Disability Arts

Finding support in the arts when chronically ill, d/Deaf, disabled, neurodivergent, mad and/or sick by Hannah Wallis

A guide to get­ting start­ed as an artist, mak­ing con­nec­tions, spe­cif­ic sup­port to be found in the sec­tor and access support.


In this guide I will cover; getting started as an artist; making connections locally in the South West and further afield; specific support to be found in the sector for chronically ill, d/Deaf, disabled, neurodivergent, mad and/or sick artists; what kind of access support can be found when applying for funding and jobs; access riders; and some further reading and artists to explore.

The text is approximately 28 minutes reading time as someone who reads at a medium pace with a slight information processing delay, and without clicking on any links.

Where possible I have tried to clarify what kind of media each link will lead to.

Where to start?

Getting started in the arts is often a daunting prospect, it can feel a little like one big game that no-one told you the rules for but everyone else seems to know how to play. The thing to remember is that everyone is making it up as they go along, you are not alone in this. What can make it harder, is a system that is also inherently inaccessible, in a world that is built much the same way. However, things are slowly changing. This change like any change comes from a long history of activism, in this instance a lot of this was led by artists (read more about the Disability Arts Movement in the UK here and the evolution of Disability Justice from the US here) and is still being led by disabled artists today. Disabled art workers are also slowly finding a foothold in the structures of the art sector and making change from within.

A digital image of a purple background with the words 'archive enabled' in bold font

So maybe you have just graduated, or you are self-taught and looking to make in-roads into the arts and want to understand how to do this as someone who self-identifies as chronically ill, d/Deaf, disabled, neurodivergent, mad and/or sick.

So much at this point is about relationship building, making sure you create a really strong support system around you and building community; whatever that might look or feel like for you. Maybe it means collaborating with your peers, forming collectives, joining artist support programmes or applying for residencies and development opportunities. All of which create the foundations to meet and connect with other artists. What is vital here is that you maintain these relationships and friendships into wider networks for the future. This work doesn’t ever stop, but it is important particularly at the start of your career, when you know less people, to seek out the opportunities for these relationship forming moments. Over time it will happen more organically the wider your network becomes.

As chronically ill, d/Deaf, disabled, neurodivergent, mad and/or sick artists, this might formulate in different ways depending on how you move through the world; whether that be online, via BSL, from your bed, or slowly in small doses to avoid autistic overwhelm. So, find your people. Examples of this could be Resting Up Collective or You Look Okay to Me, who you can find via Instagram here and here, Neuk Collective who have a website here, Deaf Explorer who you can connect with online here, or Our Visual World who you can follow on Instagram here, among many others.

A digital illustration including the title 'tools of rest' and images of tools with the captions 'slowing down', 'dreaming', collaborating' and creating

Take time to research organisations you are interested in. If you can travel, visit them. Learn about their programmes, what they stand for and support. Find out about artists, writers, activists and curators you are interested in and feel aligned with.

One of the best pieces of advice I can give is don’t lose all your energy trying to talk to everyone, really understand who and where the best places to connect with are. Some questions you might consider in this:

  • Who else do they work with?

  • Which organisations and people do they champion?

  • Are they clear about their commitment to access and supporting those with intersecting barriers?

I have been working in institutions for only a few years, but I have been building communities and networks for much longer; it is a practice in and of itself. It doesn’t happen overnight and so take things at a pace that works for you, meet people on a timescale that works for your body/mind and remember that a conversation you have with someone via email, or at a show opening, or over coffee on a random afternoon might not lead to anything straight away; but if your ideas connect you never know what might happen in the future. So be sure to maintain connections in ways that work for you (and check this is reciprocal, what works for you might not work for someone else, try to find a happy middle ground).

Networks in the South West and beyond

Start local, who are your neighbours, friends and allies nearby?

Starting down in Newlyn and Penzance, Newlyn Art Gallery is committed to increasing accessibility and part of the Future Curator’s Programme, which supports disabled artists and curators in partnership with a consortium of national organisations.

Find out more about Newlyn’s commitments via this link here.

For more about the Future Curator’s Programme hosted by DASH, click here.

Over in Portsmouth, Aspex provide regular mentoring sessions and a support guide for artists in the area. They make a specific commitment to meeting access in mentoring sessions and you can email or call to join the waiting list.

Find out more about how Aspex support artists here.

Join networks such as Bristol based Spike Island’s associate programme which provides opportunities to connect with other creatives and build peer support through practice.

Find out about joining via this link here.

The Spike Island associate programme is also part of a wider network of support called the Kaleidoscope Network including Eastside Projects, Primary, and The NewBridge Project.

