TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference: Arts and cultural organisations ‘failing on jobs’

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Many large publicly-funded arts and cultural organisations are failing to employ any disabled people at all, union activists have heard at their annual conference.

The TUC’s Disabled Workers’ Conference in London (pictured) heard from representatives of musicians’ and actors’ unions, and colleagues from other unions, about the results of Arts Council England’s (ACE) latest diversity report.

They pointed out that the report showed how more than 25 of the larger organisations receiving Arts Council England (ACE) funding – its national portfolio organisations (NPOs) and major partner museums who have more than 50 staff – had no disabled employees on their permanent staff, including organisations such as the English National Opera, the Roundhouse and Opera North.

Heidi McGeough, of the Musicians’ Union, said she was “exasperated” by the figures, because ACE was a publicly-funded organisation.

She proposed a motion calling for the TUC disabled workers’ committee to push ACE to research why disabled employees were so under-represented, and to produce a strategy to increase diversity.

McGeough said: “Are we still here at this point in 2017? Many of the organisations had no disabled workers or performers employed by them at all. That is disgusting.

“We are funding ACE (which is funding these organisations) so why are we not represented as disabled people by these organisations?”

The conference heard that the failure to employ disabled people was being repeated right across the arts and culture sector.

Equity’s Phoebe Kemp said: “The lack of representation in the arts of disabled people is something Equity has been fighting against for years.

“Seeing disabled people creating and performing is so important to get non-disabled people to see us as people, because so many of them do not.”

Mik Scarlet, from the NUJ journalists’ union, said: “The arts industry has been allowed for too long to use the excuse that there is not enough talent out there.”

He said he had been hearing the same excuse throughout the 30 years he has been working in the industry.

Scarlet said this was damaging for disabled people and “for the whole of society”.

He said: “We must be seen in our art, in our theatre. The arts are meant to mirror the world we live in.”

But he said disabled people were instead “systematically written out”, both as performers and in backstage roles.

Clara Paillard, president of the PCS union’s culture sector, told fellow delegates that the failings applied not only to the employment of disabled people, but also to featuring the work of disabled artists.

She said: “When do we see the work of disabled artists in our museums and galleries?

“When do we see museums, objects and exhibitions telling us the story of disability and disabled people?”

Iain Scott-Burdon, from Unison, said he enjoyed watching Deaf and disabled performers on television and in the theatre, but had been “fed up” after “getting excited seeing a Deaf person in Coronation Street and later finding out they were a hearing person pretending to be deaf… which is fake.”

He said later: “There are highly-skilled Deaf actors but why aren’t they having some on TV?”

Paillard told Disability News Service later: “Obviously not every disability is visible, but when was the last time you went to a museum and saw a visitor assistant in a wheelchair?

“I have not seen a single one in a wheelchair who works in a gallery, and I have been to quite a lot of museums.”

But she also said that some people do not feel safe declaring that they are disabled, because of a fear of losing their job.

She said she was supporting disabled staff from museums and galleries, particularly those with mental health conditions, who have been targeted for redundancy “because of their disability”.

She said this number had been increasing “because of the additional stresses created by austerity and budget cuts on workplaces.

“If you have disabilities you may be targeted. We have seen evidence of discrimination against disabled people within redundancies.”

But she said it was also vital that museums and galleries showed the work of disabled artists and “objects telling the story and history of disability and disabled people”.

Last September, the PCS culture sector worked with Disabled People Against Cuts to put on the Art4Rights exhibition at the Tate Modern gallery in London (without the gallery’s permission), which featured the work of disabled artists.