Esther Appleyard met with Dr Tom Shakespeare, an Accentuate Ambassador, to get his thoughts on what it will take to create a cultural shift in 1000 days.


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If there is going to be a shift in culture it is necessary to invest in Disabled people. Given the current financial difficulties and the need to make budget cuts do you think priorities may change around activities specifically within the Disability arena? How could we ensure they do not “slip off” the agenda?

I think particularly in a time of economic crisis, what the government industry is wanting is for Disabled people to be independent and not a burden. What the disability community have said repeatedly is, that whatever your level of impairment you can be independent, you can make a contribution, if you have those supportive systems and resources that enable you to reach your full potential. So we're all talking the same language which is empowering people to make a contribution to the world.

In this era of counting and reporting organisations are often required to measure results, but how can we guage anything as complicated as a change in culture?

When you're trying to see what kind of impact a project or funding has had, you can try for those objective indicators: How many disabled people are in work? How many disabled artists are represented in galleries? How many disabled stories are on the news or in newspapers? So you can do all that, which is sort of a proxy of what you are trying to achieve. But what really matters is what goes on inside peoples heads and their hearts and you can't measure that, but you can feel it. We know for example, that over the last 20 years attitudes to Lesbian and Gay people have transformed in this country, not solved all the problems, but major change. We can't measure it but we can feel it. There's something in the air and there is a different level of acceptance and awareness. I think that's sort of what we're trying to achieve with your project, which is to change the way we imagine, what disability is.

What positive influence can staging Major Sports Events in Paralympics and other disability sports have on delivering this cultural shift?

I think the Olympics are the biggest thing to happen on the planet. They happen every four years, they involve everyone; people, visitors, TV coverage and obviously all that infrastructure change.
Every city that has had the Olympics and Paralympics suddenly becomes amazingly accessible for disabled people. Sadly it all gets dismantled the week that the Paralympics finishes. That is what we have got to try to prevent, that is what we have got to overcome. But I think it's a great opportunity. People understand that Paralympians are alongside mainstream Olympic Athletes. They are interested more and more in Olympic and Paralympic sport, so we're going to be in the public eye. Sport is sexy, sport is fascinating, people aspire to sport. So on the coattails of the achievements of the Paralympians, I think we can get a lot of other messages across. We can raise a lot of other aspects of disability, particularly disabled peoples role within the cultural industries.

If raising the profile of disabled people is important in order to create a cultural shift, do you feel disabled artists and performers have the same level of profile as disabled sports people, bearing in mind the Paralympic Games is an Internationally recognised event?

I think people get sport in ways that sometimes they don't get culture. Say someone like Linford Christie has a much bigger profile than someone like Margaret Drabble in the general population, because they're visible, it's aspirational, it's exciting and gripping in ways that arts sometimes aren't. I think also that there is a very objective criteria of excellence in sport: you either win or you don't. You either break the world record or you don't. If you see Tanni Grey Thompson, she's got a gazillion gold medals, we know she's good. Whereas Matt Fraser, the actor, we like his work, but at the end of the day it's subjective, I like it you don't. Who's right? Nobody can argue about Tanni. So I think it's sort of chalk and cheese in some ways, we can't expect it to be the same. What we can hope for though, is disabled people can do anything, we can do everything. It's not just about sport. For some disabled people sport, not politics, not religion, not art, is the way they manifest their identity, feel good about themselves. But what we've got to say is disabled people have got something to say: on the stage, in the art gallery, in the concert hall, in the dance studio, as well as on the racetrack, in the table tennis hall, or the rowing lane. Disabled people can contribute wherever non disabled contribute. I think it will take time to get across the fact that they can do so in the arts as well. But I don't see any reason why it couldn't be the case.

Given the historic oppression that disabled people have faced over the centuries, what do you think is the single most important step that will shift the public perception of disabled people from 'pity' to 'equal'?

I think obviously historically disabled people have been excluded, marginalised, seen as sick, frail, vulnerable, tragic. When we try and challenge that, and every minority has had a similar sort of cultural representation, Gay people, Black People, they've all been downtrodden and culturally marginalised historically, what we need I think, to show for this, in terms of disability, is disabled achievers in different walks of life. Disabled people in positions of authority, in positions of respect. Because it is very difficult to maintain cognitively that disabled people are rubbish, when we see them as doctors, newsreaders, lawyers, politicians, business people. Once we see enough folk, with disabilities in the public eye, in those positions that we associate with success, achievement and prowess and power; once we see that, then it will be the attitudes that follow that. Obviously we had David Blunkett, he didn't make a big difference, but he would have changed some ideas and the more that we see people, the more that we bring on talent and the more that we enable people to overcome the barriers and indeed remove the barriers that stop them achieving, I think this will filter through into the ways disabled people are perceived. That we're going to break out of the ghetto if you like. But in order to do that we have got to do something really important. We have got to recognise talent, we have got to back talent, we have got to support talent and we have got to set the very highest standards for ourselves.

It seems to me that one of the problems with disability arts, and probably in other areas of disability life, is we don't criticise, we are not honest as to whether something is good or not. We buy into the traditional idea of, oh isn't it marvellous someone has done something. We need to be much more rigorous about how we judge. As I said within the sports field there is rigour, you win or you lose, you finish or you fail. In the arts, it's all lovely. I think we've got to move away from that and say well that was good, but I think you can do better than that. Or frankly, I didn't really enjoy that, or frankly, I was bored stiff or embarrassed or that was just rubbish. We have got to put together disabled and non disabled people so disabled people can learn from non disabled people. I think we have got to examine quite a lot of our prejudices, we have painted ourselves, sometimes into a corner as disabled people, where we're not prepared to judge fairly and rigorously, where we're not prepared to accept help or work with non disabled people, and where we don't set the high standards for ourselves and I think that is what has got to change. But once we have got the people into positions of power and authority then attitudes towards disability will change.

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