The struggle to improve attitudes towards disability and achieve equality has proved a long and strenuous one. Whilst we often hear about political changes, like the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995, art and music can have a unique power in bringing to life ideas and concepts, and improve understanding in a rapid and underappreciated way. Quite often, it is through the music that we hear or the art we see or experience which provides a crucial cultural foundation to our progress. Fanciful it may sound when put into those terms, but for disabled people, art can enable us to use our talents, whether it is painting, music or acting, to change both our own lives and the way in which society reacts and perceives disabled people in general.
This year’s theme for Disability History Month is art, highlighting its impact in energising the movement to secure the rights and freedoms that have been accomplished so far and the causes that still needs to be fought for. For many of us, though, our artistic expressions are simply what gives us a source of enjoyment. In my case, having a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing, it would be true to say that subjects such as Maths and more scientific vocations were never going to be my natural course in life. For many autistic people like me, the assumption is too often that we are all somehow gifted in the mathematical universe. This is plainly untrue. While I am yet to have my work published for a wider audience (hopefully one day!) and I have many other interests that extend outside of writing, it is nevertheless how I largely choose to articulate my thoughts and creative efforts for the wider world to understand.
Some of Jak Whitfield's work
Fortunately, I am lucky to have met and come to know several other autistic people who have followed their creative pursuits in ways that allow them to access new audiences and build understanding of the condition. For Jak Whitfield, leader of a local social enterprise, ‘Autism Assemble’, his art, through illustration, poetry and music, has helped him overcome his own challenges. He explained that “I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with spoken language… When you express creatively, your statement is an observable piece frozen in time, yet people can still share a dialogue through these artistic statements.” Through the arts, it has been a way that Jak and many others have been able to ‘come out of their shell’.
Similarly, for Sian Hutchings, a photographer and public speaker on autism, it has enabled her to break free from the myths that still surround autism. She believes that “it helps others to understand what we can do with our talents and with the right help and support”. In exploring art, I would argue that it helps to improve our self-esteem and a means to look deeper into what is not always possible through verbal conventions. As Jak observed, “You can’t change the world you’re born in, but you can adapt it through creativity to make your life your own.”
A final person, who I met by chance at a gala not long ago for the charity Ambitious about Autism, introduced me to the talent of Derek Paravicini, who is blind and autistic. As well as being a highly skilled piano player, Derek is able to pick up the notes of a melody and reproduce it effortlessly on the piano bars. His music teacher of fifteen years, Kelly Smith, she explained that “the piano allows him [Derek] to engage with audiences and fellow musicians, to meet lots of new people and to get the applause and feedback that people are enjoying the music he makes for them.” It was hard not to feel awestruck and mesmerised when seeing Derek play, which Kelly as acknowledged is part of Derek’s appeal. As she stated, “we often have preconceptions about what people with any kind of disability might be able to do, and I think Derek very quickly shows that anything is possible!”
As for Derek himself, his art is clearly an innate passion which shines through in his own feelings towards the piano. As he says himself, “I enjoy the music that I make when I play the piano.”