It began with “a simple desire to reclaim the laughter associated with Tourettes Syndrome”, but as an activist-art project celebrates its 10th anniversary, its co-founder believes that a decade of government austerity has left her career more precarious than ever.
The work of Jess Thom (pictured) and Touretteshero has grown and evolved, thanks partly to their belief that “art and humour can be a catalyst for change”.
Its first stage show, Backstage in Biscuit Land, toured internationally, was adapted for television, “opened up conversations around exclusion”, and promoted the idea of “relaxed performances”.
But Touretteshero’s work with Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), in south-west London, has taken this a step further, with BAC preparing tomorrow (Friday) to launch itself as the world’s first “relaxed venue”, a move it hopes will “embed access and inclusivity” across all its work.
BAC is the first to go through Touretteshero’s new “relaxed venue” method for devising creative solutions to the barriers faced by disabled people.
It is based on the social model of disability and takes the principles that guide “relaxed performances” – such as ensuring the provision of accessible information and taking a relaxed approach to noise and movement by the audience – and applies them across an organisation’s services and facilities.
Since autumn 2018, more than 90 per cent of BAC’s performances have been “relaxed”, including a commitment to welcoming diverse audiences, providing a permanent quiet space in the building, and offering ear defenders for audience members who need them.
Tarek Iskander, the centre’s new artistic director and chief executive, says BAC has been “transformed” by the relaxed venue methodology.
“It has completely altered how we think of ourselves and our relationship to the world,” he says. “This will always be a work in progress, not a destination to reach, but as a mark of where we are, over 98 per cent of the performances in our next season are going to be ‘relaxed’.”
Thom wants to see more arts venues offering a wide range of accessible performances for all their shows, and to “notice and take action” when disabled-led work is not part of a new season. She also wants to see a continued investment in disabled leaders.
But, she says, becoming accessible is not a target that can be achieved, it is a “constant process of identifying and removing disabling barriers”.
Although this is “the shared responsibility of disabled and non-disabled people” it must be “informed and led by those with lived experience”.
While Touretteshero is 10 years old, so is the government’s programme of austerity, which has led to “many hard-won equalities eroded, and crucial services scrapped”.
Thom says: “As a disabled person, my quality of life and career feels much more precarious than it did in 2010, and I worry about the impact of this on disabled people and on our wider society.
“Where will the next generation of disabled artists come from if they do not have the services they need to leave their homes?
“I would like all disabled people to have the support they require to live and work in the way they choose.
“I would like to be in a position where, as a disabled artist, I can give all my attention to my creative practice, rather than using up energy resisting and surviving damaging and destructive political policies and educating non-disabled people about that experience.”
Despite the impact of austerity, she has seen some progress in the arts, including a better understanding of the value of neurodiversity, more focus on intersectionality, greater visibility for the work of artists with learning difficulties, and a better understanding of disability culture.
She adds: “A decade ago, when we talked about access in the arts, most mainstream venues only seemed to understand this in terms of audience.
“Now, though, this conversation also includes disabled people as artists, employees and leaders.”
If she was a politician, she says, she would focus on ensuring “genuine equality of opportunity by investing in high quality support for disabled and non-disabled people at every stage of their lives.
“I would like to see independent living protected by law, and a greater focus on ensuring that businesses meet their obligations to be accessible to disabled people.”
Relaxed Venues, she says, make three core commitments to their audiences, artists and staff: to create no new barriers, to ensure equality of experience, and to reduced “fuss” around access requirements.
“I would love to live in a world where our politicians made the same commitments for everything that they do,” she says.
The result of December’s general election was “devastating”, she says, and felt like a missed opportunity to work collaboratively “to build something great together” instead of the “draining campaigning and resistance that has characterised the last decade”.
And although Thom is determined to put that in the past and focus instead on the “tools, action and energy needed for the years ahead”, she has “definitely felt an increase in hostility towards disabled people, both in terms of the support systems that keep me safe and in people’s reactions to me in public”.
But her own experiences, she says, “are only the tip of the iceberg”, and she is aware that she has “privileges” that protect her that are not available to other disabled people.
“At times of pressure,” she says, “it is easy to hunker down, protect yourself and look inwards, but I think it is essential that wherever possible we resist this instinct – look outwards, listen to others and be ready to give and receive solidarity.”
Picture by James Lindsay
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