Liberty ‘could be swallowed’ by Paralympians


theweeksubDisabled artists fear the remaining identity of the capital’s annual disability arts festival could be lost when it becomes part of the mayor of London’s new National Paralympic Day.

Boris Johnson said the new event – which will “feature” the annual Liberty disability arts festival – would take place on 7 September in the Olympic Park, and would capitalise on last year’s “astonishingly successful” Paralympic Games in London.

The event will take place almost exactly a year after the Paralympic Games closed, but also on the weekend traditionally reserved for Liberty, which will be celebrating its tenth anniversary on 7 September.

Disabled artists and Paralympic athletes will take part in the new event in the north of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, and in the park’s Copper Box Arena.

The announcement of a joint celebration of Paralympic sport and disability culture came as a surprise to many disabled artists.

Alex Bulmer, a disabled writer, performer, and co-creator of Breathe, which opened the London 2012 sailing events, said she was concerned about the merger.

She said Liberty had started as a way for disabled people to “come together and celebrate themselves – as artists and valued citizens”.

Even though some people found the Paralympics “inspiring” and believed that it “changed attitudes about disabled people and their physical potential”, she said there was a “fundamental difference” between Liberty and the Paralympics.

“One gives a space and place to experience the cultural voice and human expression of disabled people, including our vulnerabilities, frailties, humour; the other is a bold spectacle of strength and power.”

She said Liberty should be “liberated” from “any notion of being ‘inspiring’ or ‘heroic’”, and added: “Merging the two assumes also that all disabled people support the Paralympics, and the truth is, many do not.

“Let Liberty be itself, stand for itself and remind disabled people that who they are, and how they live their lives, is enough reason to come together and hold a day all to itself.”

Another disabled writer and performer, Penny Pepper, also expressed disappointment at the announcement, and feared the event would just become a vehicle for the “showing off” of Paralympians.

She said: “I feel a bit sorry for them. They have been completely hijacked. They are part of that polarisation between ‘pathetic poor disabled scrounger’ and all these ‘wonderful super-humans’.”

Pepper, who has performed at Liberty several times, said the spirit and edginess of the festival had been “diluted”, as had its value in terms of disabled people’s rights and identity.

She said: “I think it has been swallowed. It sounds like Liberty has been put in there as an after-thought.”

Julie Newman, acting chair of the UK Disabled People’s Council, said the ethos of Liberty had been “diluted for some years now”.

She said: “With the closures of the disability arts forums and the reduction and cuts of funding to artists and the disability arts sector as a whole, Liberty became the only outlet available in the south of England.

“Effectively our opportunities for a self-determined disability arts festival have now been totally compromised by the organisers and rather than it being a celebration of our art and culture it is now an imposed and closed programme with little reference to disability rights.”

But Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae, which will be performing at the event, said she thought there was “something exciting about a showcase that profiles the excellence of arts and sports and gives a hugely positive message to young disabled people about being ambitious and that even if you don’t want to be an artist or a sportsperson you have the right to follow your dreams”.

But she stressed that the event would also highlight the issues of disability rights and government cuts to support and services for disabled people, and “address the brutal truth of the standing of Deaf and disabled people within the current economic climate”.

She said: “This year, more than ever before, our visibility is crucial to remind people of the ongoing battle we have to hold onto our rights, independence and dignity.”

Graeae’s piece, The Limbless Knight – A Tale of Rights Reignited, which features aerial and sway pole work, will address those themes.

It is described as “an immersive piece of theatre where the audience are invited to play extras on a set where nothing is what it seems”.

Sealey said: “The Limbless Knight is about the sacrifices we have made yet how we are still the sacrificial lambs.

“It makes the declaration that we have a right for equality and to live with dignity.”

National Paralympic Day will also feature a performance by Andrea Begley, who won this year’s series of BBC’s The Voice, as well as street theatre, outdoor dance, mass choreography, visual arts, live music, film and food, and Miracoco Luminarium, an interactive light sculpture.

Sealey, who was joint artistic director of the critically-acclaimed Paralympic opening ceremony, said the decision to hold a joint event had been taken by the mayor’s office “in conversation with disability arts organisations”.

A Greater London Authority (GLA) spokesman said they did not think Liberty would lose its unique identity.

He said: “We hope that disabled and non-disabled people alike will enjoy and be excited by this event, which is the finale to a summer of great events in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.”

Liberty is being produced – as usual – in consultation with an advisory board, which includes Shape Arts, Attitude is Everything, Graeae and Heart n Soul.

Plans for 2014 will be based on the response to next month’s event and consultation with the advisory board, the GLA spokesman said.

National Paralympic Day is being funded by GLA, the London Legacy Development Corporation and the British Paralympic Association, with Liberty funded by GLA and the Arts Council, and contributions from Unison and Transport for London, as well as support from surrounding boroughs and local organisations.

The GLA spokesman said discussions with potential sponsors were ongoing.

1 August 2013