Queen’s birthday honours: Heaton’s battle against arts world’s ‘silent prejudice’


theweeksubA disabled artist and campaigner recognised in the Queen’s birthday honours will use his OBE to continue a 40-year battle to improve access, and to defeat the “silent prejudice and discrimination” faced by the disability arts movement.

Tony Heaton, chief executive of Shape Arts, said he saw the award as “a kind of long-service OBE” and an opportunity to “make the world more accessible and promote disability arts”.

Much of his art work – including his best-known sculpture, Great Britain from a Wheelchair – has been about access.

But he also campaigned in his earlier years at grassroots level on access and mobility issues, including work with Lancashire County Council and Preston City Council.

Heaton said he hoped the OBE was for that work, as well as his later achievements, including developing an award-winning art gallery and accessible artists’ studios during 10 years as director of the Holton Lee campus in Dorset, and designing lecterns for Lord Coe and Sir Philip Craven at the London Paralympics opening and closing ceremonies.

He said he was “a bit shocked” when he learned of the award, officially for services to the arts and the disability arts movement. “I’m a northern, working-class monkey,” he said. “It’s not part of our world.”

He also paid tribute to the many nameless, faceless disabled activists who had “influenced the way the world has become more accessible” by “infiltrating” local councils and planning committees and “just getting things changed”, but who had never been recognised with honours.

He said: “A lot of what people did in the early days of the disability movement is lost because it was never properly archived or acknowledged.

“There have been a huge amount of disabled people who have influenced the way the world has become more accessible just by being on access groups.”

Heaton said he also hoped the OBE would provide a boost for another of his projects, the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive.

He said he was bemused by the failure of the mainstream arts world – with its “silent prejudice and discrimination” – to pay more attention to the work in the archive, some of which is currently on show at a pop-up gallery in central London.

He said: “My aims are to make the world more accessible and promote disability arts.

“The best of it is so fantastic and I just cannot believe it doesn’t get shared with a wider audience.

“I don’t get why the mainstream art world doesn’t get how fantastic the work is. Why aren’t galleries coming to look at it?”

20 June 2013