Article of the Month

next article | index | previous article

May 2005

Nothing about us without us

Gareth Wreford
Executive Director, Arts Access Australia

Poster 'No access for me'

The Australia Council and disability

In all the initial fuss around the Australia Council restructure, announced by media release on 8 December 2004, there are a number of issues the Council has gone quiet on while dealing with big ticket items like the dissolution of the Community Cultural Development and New Media Art Boards. With the Australia Council meeting in Hobart on 6 April 2005 to approve its new structure Arts Access Australia fears that the right of the one in five Australians with a disability to participate in the nation's cultural life may be overlooked.

The public briefing papers on the restructure, available on the Council's website, contain no mention of disability as one of Council's policy objectives, programs or potential initiative areas. The briefing papers do find space for youth, regional, indigenous, multicultural, education, local government and health as areas of Council interest so we are, understandably, concerned that disability has been set aside. It would be unfair just to blame the restructure for the oversight as this issue has a longer history.

The Australia Council's third three-year disability and the arts action plan was due for release in 2003 though remains unsighted. An action plan, as the name suggests, is a practical document that outlines what a whole organisation will do to ensure people with disabilities are included in all aspects of the programs and services offered. Council has a history of leadership in advocating for the rights of people with disabilities and demonstrating the benefits of inclusion for all. This has been demonstrated through original research on cultural participation rates for people with disabilities and two subsequent publications giving practical advice to arts organisations on the 1992 Disability Discrimination Act and the benefits associated with attracting people with disabilities as audiences for the arts. In addition to the restructured Community Cultural Development Board the Audience and Market Development Division is one area of Council that deserves greater acknowledgement for understanding that improving access for people with disabilities creates a vibrant and healthy arts sector.

Arts Access Australia is a Key Organisation supported by the restructured Policy Communication Research Division of Council. We are grateful for the funding, relationship with staff, and additional project support that makes what we do possible. We also know that Australia Council leadership has a direct impact on the effectiveness of our work. With an ageing population, and a more vocal disability sector with individuals proud to identify themselves, the Australian Bureau of Statistics is projecting a rise in the number of people with disabilities. Responding to disability and access issues has never been a more pressing issue for the Australia Council. In particular ageing baby boomers are likely to drive demand for the arts up along with the need for access services like audio description and text captions for live performances. Theatre captioning was recently trialled by the Melbourne and Sydney Theatre Company and received a positive response from audiences.

Arts Access Australia wrote to the Australia Council on International Day of People With a Disability, 3 December 2004, inviting Council to clarify their position. We also asked if Council was including people with disabilities in their future planning process. Little did we know what was about to happen. Arts Access Australia has since worked with a range of arts organisations and our own networks to better understand and respond to the Council's proposed new model.

The dissolution of the Community Cultural Development Board to the new Community Partnerships section is potentially significant for the disability sector. It is community cultural development that has supported entry points and pathways in the arts, ensuring creative control of projects by people with disabilities, and investing in long term arts development to produce some highly innovative and excellent contemporary art.

For companies like Geelong's Back to Back Theatre, winner of The Age critics award in 2002 for Soft performed as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, the Australia Council changes may impact on their programs. The company has a history of applying to both the Community Cultural Development and New Media Art Boards for projects and to support its community program. Collaborations between the Back to Back ensemble and their local Geelong community, like Fishman and Inside the Angel House, are a vital part of the Company's development of actors and new work. Back to Back also receives funding from Arts Victoria. In October 2004 I was lucky enough to see the results of their Pod residency in Horsham as part of the Awakenings Festival and witness the impact this work had on Awakenings audiences and on visiting Regional Arts Australia national conference delegates. People with disabilities can be, and are, professional artists making a unique contribution to Australian art.

Participation in the arts for people with disabilities is an important part of broader inclusion strategies that develop employment skills and social networks. The strength of these outcomes is heavily dependent on the quality of the process and finished arts product or performance and, in this way, Australia Council leadership on access and artistic excellence can assist in achieving cross Government objectives for people with disabilities in employment, training and education. Whether any of these outcomes can be meaningfully measured is a sticking point as Arts Access Australia is concerned that the restructure may not improve integration of the research, evaluation and policy functions of the Australia Council. 2005 marks ten years since the previous Council research into arts and disability and it is not clear how, without a clearly articulated Council wide vision for improving access, the new structure could support follow up research to then drive the next ten years of our sectors work.

