Ableism in practicing art – how to create a healthier practice

There’s a cliche that tells us to set off as we intend to carry on. As a woman with a disability and lately, some pretty dire health issues, I thought that in creating art, I would have a pretty good perspective on how to build an instance with a collective where our disabilities and health would be something that isn’t negated. This isn’t just important to me as a person whose disabilities and health requires some consideration, but also important as a person who cares about the people I work with.

Under the pressure of creation, we can fall into ableist patterns – we find ourselves in a place where the consideration is on the deadline, the creation, and not on the creators in the project. The health and abilities of everyone can be a priority, but must be considered in advance.

Here’s some things I learned. I’m sharing for others who wish to consider their own ableism in the function of art building. This is from my own point of view – that of an aspie artistic director of a feminist, diverse, mixed gender, age, race, discipline collective. I do think these can translate to any collaborative practice. This is by no means exhaustive, but for the health and ability of a group of strong creators working together:

  1. PREPAREConsider ability and health at the outset, long before you start working. When you get into the middle of a creation, things move so fast under the tension of deadlines and the aspect of losing yourself in the zone that health can become problematic without even noticing. Do this in your team-building if you can – in those meetings where you are facilitating relationships.
  2. Keep water in the room in which you are creating. If you are working with a collective, keep a jug of fresh water in the space – for yourself, whichever container floats your boat. Keep cups/glasses, wash them daily. Foster a policy of respect around water and the pause to rehydrate. This bleeds out into the routine of water getting, and the deliberate short breaks that the mind needs in intense intervals. Respect that the call for a break for a drink may be a way for someone who needs a moment for their body or mind to ask for a pause while they stay in the energy of the room or activity without outing themselves or asking for sympathy. Also, a water break may just be a water break. Either way…
  3. Country-805222---Water-Pitcher-3-Pint-White-BG-High-ResMaintain a healthy, caffeine free alternative tasty beverage that your collective can agree on – whether this is juice, tisane, lemon or lime water – you get to be creative and inclusive… And maybe also fun : ever try warm pineapple and passion juice? Also keep caffeinated beverages (coffee, tea, mate) to keep personal budgets intact. But really, consider that not everyone can or should have these and at the same time, they are a bonding piece between people. If you can, a wee fridge may be your best friend.
  4. Arrange ahead of time potluck and brown bag lunches for your collective – make it fun by planning daily menus and themes. Consider dietary restrictions and allergies – be open and honest about the ingredients in the food. It’s wonderful to carry on the energy of a new creation over lunch, but having that lunch not be cheese covered nachos, fries, or other restaurant foods are better for your body, and better on your wallet.
  5. Build timelines with lots of testing time front loaded if you can. For some, renting of equipment can only happen on a tight schedule. If this is the case, test the equipment as soon as it’s delivered. Remember that the tech people in your show are a part of your creation. Also, this could take some serious pressure off of the last minute. Able bodies and minds find the last minute pressures hard. Disabled bodies and minds are taxed beyond coping when the details wrapped in stress overwhelm the final ability to push.
  6. list.2Make lists and order them according to priority and time. These will help to allow the flexibility in a timeline, and can also breakdown something like “Tech Setup”, “Strike” into granular, and orderly parts. These lists can and should be built with the consultation of the people involved, and then they can be built into being a checklist for the larger, complicated tasks. I know this one seems so elementary and project manager 101 – but when things get tight, being able to hand these off to a stage manager makes their life easier, and it keeps you, the collective, and the creation in a headspace where complicated process is in simple black and white.
  7. If someone discloses a health requirement to you, take it seriously. Ask them what you can do to accommodate them and then work your hardest to do so. Try to have this conversation before you get into heavy creation and deliberately build accommodations into your process. If done right, maybe you stand a chance to make the whole process not focus on what limits people, but allows every strength to shine within a disabled context.
  8. bf1Some people will not want to disclose to a whole group but will tell the director – make sure you understand the privacy concerns around what they live. Some people are happy to share much of what they live. Many want to be able to work in a context where things just work for them enough so that they can contribute in the meaningful way that they were asked to be in your project – maybe this means that you do research, and ask them to help you understand. Remember, the one who lives a disability is an expert in their own lives, treat them as such. Remember to listen, and truly pay attention. Disabilities can sometimes impede the ability to communicate needs but with even small effort, modifications, accommodations can be made to make a process more disability-friendly.
  9. Never, ever assume you know someone’s needs. Someone may require a ramp for a mobility device, but do you know if the bars in the “accessible” washroom are placed in the right location for your fellow artist to be able to help themselves? Are they needing/wanting additional assistance and how can you provide it? There is nothing wrong with asking an entire group of creatives if they would be willing to have a conversation about what they require in a space or creation. Leaving open several options for how people would like to communicate is critical – from email to open forum, it should entirely up to the person disclosing on how they want to go about this.
  10. Scarcity is an unfortunate part of art making. From unheated, dusty, and sometimes unhealthy spaces, to lack of time, we all have to push too hard. Remembering that even the most able and well person is more likely to succumb to illness or injury when they are stressed and tired is a most basic and simple consideration.
  11. SpoonsBecome familiar with Spoon Theory.  Use it if you need it, and advocate for the understanding of spoons.
  12. Take the time to find accessible space that is suitable to the needs of everyone. It’s so much easier if you find a building or space that is good, but have the ability to work with the owner to create even better access.
  13. Keep a roster of who you have worked with, and who is above the board for building accommodation. Share this list widely.  Tell other companies and artists about good places and good people for access. Do you part in creating a culture of better space.

