Leading disabled artists say London’s mayor has relegated their high-profile, annual disability arts festival to a mere “sub-heading” of National Paralympic Day.
The Liberty festival was celebrating its tenth anniversary on Saturday (7 September), but many of those taking part in the Olympic Park believed it was lost among the many disability sport taster sessions and the public appetite to meet British Paralympians, a year on from London 2012.
A strong Liberty line-up also had to compete with top quality wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, wheelchair table-tennis and boccia, and queues of people waiting to meet Paralympic stars like Sophie Christiansen, David Weir and Hannah Cockroft.
There were also concerns that Liberty performance areas and stalls were too spread out and lacked a focal point. The British Paralympic Association (BPA) is considering extending the event to an even larger area of the park next year.
The actor and writer Mat Fraser, who compered the main Liberty stage, said he objected to being reduced to a “sub-heading at a sports event”, with crowds of less than 100 for most performances, compared with many hundreds more at previous Liberty festivals.
He said this was particularly disappointing because all four bands playing at this year’s festival – The Autistix, Fish Police, Ally Craig and Yunioshi – were “stonkingly good”, particularly Ally Craig, singer and guitarist from Bug Prentice, who Fraser said was “the star of the show”.
He said: “The level of the work of disability artists is getting so good. That’s one of the positives.”
But he added: “My worry is that people will stop valuing disability arts without it being something to do with sports.
“As an experiment it worked very well and in terms of a sporting event it was fantastic.”
But he added: “I am in arts and I worry that we are going to get written out.”
The disabled artist Katherine Araniello, who was a close friend of the late David Morris – whose idea it was to set up Liberty – said: “It feels like Liberty has become a sideline and the Paralympic side has taken the forefront, and I am absolutely disgusted about it.
“I am not aware of any arts organisation that would merge with sport, but because it is disability it seems perfectly acceptable.
“The other part I despise is that Paralympians are suddenly becoming spokespeople on disability when actually they haven’t engaged on that level because it isn’t what they do.”
She also criticised the venue, which she said was not accessible to many disabled people because of its size and lack of protection from the weather.
The disabled writer and performer Penny Pepper, who performed at the event, said that she felt “very grumpy” and “very sad and angry” about the decision to merge the two events.
She said the organisation of her poetry slot had been a “complete shambles. There is no organisation. No-one knew anything. I didn’t get the information about my performance until today.
“I wish it wasn’t here, because we are spread out and we are having to deal with the sport. There doesn’t seem to be a point of focus. It feels watered down. I am sure David Morris would be very sad.
“Liberty in Trafalgar Square always had a little edge to it and it got better and better as time passed.”
She wrote later on her blog that she was angry at the “consumption of our festival into the grotesque spin around the Paralympics”.
Paralympians who attended the event to meet fans, sign autographs and have their pictures taken were more enthusiastic.
Powerlifter Ali Jawad said: “What I’ve noticed is the turnout. I didn’t realise it would be this big.
“It has made me realise how big it has become since the games, how many people genuinely want to talk to us, just to say how proud they were… and ask how life was for me afterwards.”
He said he thought that National Paralympic Day and Liberty complemented each other “pretty well” and had attracted the crowds.
Sophie Christiansen, who won three equestrian golds at London 2012, said the day had been “amazing”.
But Tony Heaton, chief executive of Shape Arts, said there had been a “non-equal merger”, because the Paralympics had been “much more popularised” and disability arts had lacked the same “oxygen of publicity”.
Ruth Gould, artistic director of DaDaFest, Liverpool’s world-renowned disability and deaf arts festival, said: “It doesn’t feel like a celebration of both cultures. [Liberty] feels like an add-on. It shouldn’t be an add-on, it should be celebrating the culture.”
Jaspal Dhani, former chief executive of the UK Disabled People’s Council, said he loved the scale of the event and the crowds, while the spectator participation in disability sport was “awesome”, but he said Liberty’s focus on a celebration of disability arts and disability rights had been lost.
He said: “Because it is on such a big scale, it is difficult to know what is going on and to put anything into context about what it is trying to achieve. That message has been lost.”
Tim Hollingsworth, BPA’s chief executive, said that Liberty “felt like a very fundamental part of the overall offer” during the planning of National Paralympic Day.
He added: “What people have demonstrably said today was that London was a very positive experience and has enabled a lot of other things to happen today.”
But he admitted: “The bigger debate is how well you can merge sport and disability art.”
12 September 2013