Pink digital bullseye

Being aware of your goals, intentions and how to communicate them is key to this process working successfully. This applies from the recruitment phase right through to the public celebration or acknowledgement of what has been created.

Pink digital icon of two people with speech bubbles above their head.

Pink digital image of a person and a speech bubble containing a question mark.

If the intention is to increase disabled representation in your programme, then consider how you are communicating this representation to the public and stakeholders.

  • Is there a reason why you commissioned a disabled artist in particular? If so, what was that reason?
  • And will you be using the same language to report afterwards what took place as you plan to use to select disabled people in your programme?
  • How does this language portray disabled people? Does it empower them?
  • Clarity and continuity of messaging and intention is important, but so is the language you use when working with and talking about disabled people. 
  • Before you start any external communications, consider what it is you are actually representing, and how. Projects with a focus on social engagement are likely to support positive change. So what is that change? Who is leading on the change, and what are the dynamics involved? And how is all this represented?

For example, there is a huge difference between making statements with a general message, such as:

“We were delighted to further diversify our programme this year with bespoke commissions to people from under-represented communities”

… and messages that are more specific, or focus on an individual, like:

“We look back with great pride at a year of fantastic commissions, including a moving new work by blind artist G” 

  • Does this empower artist G? Or might it risk isolating them in some way?
  • What is the reason to identify G as a blind artist rather than simply an artist?
  • Does G describe the work they make as ‘moving’? If they don’t, then where does this idea come from? Try to be conscious of any bias in the language you use.

Context is key, of course. Let’s say you commissioned artist G as one of a group of artists for a project: perhaps they all responded to the same call.

  • Is there a reason why the disabled artist is identified as such, if the artists are not identified in a similar way with regards to protected characteristics like gender, age, ethnicity, or sexuality?    

Pink digital labels

There may be reasons to be transparent about targeting disabled people in particular for your commission - your organisation may wish to demonstrate how it is improving its accessibility and inclusivity - but beyond the recruitment phase, does the awarded artist want or need to be identified as disabled? 

In other words, if they do not define themselves by their health condition or impairment, why should you?

And if they do use certain identifiers - for example, an artist might describe themselves as neurodivergent - in which context do they use such a term, and what is its relation to their practice and the way they describe their work, and its relation to the work they are being commissioned for?

One way of approaching varied descriptions of disability and access is allowing artists and team members to share an Access Rider with you. 

Find out more about Access Riders 

To give another example: 

“This year we are commissioning three artists from Scotland and a disabled artist from England.”

This automatically creates a two tier construct in the way that the disabled artist’s work will be approached or received.

The reason we make this point is because often there are lower expectations around work made by disabled people. Whether consciously made or not, the public perception may be that the three works from Scotland are of a certain professional standard, while the work from England has something about it that requires a different kind of evaluation.  

Compare this to: 

“This year we are commissioning four artists from around the UK, three from Scotland and one from England.”

This latter description creates a level playing field of expectation about the artists and their work. 

The follow-on question is likely to be, what if all four artists were disabled? 

“This year we are commissioning four disabled artists from around the UK, three from Scotland and one from England.”

This certainly is factual, and treats each artist in the same way. It would work if you were meeting certain funding criteria, targeting support for disabled people, for example. The point is to be aware of the motivation for the commission, and how you achieve consistency of messaging that is helpful to disabled communities.   

Pink digital image of a paint brush and palette.

As mentioned, there may be occasions where the artists are profiled individually. So, thought needs to go into whether the focus is justifiably on the artist being a disabled person versus their artistic work or ability.


For example:

“D, whose experiences as a wheelchair user informs his approach to film making…”’

This is a neutral description that tells us something useful to know and does not dramatise the fact of the artist being a wheelchair user.  

In another example: 

“H, a lifelong achiever, having being diagnosed as deaf at birth, paints large canvases using huge, heavy brush strokes…”

Here, audiences are immediately taken into a stereotypical narrative about expectations of what people can or cannot do, even if it is unclear how their impairment or disability has any connection to their work. 

Returning to our four UK artists example again, dramatising the fact of them being disabled is certain to be counterproductive

“This year we are commissioning four incredibly inspiring disabled artists from around the UK, three from Scotland and one from England.”

Whatever the intentions behind this kind of wording, setting people up as ‘incredibly inspiring’ places them in a charitable narrative that is usually divorced from reality

It also jeopardises the likelihood of their work being taken seriously (as professional artists) before it is viewed or experienced, thereby working against their career interests.

Why? Because it suggests that we are evaluating them instead of their work. Where does the term ‘incredibly inspiring’ come from? Is this how they define themselves or their artistic practice? 

Another way of asking how language might empower them is to ask: in what ways can the messaging support their agency as artists?   

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It is important to remember that (in the media and elsewhere) disabled people are often portrayed in using tropes, such as heroic people, superheroes, figures of inspiration, objects of pity, or objects of scorn, such as the 'benefits scrounger' stereotype.

If your commission is founded to some degree on these notions, or chimes with this kind of language, it is quite possible that the commission, while perhaps useful to the awardee, can add to the barriers that disabled people face more widely. 

In order to ensure you are not reinforcing these unhelpful messages, consult with disabled people directly, or disability-led agencies such as Shape.

The Social Model of Disability, which Shape works to, outlines ways to achieve consistency of message and build in language that empowers disabled people.

Find out more about the Social Model