A bonus ten to consider:

  1. Zero imposition on yourself and others when not directly at work in studio. Having firm hours with little-to-no homework beyond work hours allows the mind and body to rest easier. People will still come up with ideas over washing dishes, but having the off times as brain wandering, other life task times will add strength to everything. It also allows for better nighttime sleep which benefits everyone and everything.
  2. Using meditation techniques and visualisation as a group to deliberately leave the work behind may be an amazing way to separate off time from creation time.
  3. Deliberate mental health breaks. There is nothing like pizza on a night of stress – everyone has to stop and eat, even if they don’t eat.
  4. Open continuous communication on the wellbeing of everyone in the creation for the entire creation. Foster acceptance, and trust. Kindness, sincerity go a long way.
  5. Treat health emergencies with sincere concern. The lives of the creators you work with is more important than the creation.
  6. If you are directing a creation, keep a notebook near you at all times while in creation. Unload everything into the notebook. Separate ideas for the creation, from personal, from operational elements. Take an hour before you start in the morning (or an hour in the evening, whatever floats your creative boat) to code these things and determine if the are important enough to consider.
  7. Make sure every aspect of a project has an owner. I mean this. Those lists I was talking about? Make sure that the items that make the cut are assigned to someone.
  8. For goodness sake, if anyone has a health emergency, delay the outcome. We squeeze by so often. I would hate for anyone I know and love, or any creative person who is loved by anyone, including themselves, to have any of the worst things happen because they prioritised a creation over a life. A call to a granting officer, or a co-presenter can often go a long way to building understanding around delays.
  9. More of a clarification to the last point: Your definition of a health emergency may not match someone else’s. Someone with arthritis or fibromyalgia may not be able to function on a day. A person with depression may require a month off.
  10. Take all of these seriously and for heaven’s sake, do continue to work with people with disabilities. Our unique experience adds so much to a creation. We have a different way of working that requires us to push our own limits daily in the ways we can, never mind the limits of a creation. Not only will the projects be stronger and more meaningful, but everyone who works with a person with a disability will find themselves in a place of diversity and strength by adding and respecting our voices.

Please, do comment on this. My considerations are not comprehensive, and I am learning on my feet. I would love to know what you do to consider health in these heavy and stressful times!