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How Artists With Disability Are Coping With COVID

AARts team member Daniel Jaramillo takes a look at how members of the arts and disability community are coping with COVID-19.

In these extraordinary times we are living in, the disability community and those who work and participate in arts and culture are grappling with an uncertain future both professionally and personally. COVID-19 has drastically impacted everyone’s social lives forcing us to self-quarantine and to rely on our emails, social media and video conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Facetime and Skype to connect with others. Whilst many of us have benefitted from technology to keep us connected with family, friends and colleagues, there are still barriers when it comes to how accessible these platforms are for people with disability.

The one key upside to all of this is the amount of time artists have had to be creative and to work on their art, be it music, painting, writing, photography, filmmaking, performance art, etc. Artists with disability have a critical role to play in the arts and cultural ecosystem of Australia and can give us great insights into how we can adjust our lives during a pandemic. Accessible Arts advisor’s Emily Dash, Dan Graham, Sue Jo Wright and Natalia Stawyskyj are all artists with disability and were happy to share their stories on how they’ve been impacted professionally and personally as well as explain what measures they’ve had to take to adjust to the impacts on their livelihood as artists.

“I went from having about six deadlines all on top of each other to nearly everything being cancelled or postponed. So work has really slowed down and I’m having to think about how I really want to spend my time and what’s best for me in these strange times, the uncertainty is the worst,” says writer, actor and recently announced board member of Accessible Arts Emily Dash. “The most important thing for me right now – and for all of us I think – is to stay inside and do what I can to protect my physical and mental health. Also remembering how much I still have to be grateful for and keeping up as much of a routine as I can, using this time to catch up on my own writing and learn more about my craft, and just do things that make me happy.”

Theatre director and disability arts advocate Dan Graham had plans this year to travel to London’s Globe Theatre and intern with their access department as part of a scholarship he had been awarded. Dan also was meant to attend and speak at the Access/Inclusion Conference run by the Kennedy Centre in Dublin. “This came following on my Create NSW Fellowship blast in October on Access for Artists with a Disability. It was especially useful to those like myself who are neurodiverse. I have lost three paid productions I was to direct due to the coronavirus. I am not alone in losing work in the performing arts this year. All of this has given me self-imposed time to reflect and I believe this is a time for humanity to look and reflect at where it will take itself moving forward.”

During the pandemic, many artists and art organisations have had to apply for various art grants whilst relying on the generosity of people who are supporting them through tough economic and social changes. There’s also been an abundance of Facebook groups being created to support the arts and disability communities, many which have provided useful information and resources to vulnerable people. Dan started his own Facebook group titled Access For Artists With Disability Post C Virus. Artsfront, a project supporting artists to take the lead in shaping the future of culture and the arts in Australia, has given their support to artists with disability by creating a Little Lunch Online conversation series every Thursday at noon to address the concerns and hopes for our community via a Zoom platform as well a Youtube stream.

Some of our advisors such as Natalia Stawyskyj have not been as affected as others and she continues to work on her various writing projects. “As a writer, not much has changed in regards to my day to day work as I am used to working alone and remotely. Luckily, a lot of the career opportunities I am interested in are still running with minor changes. I suspect in the long run, I will start to feel the effects of the crisis as it is expected to last up to eighteen months and I think over-time opportunities will be few and far between. Generally, I tend to have an agile and fluid career outlook. I just take the opportunities available to me and I am always working diligently on my screenplays, regardless of the circumstance.”

Like many artists, Natalie is taking a day-by-day approach and not making any predictions of the future. Instead she just focuses on being present and patient with everything that is going on. “In the midst of the coronavirus situation, I find it’s best to focus on the short term as we have limited foresight and ability to shape how the crisis plays out. I focus on the work that needs to done today and what I need to do today to protect my health. I won’t be leaving my house for the foreseeable future, which is a daunting thought to process, but as there is no more I can do about it, I let the thought go.”

The Deaf arts community in Australia has also been working at adjusting to a COVID-19 world and the work of Auslan interpreters has been in high demand as many meetings and workshops go online. Our advisor Sue Jo Wright is a Deaf photographer and tells us what life is like for her as a professional photographer and the strategies she’s working on to make her career stable. “I was about to have two group exhibitions this year and was just getting more accessibility consultation work, to help make other artworks accessible. I was hoping to get three funding grants after I finished my visual arts studies last year. I wanted to be able to showcase my artwork in exhibitions this year. I had great ideas and proposals and was ready to start working on those, but that is all changed now. As the coronavirus spread out, everything has stopped, been cancelled or postponed. It’s difficult to accept that. Most of my work is face to face with other people, including freelance photography and working as an artist educator at the MCA. I have had to cut down what I need and use whatever is left for my artwork. Instead of scanning photo negatives or prints, I edit digital images with my laptop. I am also accepting other odd jobs such as Auslan tutoring where I can still work from home. I also had to resubmit my grant applications with some changes and other options for my projects to include social distancing considerations.”

As all of us continue to be highly engaged in social media posts, tweets, likes and comments, there are many ways in which artists can make life seem less anxious and a little more fun as well as being innovators in the online sphere. “I saw a thirty days challenge from other artists on social media making art from home,” says Sue Jo. “I think that’s a great idea! A while ago, I just discovered a live workshop with captions through Facebook and Instagram where there was an artist offering a free poem workshop and I learnt something new writing sonnets, which will benefit my art projects. Sometimes when you browse on social media unexpected things come up like that poem workshop, which was also accessible! I value that, as I never thought people would do those things. I think technology is just amazing, helping people get connected, sharing ideas and supporting each other.”

There is still a lot of work to be done before all this goes away and our lives go back to how they use to be, especially for the arts sector and assistance for arts practitioners with disability who have been largely ignored and are still waiting for the government to give them more support. We can however be encouraged by the example of how these artists are reorganising their livelihoods and art practices, and how they’ve used this crisis to re-evaluate what is important to them and the way they can be of service to others.

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