Disability Arts & Activism,...

With #WorldTheatreDay taking place on 27 March there will be many blogs written about the impact of Covid-19 on ‘Theatre’ more generally and thinking about what its future may be.

We’re thrilled to have been given permission to share with you an extract from the genre-defying and versatile writer/poet/performer Penny Pepper’s chapter on Disability Arts & Activism, ‘Subversion within the Excluded – A Personal Journey’ from Counterculture UK – a celebration, which provides a personal and passionate overview of the Disability Arts movement in the UK from the 1970s, and where it is today.

Disability Arts & Activism, ‘Subversion within the Excluded – A Personal Journey by Penny Pepper
(edited highlights)

Disability Arts occupies a strange place in the social history of creativity and the UK’s counterculture scene. For a start, anything we do means tackling multiple physical barriers, which nondisabled artists don’t have to think about. Access remains one of the biggest issues for disabled people and mainstream disability charities still campaign for improvements. However, progress has been slow and for disabled activists organisations such as Scope, Leonard Cheshire Disability and the RNIB, to name a few, do not always reflect the genuine concerns of disabled people.

Understanding this is crucial to understanding the grass roots development of disability arts as a counterculture movement. Overwhelmingly, our organisations are ‘of disabled people, for disabled people’, in which the old style charity model is replaced with autonomy. Then there is our invisibility, a result of being consigned to institutions and hindered by societal definitions as pitiful invalids and not much else – if we are thought of at all.

Path to Activism

February 1979: I was a seriously depressed young woman. There was nothing great in the world for me. However one might imagine the life of a nineteen-year-old then, mine had only a fragile relationship to teen culture. Yes, I was introverted, fuelled with the silent angsty fervour of youth but I had no boyfriends and a negligible social life. This was not uncommon for many disabled people during that time, at least for those from a small nowhere town and from a working class background.

I had the NME, John Peel and my brother. There was no transport, no support worker and no real friends.

But rebellion against injustice took hold from a young age, and I aligned with political causes such as feminism and animal welfare before I was sixteen. It was a natural progression to move towards campaigning for equality issues, especially as a burgeoning writer and poet.

Disabled artists have always been part of the disability activism movement, which began in earnest in the 1970s. This was the time when disabled people fought back against that patrician idea of being ‘looked after’. There was a growing realisation that we knew what was best for us – not others. We took much of our inspiration from the Black Civil Rights and Feminist movements. ‘Nothing about Us, Without Us’ became our mantra. It was a call to arms to meet other disabled people – creatives – with a similar outlook, aligning ourselves to a counterculture scene. In artistic terms, being disabled and a creative was about as countercultural as it could get. After moving to London, an act of defiance in itself, I continued scratching around writing poems and songs and anything I could, ripe with a radical sensibility and a desire for more.

In terms of output, our art was as broad as it was new and sometimes unformed. We are still loathe to set boundaries on what disability art is or can be. Many of us had no access to educational arts institutions, to networking opportunities or to venues – we had to reroute and rewrite rules at each progression.

But like other groups who have experienced oppression, our art comes from a unique understanding of the human condition, whether the art created is disability explicit or not.

New Platforms

Flowering in the 80s and 90s, disability arts forums (DAFs), saw the scene operate at grass roots level and this is where I made my shy entrance as a professional practitioner.

The explosion of disability arts flourished in tandem with growing political awareness. Under the boot of Margaret Thatcher, disabled people were seen as little more than people to pity, rather than empower. Much of our art railed against this idea and it took our fight forward at the same time as our comrades in Disability Action Network (DAN) took to the frontline.

Much of the arts discourse explored the barriers society put in our way. Barriers that could be removed, attitudes that could be changed, information that could be made accessible, to disseminate, to create equality; this redefining of our fight is known as ‘the social model’. Developed by disabled activists and academics in the 70s, this positioned disabled people firmly as a group who experience oppression; our identity as artists was strengthened by the circulation of this idea, and on a personal level it informed my work, just as feminism had, some years earlier.

We are a disparate bunch, but however contrary our output, the social model – and a sense of being a loose community of creative practitioners that experience oppression – binds us together under the kaleidoscope that is disability arts.


Some of the early key arts organisations have now achieved a rise in their reputation and a level of mainstream success. For many years Graeae Theatre Company, founded in 1980 by disabled actor/activist Nabil Shaban and Richard Tomlinson, was the only theatre company of professional disabled actors. Some of Graeae’s acting alumni have moved into the mainstream, including Liz Carr, who was in BBC’s Silent Witness. Yet even now, the need for rebellion remains; the mainstream still insists on effectively the equivalent of ‘blackingup’, casting non-disabled actors in ‘disabled’ roles (for example Oscar-winning Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, 2014.)

Even now in 2015 [when the chapter was written] Disability Arts still occupies a unique and often inadvertently subversive place, despite the nod towards mainstream acceptance for some. Our actual presence is subversive as we struggle under a government obsessed with austerity measures. These cuts threaten progress for everyone.

Our protest continues. I am still banging on, still pushing for more writing opportunities for disabled people – including my own – work which is beyond the so-called misery memoir and triumph over tragedy pot-boiler. And you will still see me on many protests, ready with a word, knowing where my arts roots lie and where my strength comes from.


Penny Pepper‘s work is a mixture of the quirky and the lewd, with a focus on examination of difference and identity. She wrote the taboo-breaking book Desires Reborn in 2012 and in 2013 she won a Creative Futures Literary Award.  This blog is formed of edited highlights from Penny’s chapter in Counterculture UK – a celebration which is published by Aurora Metro’s Supernova Books. To read more snap up a copy or order one from your local library.

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