International Day of People with Disability - how Covid-19 has impacted disabled and Deaf artists

By Carly Findlay – Access and Inclusion Coordinator 

Today is International Day of People with Disability.

The theme is “Building Back Better: toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 World”. I want to celebrate disabled and Deaf artists, and also share the often difficult reality that 2020 has been for us.

I think we can all agree that Covid-19 has turned the world upside down. It’s changed how everyone works, and also how we connect with each other. Melbourne Fringe has mostly been online this year – from artist development sessions, our mini festival called VCR Fest over a weekend in July-August, and our 18 day festival that just wrapped up on Sunday. We’ve pivoted more than we ever imagined!

Many artists have felt disconnected, isolated and have experienced lost opportunities. For disabled and Deaf artists, Covid has created more inaccessibility than previously experienced, and also isolation from the community.

But there has been positives! Covid has given many disabled people opportunities for accessibility that they haven’t had before – both as artists and audience members. And I think it’s fair to say that Covid has given everyone an insight into the barriers many disabled and Deaf people face, and we hope that many of the access provisions that have arisen through lockdown will stay once Covid has long gone.

I was funded – as a freelancer outside of Melbourne Fringe – to curate a series featuring disabled and Deaf artists. It’s called IsoCreate, and it’s a clear call to continue the accessibility we’ve seen during isolation in a post-Covid world.

I interviewed six artists who told me about their experience during Covid (via written responses), and shared their art. The full features are on my blog, which is linked under each artist below.

Jacci Pillar

Image description: Jacci seated at their desk recording their community TV show, with costumes hanging behind them, dressed in a burgundy red velvet jacket and giving a thumbs up.  

Jacci Pillar, a comedian, satirist and anthropologist says they has been resourceful during Covid, teaching themselves new skills, and continuing to make art. They told me:

“I’ve also taken the time to learn piano and have just written my first complete comedy song composition after ten lessons and lots of hours of practice. This feels great after relying on others with musical composition, I am super proud of the first song “The Presidents Lament”, mocking the Trump administration.  I am also starting a research post grad degree in 2021 focusing on political satire and hoping to launch a new political satire character, Bronwin Budget-Slap by the end of this year.  I managed to put my planned Melbourne International Comedy Festival into a pre-recorded format for Melbourne Fringe and it had a run of eight digital shows.  In the middle of it all, I started my community TV show, “Talk-ist” which is produced by BentTV and airs on Channel 31. “

Deafferent Theatre

Image description: Deafferent Theatre founders – Ilana Gelbert and Jess Moody. Two fair skinned women sit on steps. On the left is Ilana, who had long straight light brown hair, and is wearing a white shirt. On the right is Jess, who has dark curly hair that falls past her shoulders, and she’s wearing a light grey top and black pants. 

Jess Moody and Ilana Gelbert from Deafferent Theatre have found new audiences thanks to Covid – and being on opposite sides of the world to each other.

Ilana: “On the plus side, as we were both at home and wanting to flex our creative muscles, we used the time in lockdown to create an online web series, My Blood.”

Jess: “We considered our resources, and missed creating together as artists (not producers). With Ilana’s excellent cheerleading, she encouraged me to write and develop the series. Ilana and I performed the two roles of sisters, and the format was a series of video calls that eventually were dropped via social media in real time.”

Ilana: “It has been a fantastic way of engaging with a wider audience who would perhaps not have been able to attend one of our live events.”

Jess: “This opportunity was a great way to flex my writing muscle, and explore what deaf talent would look like in areas other than performance. Creating film is refreshing since there is something tangible in the end to engage with at any time; whereas theatre is momentary, a capture of time before it disappears.”

Ilana: “I have appreciated the larger scope of things available online, as I feel I can still maintain my connection to my artistic community despite the distance. “

Read all of Deafferent Theatre’s interview and watch episode one of My Blood here.

Jessica Knight

Image description: a fair skinned woman with blue hair, wearing glasses, a white shirt sleeved shirt and a black tie. She’s sitting in an orange room. Photo by Theresa Harrison. 

Jessica Knight has written a lengthy essay and has performed two of her poems on video. She has struggled a lot this year, but she also has hope. She writes:

“After COVID, I hope to sit in the dark and watch a play again. Hope to go see a live band again. Hope to go to the movies again. Hope to be able to go on long meandering walks that include ducking into a shop that looks interesting, loiter in bookshops again for hours, so many simple things.

I hope to sit around at a bar at a lit event and chat and hug my friends again. I hope to get to perform Mormon Girl at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival like previously planned.

I hope to get a book published. I hope to see my friends get their projects off the ground. I hope to have something to get excited about and work towards again.

I want people to have a better understanding of what its like to be chronically ill or disabled in a way they didn’t before COVID made then get to experience something similar for a period of time. That would be great. If people understood that being out of work or sick is not a character flaw but circumstances beyond personal control. I don’t want these people to get the paid writing gigs to write about how but, I do want the wider population to grow in empathy and understanding. I want them to stop dehumanizing chronic ill and disabled peopled people as well as the unemployed. I want The Black Lives Matter movement to end racism and police brutality. This is more a wish than a hope.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I am taking it one day at a time. It’s too overwhelming to my system to get stuck in the pile of things I hope for during the short fleeting moments that I have hope. Things are in flux.”

Read all of Jessica Knight’s writing, and see her poetry performance here.

Larissa MacFarlane

Image description: a photo of a woman doing a handstand on a wall. She has fair skin. She is wearing brightly coloured layered clothes and has long dreadlocks and a red tartan peak cap on her head. Next to her is a colourful cane. On the wall is a black and white paste up of the same woman doing a handstand. 

Larissa MacFarlane, who is a visual artist, has had reduced capacity to make art during the Covid lockdowns. She told me:

“I haven’t had the health to be doing any street art. But my heart has been happy to see an increase of graffiti and tagging. I don’t normally enjoy seeing tagging, but at the moment I do as I like to see my streets alive!

The increase of access for homebound and chronically ill people has been amazing. I am also hopeful that this will lead to new art being presented by people we don’t often hear from.

I am also hopeful that Covid is leading to more disabled people getting skilled up to use the internet. People with intellectual disability as a group have generally had little access to the internet. However, some of my work colleagues at the Self Advocacy Resource Unit have been working extra hard to provide devices, internet data and skills for people with cognitive disability in self advocacy groups. However, this is only a few and there are many other groups of disabled people that are faring less well.”

Read all of Larissa’s words, and see her art here.

cubbie mako

Image: a photo of a person’s head and shoulders. They have brown skin. Their face is barely visible because bright shaggy, red hair with dark highlights frames their head. They are a dark brick wall. 

cubbie mako is a writer, a parent and a cargo-bike rider in Melbounre’s West. They told me:

“In a post-COVID19 world, make accessibility the norm and not an afterthought;

For someone who does not drive a vehicle but prefers to cycle using a three-wheeled cargo-bike or trike, that university courses, the academia and those who hold power and privilege in education to rethink their design principles and make the basic principles include accessibility. (i.e. design, architecture, and (civil) engineering schools’ degrees);

That schools be more inclusive. No one is left behind in a pandemic or in a disaster situation. Include the Disabled in disaster planning strategies. All means all.

As a writer, cubbie wishes webinars, Zoom still be included in face-to-face workshops for audiences who have no capacity to attend events on location.”

Read more of cubbie’s words here.

For mental health support in the arts, check out Arts Wellbeing Collective.
Melbourne Fringe also has a wellbeing guide for artists.