No. 3 @ Catalyst Building, Staffordshire University Campus, Stoke.

Thursday 28th March 2024

Blog number 3 sees me this time at an arts symposium to celebrate and advocate for d/Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent artists, organised by Frontline Arts, an artist led organisation based in Stoke. This time however, I wasn't alone, I was joined by fellow poets Louise Fazackerley and Natasha Tingle, as part of Odd Socks Collective. We’d previously been to Stoke to perform at Big Feast festival from Big Appetite. Whilst Big Feast was fun and enjoyable, giving us a warm flavour to the area, it’s an outdoor performance. Performing on a stage in the middle of the city centre is exciting as people go past but not necessarily conducive to performing your best because of the general noise and distractions, so I for one, was really eager and pleased to be invited back but in the much calmer surroundings of the Catalyst Building.

Over the years of performing poetry, I’ve been accustomed to not being able to get on stage like able bodied performers. So much, in fact, that I hadn’t realised there was an accessible ramp to the stage, I didn’t notice it. I felt a little bit anxious, due to an unexpected train delay, which meant we were cutting it fine for the start of the event. However, I was given the honour of being first poet of our little trio to start the event and the morning off and that made me feel nice.

What Frontline did well:

The Room. The room was spacious, welcoming and well lit. Seating wasn’t too clustered together, meaning I could easily take my seat afterwards to watch other performers without clattering clumsily into chairs and drawing attention to myself.

Access Riders. We’d filled in a small, uncomplicated form before heading to Stoke which acts as an access rider. I have to confess that up until a few years ago, I’d never heard of an access rider and essentially what that is, is just a record of your needs, informing the venue and employer what you’ll require to make things work smoother. It’s a contract between both parties and whilst nothing with access can be cast iron guaranteed, it’s a sign of making the effort which in itself means a lot. So just as the ramp had been there without having to ask or explain, it immediately gives a boost, feels refreshing and lets you just settle quickly and concentrate on the job at hand.

This preparation is so helpful as a guide and comfort. I think it’s a key element to helping anyone with disability perform to their best ability. My only issue with access riders is that for groups like Frontline and others that are disability led, access riders they are a staple. These organisations have got the knowledge to learn from and build upon but in mainstream environments they’re not really heard of at all. And probably, at some levels, scoffed at, rebuffed easily and might as well be a myth or folktale like vampires and werewolves to venues that already have their way of doing things and don’t see you as an asset.

I do have some strong sympathies with poetry venues. It isn’t their fault that a building cannot be altered or the money cannot be found to change this fact but I feel there’s a reluctance or repeatedly no awareness to look for fairer venues first. In the same breath, it’s not a disabled person’s fault either. We come along to be involved or try something new and might one day harbour similar ambitions as our able bodied friends. I think expectations shouldn’t have to be lowered for lack of inclusion. As I started to write this review, that was one of the biggest things that immediately stuck in my mind, the difference between events that are setup to focus and cater for everyone’s needs as opposed to the ones that do not allow everyone. It is an absolutely massive world apart. It is taking a bit more care, to think and listen, forethought instead of last thought. In the interests of balance, I’d say it’s never a dig at any individuals but an often overwhelming system that needs to be made better.

The Symposium. This was something I was keen to watch and pay extra attention to as I’ll be hosting something similar online in October. Disability is complicated but we discussed

During the symposium I became aware of just how much energy others have for the battle to get involved and move access forward, how similarly these chimed with my own mind and lastly how ignorant I was to other disabilities. It made me feel slightly guilty but I’m ultimately glad to have this healthy realisation. I think it’s only human nature to focus on your own issue, we’re all usually doing that, disabled or able bodied- it’s part of the human condition. Disabled people aren’t all living as one big family knowing everything about each other at all times, as I think is often assumed that we’re all in one big members club.

Booking my talent. Well done to Frontline Arts for booking me. Thanks again for providing a lapel mic, that really helps my performance. Another aspect I was pleased with personally was, that despite the train delay and a change of performance set length, I thought I came across composed, and with the energy I’d hoped. I’m always overly critical of myself so I won’t bore you with details of how I thought the rest of my set went except to say that perhaps in the past, changes at last moment would have really thrown me and affected how it came across but I was happy that I could make people think and have a laugh at the same time. I kicked off the day on a good footing and made the room feel good.

The other talent. It was great to meet everyone but the energy of best friends Warren Murray, a neurodivergent dancer and Kavaun Laing, who was a deaf dancer was lovely to see. Add to this the mind blowing cardboard sculptures from James Lake and a very powerful short video raising awareness of mental heath and anxiety from dance artist, Kayleigh Price and its just a really strong sample of the day. To summarise then, overall I was really pleased to be involved and invited back to Stoke again. It left me feeling positive, knowing that in little, often unseen incremental steps, disability in all its forms is still emerging, still moving towards better things, and with a bit of forward planning, we can match anyone in the creative sphere.

Shaun Fallows


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