‘Powerful’ and ‘enlightening’ poems give voice to unexamined lives


A “powerful and enlightening” series of experimental poems has captured the lives of four disabled people in their own voices.

Neglected Voices, a cycle of four sets of “transcription poems”*, has been praised by leading figures in the disability arts world.

The poems, by the award-winning disabled writer Allan Sutherland, have been published by Disability Arts Online, and were edited from extensive “life history” interviews Sutherland carried out with his four disabled subjects.

Sutherland said: “They have important and interesting stories to tell. But then, in my experience, so do all disabled people.

“We get looked at a lot, and talked about a great deal, but we don’t get listened to very much.

“This does not mean that we have nothing to say. Any number of stories are told about us, as poison dwarves, wicked hunchbacks, pathetic cripples, brave survivors or benefits scroungers.

“What the story is depends on who is doing the telling. That’s why it matters that the stories about us are so rarely told by us.”

He said the motivation for telling the stories was partly “a desire to record what disabled people’s lives have been, the things that have happened to disabled people, some of which are truly shocking”.

One of the sets of poems tells the life story of Jennifer Taylor, a woman with learning difficulties – and a member of People First Lambeth – who talks about having both of her children taken from her by social workers.

The disabled activist and peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell said Neglected Voices was “a brilliant way to help society understand our culture and to understand themselves better” and “one of the best creative responses to our social exclusion I have seen for a long time”.

The disabled film-maker Liz Crow praised how Neglected Voices combined documentary, storytelling and poetry, and succeeded in “representing the lives of a small group of disabled people in a way that their voices, personalities and experiences ring from the page”.

The actor and writer Mat Fraser described the poems as a “breath of fresh air” and said they were “powerful, enlightening, and both joyous and sobering” and joined the “growing ranks of hitherto unheard points of view, visions and impressions of the world, from disabled people”.

Sutherland said disability arts had “always been about disabled people’s experiences”.

He added: “The best definition of disability arts is that it is art informed by disabled people’s experience. These life stories show what that experience has been.”

The poems were produced during Sutherland’s one-year residency at Brunel University’s Centre for Citizen Participation, which is headed by Professor Peter Beresford and has an international reputation for research focused on the involvement of service-users in improving policy and practice.

Each of the four subjects of the poems had been involved in the centre’s work.

The residency was funded by a Leverhulme Trust scheme designed to bring artists into research and study environments.

Sutherland is now seeking funding for further transcription poems based on disabled people’s life stories.

Meanwhile, an exhibition of work by the six disabled artists considered for this year’s Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary is set to open in north London.

The bursary for “mid-career” disabled artists was awarded to Caroline Cardus, but the other shortlisted artists who will take part in the exhibition are: Katherine Araniello, Rachel Gadsden, Sue Austin, Zoe Partington-Sollinger and Sinéad O’Donnell.

The exhibition will open three days a week for most of December at the accessible gallery space belonging to the disability-led arts organisation Shape, in Greenwood Place, Kentish Town.

*Visit www.disabilityarts.org/transcription-poetry for an article by Allan Sutherland about the process of creating transcription poems

28 November 2011 

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