March 2008 - May 2008: Issue 26

Perspectives: Eyes on Ireland

Reflections on Irish Arts and Disability Culture

by Kari Pope

My relationship with the disability community on the island of Ireland began formally in the summer of 2004, shortly after I began work at the Arts and Disability Network for California at UCLA's National Arts and Disability Center ( The Center's Director, Dr. Olivia Raynor, informed me that Aidan Shortt, a disabled development worker on contract with the Arts and Disability Forum in Belfast, Northern Ireland would be coming for a two-week stint at the Center to discover the arts and disability community in California, the first step on a journey that would take him around the US for a look at how the "arts and disability sector," as he called it, works on this side of the Atlantic.

I was excited by this news, having studied the politics, history, and culture of Ireland and Northern Ireland extensively during my college years. I became Aidan's unofficial tour guide, putting him in touch with and in some cases taking him to visit many of the people and organizations who at that time comprised the Arts and Disability Network. It was an important experience for me, not only in cross-cultural learning, but also in learning to survey my native surroundings and work environment with new eyes and deeper critical thinking.

Aidan and I lost touch shortly after he returned to Belfast. But I held onto his e-mail address, knowing that I wanted to return to Ireland someday. The opportunity finally arose in fall 2007 when I accepted a volunteer position at the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation ( I took a chance and e-mailed Aidan. Hardly a day later I received an enthusiastic reply, wondering how long I would be in Ireland (a year) and would I be interested in getting involved in the arts and disability community there (Absolutely!) So, Aidan returned the favor I had done him and introduced me to his colleagues at the ADF and other organizations which make up the fabric of creative disability community life in Northern Ireland: Open Arts, providing inclusive workshops in all facets of the arts for people with disabilities; Adapt NI (unconnected to the ADAPT organizations in the US), which has a general remit of ensuring accessibility in venues throughout Northern Ireland with a particular focus on arts and cultural venues; and the ADF itself, a membership organization which is "disability-led" and the primary arts organization in the Northern Ireland disability community.

Aidan himself, while no longer under contract with the ADF, is still collaborating with it and with all the named organizations on producing the Arts and Disability Equality Charter, which outlines standards of physical and programmatic accessibility to which arts organizations throughout Northern Ireland can aspire. Organizations become Charter members by meeting the outlined criteria in consultation with Aidan and his colleagues.

I understand that, small as Ireland, and Northern Ireland in particular, is, I have only begun to explore the options and possibilities that exist there for artists with disabilities. At the same time, the survey I have taken has undoubtedly enabled me to see not only similarities and differences, but also the ways in which the context I come from and the context in which I am currently living can both inform and learn from each other.

For example, in conversation with the director of Open Arts, Kate Ingram, I learned that only one of the Open Arts workshop facilitators, musician Beverly Whyte, is a person with a disability. Aidan, Kate, and I discussed at length the need for "role models," within all artistic disciplines for artists with disabilities. Aidan recalled his experience with the Media Access Office (MAO) in Los Angeles, citing its direct responsiveness to the American entertainment industry's inclusion of performers with disabilities. Through classes, networking resources and events, MAO provides opportunities for aspiring performers with disabilities to meet and interact with established peers. Both Kate and Aidan said that perhaps the "artistic landscape" of Northern Ireland is different, placing greater cultural emphasis on music, writing, and the visual arts, with the most opportunities arising for artists with disabilities to pursue those particular disciplines. My response was that the diversity of the disability community itself continually demands role models in every discipline, for every person with a disability who chooses an artistic career path.

In speaking with Caroline Sheils, an officer of Adapt NI, the concept of allies to the disability community was central. This is a common enough concept in the States, as many of the barriers faced by artists with disabilities are similar to, if not the same as, those faced by all artists as they forge their careers. Creating links with the non-disabled or "mainstream" arts community is often seen as essential to the progress of a disabled artist's career.

Caroline, however, used the term "allies" in quite a different sense--one that seems intuitive enough, but that until now I'd never heard used this way--she said, "Arts and community venues have an ally in disabled people." My observation is that this way of thinking is inverted in the States: here people with disabilities are the ones who are believed to need allies, and it's only recently that the disability community has been presented as a valued resource and partner to the community as a whole.

As a manifestation of this, Adapt NI is about to publish its revised and updated Access 400 guide, a comprehensive list of cultural venues--separate from the Equality Charter--throughout Northern Ireland. With words and disability access symbols, Access 400 is accessible to people with and without developmental disabilities, or learning disabilities, as they are called in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in Ireland and the UK. While Access 400 primarily contains information about accessibility for patrons with disabilities, Adapt NI maintains a strong focus on access for performers with disabilities and continues to work on both of these components of cultural access side by side. The 2008 edition of Access 400 will be published later this spring.

Having explored many of the resources that Northern Ireland has to offer to artists with disabilities in their communities, I was eager to explore in some depth the artists' connection to their communities through their art, rather than simply through the community resources that are available to them. So, I sought an interview with Margaret Mann, a singer/songwriter based in Belfast.