Arts Access Australia is, with the support of Council, currently undertaking a review of our own effectiveness so we fully support Council's need for review and change in order to derive better outcomes for the arts, and in particular, how the whole of Council can better engage with disability. However, the development of such change is best when informed by evidence, consultation with stakeholders, open to critique and implemented with the support of Council's stakeholders and clients. That is what the Australia Council expects of us.

As part of our 31 March 2005 response to the Council's new structure Arts Access Australia encouraged the Australia Council to undertake a robust evaluation and review of support for arts and disability with a view to developing future strategies. We urge consultation with the disability sector to learn about and discuss with our field the respective challenges we both face, and to seek assistance in developing the best model for advancing the arts in Australia. In the disability sector an agreed principle is 'nothing about us without us'. Right now those working in arts and disability do not feel included and we have offered, and will continue to offer, our expertise to work with Council on increasing the resources available to the arts and cultural sector.

The alternative is that the already low levels of cultural participation for people with disabilities will decline further and risk the future sustainability of the arts sector. Meanwhile in Launceston Gerard Smith from Artsroar will be thinking about getting his 'no access for me' postcard reprinted specially for the Australia Council.

Gareth Wreford is Executive Director of Arts Access Australia the peak national non government organisation for arts and disability. Arts Access Australia is a member of the ArtsPeak group, an interim Committee member of the National Arts and Culture Alliance and participated in the 21 February Community Partnerships workshop with the Australia Council. For more information email


Dear e-bility readers

Thank you for your interest in arts and disability and also to those who took the time to respond to ensure that arts and disability is a priority for the Australia Council regardless of its structure. Arts Access Australia was greatly encouraged by the level of disability sector and arts sector support shown for arts and disability from every State and Territory. We believe this demonstration of support was vital in getting the Australia Council to publically renew its committment to arts and disability.

Below, for your information, is an email Arts Access Australia Chair Nicole Beyer received on 29 April 2005 outlining the Australia Council's support for arts and disability.

Arts Access Australia is now cautiously optimistic having also met with Council staff in mid May to discuss how best to progress Council's commitments to arts and disability.

Arts Access Australia believes that improving access benefits the whole community and would like to see Council:

  1. Develop a policy on arts and disability
  2. Review trends in, and support for, arts and disability. This is essentially a follow up study to the Council's 1995 Art and Disability report
  3. Demonstrate internal leadership to improve access. This is everything from staff awareness training to promoting Disability Discrimination Act responsibilities to funded clients
  4. Provide advice on working across Government in our target areas; ageing and disability, wellbeing, Indigenous disability, arts participation / enterprise / employment as these priorities are refined further and actioned through our business plan

If you have any queries about Arts Access Australia please contact me 02 9251 6844 or email

Queries about the Australia Council can be directed to Council on 1800 226 912 (toll free) or email

Gareth Wreford

Australia Council email response

Subject: Arts and disability in the Australia Council's new structure

Dear Ms Beyer

Thank you for your correspondence regarding the Australia Council's support for arts and disability in the context of our reorganisation.

I am pleased to advise the Council's governing body this week approved progressive and far reaching reforms to the Council's structures and processes that are designed to meet the growing challenges of the arts in Australia. We believe these changes will enable the Council to be more strategic and less reactive, and so drive the innovation and excellence that is needed for sustainability of the sector and to preserve the vital role of the arts in Australian life.

The Council will now be better positioned to respond to the needs of Australia's diverse and complex arts sector and help secure it a vibrant and sustainable future-at the same time, creating opportunities for all Australians to engage with and importantly, enjoy a life that is enriched by the arts.

As a federal government agency, the Council meets its obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. Compliance with this Act is reported in our Annual Reports as required by the Australian Government.

The Council strongly supports the inclusion of people with disabilities in the arts. We do not have a separate disability program; rather disability arts practice is supported across the organisation through existing programs. We also support Arts Access Australia, the national advocacy body for arts and disability. This organisation currently receives triennial funding, and in 2004-05, was supported to undertake a review of its effectiveness.

In the new structure, Community Partnerships will oversee support for the Council's arts and disability activities. This will include:

Between July and December 2005, the Council will conduct a scoping study that will propose new strategies and programs to achieve its policy objectives in Community Partnerships, including arts and disability. The study will be developed and driven by the CEO and Director of Community Partnerships, with an external consultant/s working with a reference group. The arts and disability sector will be one of the sectors we will consult with through this process and we look forward to working with Arts Access Australia as we develop the terms of reference.

Further information about the Council's decision is currently on our website at

Again, thank you for your input.

Yours sincerely
David Gonski AO

Google links

End of Google links

next article | index | previous article