in our NDACA heritage story did not want to be objects of charity, and this debate explores the idea that if disabled people earned a regular income, mainstream society would have no excuse but to take back their pity and respect them as equal citizens. The struggle was economic – and it still is today.  

The booklet, new to the NDACA collection, explores how disabled people wanted to take control of their own lives by arguing for employment that would integrate their access requirements into working life. It should come as no surprise that disabled people are always experts on disability: they know how to manage their conditions, they excel in strategic thinking, and they know that it is society, not their impairments, that imposes obstacles on their ability to work.  

‘if a job isn’t a right, nothing’s a right’ – Vic Finkelstein

It is the details of political documents in our archive that have made me pay close attention to how, as an employee who manages a chronic impairment, a disability becomes a certain type of ‘situation’ at work. Other employees must recognise the impairment: the disabled person is the expert, and the employer should listen. Flexible hours, reasonable adjustments, accessible buildings – these requirements should be a prerequisite of any job, so that disabled people do not have to battle with the perspective that a disability is a problem. Work should take different forms to suit the skill sets of different people: it does not have to happen at an office, it does not have to involve movement, and it should not be valued selectively, for one group to excel in over others. As Vic Finkelstein, one of the founders of UPIAS, once said, ‘if a job isn’t a right, nothing’s a right’.

The 1975 debate about disabled people having the right to earn an income centres on the principle of choice and control. An inaccessible world unable to engage with problems around barriers and inclusivity offered no image of the disabled worker. The Disability Arts Movement activists sought to overcome this obstacle by resisting economic invisibility and silence, drawing up the Social Model of Disability for non-disabled law-makers to follow. Answering the question of why disabled people were so often unemployed was, for the UPIAS, simple – society excluded them from jobs.

The document makes clear how the state needs to become conscious of access requirements - albeit as ‘reasonable adjustments’. It highlights the need to provide financial compensation for managing an impairment, and also to eliminate the idea that disabled people are passive objects of pity, unable to lead successful lives. The political documents in NDACA prove the opposite of this view, as evidence of disabled people taking charge of their self-representation, thinking about disability through an intellectual lens. As NDACA’s Marketing Officer, I have been lucky enough to gain access to the political and creative lives of the disabled people in our collection – from photographs of Tony Heaton’s artwork, to union documents over thirty years old.

As someone who manages a chronic invisible disability – Type 1 Diabetes, which you can read about here, I want to learn everything I can about the achievements of disability rights activism. The NDACA heritage acts as a support to my personal journey of learning to manage the different ‘situations’ of an impairment. My time working at Shape Arts will always be invaluable – it is here, at a disability-led organisation, that I have become conscious of a principle always felt but unable to express: to not let Type 1 Diabetes become invisible in order to be an efficient worker; to realise that to work should be right, but that the right to look after my health is one for which I should never seek permission.  

NDACA goes live in April 2018 - for future updates, sign up to our mailing list at the bottom of this page.

Banner image: "Shaken Not Stirred" - Tony Heaton (1992), performance stills

NDACA logo        heritage lottery fund logo

Arts Council Logo

Joseph Rowntree Foundation Logo     Bucks New University logo