Shape's Chair, Tony Heaton OBE, reflects on the disability arts movement twenty five years after the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995. 

The idea that the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) came into law twenty-five years ago because of the beneficence of politicians would be fallacious.

It was the result of a hard and dirty fight in which politicians were pushed reluctantly towards a piecemeal appeasement due to the pressure from disabled people, their allies, and clear public support.

The Disability Arts Movement was led by extraordinary disabled people and disabled artists played a very visible part in this war of attrition. From performance to poetry and Piss on Pity, the work made the news and created commentary. That protest was taken right to the door of 10 Downing Street, across Parliament Square – where disabled protestors brought traffic to a halt – and into the Houses of Parliament.An old photograph taken on a London bridge, in view of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Protestors line the street holding signs.

This creative groundswell was the artistic background to the disability politics being discussed in places as diverse as day centres, universities, local authorities’ equal opportunities officers, and trades unions. From passivity to empowerment became a liberating ambition for many as they became more politicised as a result of hearing about the Social Model of Disability, and association with other disabled people at conferences and rallies.

Rights not Charity and Piss on Pity, not just slogans,  more a call to action for many crips awaking from the somnambulance of paternalistic ‘care.’ Hearing the calls to action and starting up grass roots local access groups, lobbying local politicians, raising access issues in local newspapers and challenging local authorities, many of whose buildings and council chambers were inaccessible. All these often small and localised actions grew and added to the national debate.

This struggle to change the law and create, for the first time, an act of parliament to make it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of disability was the first such legislation in the world.

The struggle is captured in the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (NDACA), also the first National Disability Arts Collection and Archive in the world. NDACA articulates the authentic work and voices of disabled artists. Those that were there making the history and told in their words; first-person testimony, because if we don’t tell our history, someone else will and they will get it wrong.

A black and white photograph of a group of people from the disability arts movement, some of whom are wheelchair users.

The NDACA films capture the voices of disabled creatives like Deborah Williams and Barbara Lisicki, or the lives of artists like the late Steve Cribb told by his brother Joe and the life and music of the late Ian Stanton told by his wife Audrey.

This struggle started in the late 1970s, when Shape was founded. It grew throughout the 80s with the founding of organisations like Graeae and Heart ‘n Soul, the creation of The British Council of Disabled People (BCODP), and highlighted in the International Year of Disabled People. Carry on Cripple, a season of films at the National Film Theatre, was programmed by Allan Sutherland and Steve Dwoskin. In the regions, organisations like AIM, (Arts Integration Merseyside) later to become NWDAF, (North-West Disability Arts Forum) formed. In London, LDAF (London Disability Arts Forum) and DAiL (Disability Arts in London) came together, there were many conferences, events, exhibitions, and performances drawing in disabled creatives and audiences.

The movement came of age in the 1990s with a more politicised push for anti-discrimination legislation. One of the catalysts being the block telethon campaign with protest, demonstrations, music, poetry, and performance. The tragic but brave roadshow hit the road. The representation of disabled people was explored through photography and film. 16 protesters from the campaign for accessible transport were arrested on Oxford Street and there were protests about inaccessible public arts buildings all across the country.

I was a young artist at this time and I made a number of sculptures as a response to this call for civil rights and anti-discrimination legislation. ‘Shaken not Stirred’ was a first performance piece, 1,760 red charity collecting cans in the form of a pyramid stood in the Diorama as a centre piece for the press conference about the ‘Block Telethon’ protest. I demolished it by hurling a prosthetic leg with a steel toe cap jungle Doc Marten boot, it was captured by the BBC TV and national newspapers, heady days!  

This hazy remembered snapshot is more fully described in Allan Sutherland’s Chronology of Disability Arts on the NDACA website where there are also literally thousands of objects, artworks, posters, and ephemera that bring this time alive. 

NDACA captures the breaking down of disabling barriers, the campaign that changed the law, and the great artworks within an exciting disability culture.

If you want the story it’s there.

Image credits:

  • Banner image: Close-up photo of 'Shaken not Stirred,' a performance by Tony Heaton (1992). Image credit Tony Heaton and NDACA. Image description: Black and white photograph showing a pyramid made of donation pots being toppled over by a prosthetic leg which has clearly been thrown.
  • A photo from a protest in the early 1990s in support of disability civil rights legislation, which ended in Trafalgar Square. Image credit: NDACA.
  • Photo from the back of the DISABILITY ARTS AND CULTURE PAPERS: Transcripts of a disability arts and culture seminar, organised by SHAPE London in 1991. The photo show various disability arts practitioners, taken outside Willesden library. Front row: Mandy Colleran, Jane Campbell, Richard Wood (Chair of BCDOP), Vicky Waddington, Mike Oliver, Vic Finkelstein, Tony Heaton, Catherine Walsh, Anne Rae. Second row: Pat Place, Adam Reynolds, Unknown, Raina Haig, Natalie Markham, Ann Pointon, Colin Barnes, Barbara Lisicki, David Hevey, Maggie Woolley, Bob Finlay, Allan Sutherland, Rupe Sarker, Geoff Armstrong. Back row: Johnny Crescendo, Unknown, Jayne Earnscliffe, Genie Cosmos, Elspeth Morrison, and Ewan Marshall.
  • 'Shaken not Stirred' (1992) photo sequence. A Framed series of six photos taken in sequence from a video monitor with the caption, 'Into which (Tony threw a false leg).' The sculpture consists of a pyramid of over 1400 red plastic charity collection cans. 'Shaken not Stirred' was a sculpture created by Tony Heaton OBE and formed part of the 1992 Block Telethon Protest. The original sculpture is currently on display in the NDACA wing at Bucks University. Image credit: Tony Heaton and NDACA.