You can find out more information about the network here.

AIM, an organisation based in Bristol, collaborates with learning-disabled and neurodiverse artists to make artwork. They provide opportunities for individuals to develop their art practice, learn new skills, broaden their experience, and showcase their work through exhibitions and events. Find out more about their work here.

Nearby, Somerset Arts Work are dedicated to artist development with a specific initiative to support artists who face barriers in the sector.

More information about applying to their annual development programme is available via this link.

In Southampton, alongside other opportunities, ‘a space’ arts provide annual residencies for artists who experience racism, come from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, identify as neurodivergent, disabled or D/deaf, and those with caring responsibilities.

You can find out more about the residency opportunity and who is in residence at the moment here.

Connected to ‘a space’ arts there is RIPE, an ambitious graduate programme that supports emerging artists to experiment with exhibition and event formats.

For more information about the programme click here.

Up in Andover, Chapel Art Studios have been developing a policy to support neurodivergent artists and to make art more accessible to neurodivergent publics. There are often opportunities to get involved which you can find out more about here.

Further afield

Across in the South East, Marlborough Productions are a catalyst for queer culture and community and committed to working accessibly, working closely with their artists to ensure that access needs are understood and met with care and kindness.

Find out more about the programmes Marlborough Productions provide via this link.

Also in Brighton, Outside In provides a platform for artists who encounter significant barriers to the art world due to health, disability, social circumstance or isolation. With fully accessible studios and a dedicated artist development programme with opportunities to make, exhibit and develop skills, they are uniquely placed to support disabled artists.

Find out more about getting involved here.

And for the writers amongst you, Creative Future, also based in Brighton, are committed to supporting underrepresented artists and communities facing barriers through annual grants.

Find out more about applying here.

Moving away from the South, Eastside Projects, based in Birmingham, provide an extensive national programme of events and support for their EOP members, and membership is free if you identify as being from Global Majority heritage, or if you are disabled, D/deaf, or chronically ill.

Find out more about EOP via this link here.

Also in the Midlands, Level Centre work with disabled creatives specialising in visual, digital and performing arts. Most of what you will see and experience at Level Centre has been created by disabled artists.

To find out more about different ways to get involved visit their website here.

And up in Wakefield, The Art House provides time, space, and support for artists, makers and creative businesses to develop their practice, and offer fully accessible studios and multiple ways for artists to get involved in their programmes.

To find out more, click here.

Some other organisations who are working in brilliant ways are Wysing Arts Centre (Cambridgeshire), Ort Gallery (Birmingham), Turf Projects (Croydon), MIMA (Middlesbrough) and Grand Union (Birmingham), where I currently work. It’s not necessarily that all have continual opportunities available, however you never know where conversations and networks can lead to in the future. As a curator in a small organisation, I am not able to provide opportunities for every artist I want to work with or meet, but what I can provide is my time. If an artist gets in touch with me because there is a mutual connection in practice and ideas, and I have the capacity, time is what I can provide to give advice, talk through a project or just have a catch-up.

Photographic documentation of a performance consisting of a moving masked performer wearing a costume of black fabric strips and coloured leather straps, surrounded by audience members

National and Strategic Networks

I have talked a lot about research and being online. There is a certain amount of this that is necessary, at least in so far as being able to communicate, and if travel is a barrier, then online meetings are a really great source of communicating and sharing with these burgeoning networks.

It is generally a good idea to be able to show your work in some way, building a portfolio as your practice grows. This is not to say that having a social media presence is a necessity, and every artist must choose for themselves what suits them. For some who are not able to be out and about as much, being online is a lifeline, and for others it can feel like another layer of added pressure.

To read a brilliant reflection on the importance of learning your boundaries in relation to working in the arts, disability and the internet read ‘Coming Offline’ by Jamila Prowse, by clicking here.

There are also online networks that can be useful to connect with other artists and support with your budding practice. a-n Artists Information Company is one such example; a membership organisation which shares upcoming opportunities, interviews with artists at all stages of their careers, top tips on exhibitions to visit and research happening in the sector. An example is the 2023 Structurally F-cked report about the realities of current rates of pay (where we are seeing an increasing connection with disability advocacy), released in collaboration with Industria.

You can read the full report via this link here.

To find out more about opportunities for applying for bursaries, payment guides and to connect with a diverse pool of 30,000+ a-n artist members click here.

You can find out more about the added benefits of insurance in Rachel Dobbs’ VASW guide to becoming self-employed via this link here.

As Rachel Dobbs also mentions, there are complexities in working freelance and receiving certain government benefits. Some, such as Personal Independence Payments (PIP) are not means tested, whereas others are. So as Rachel points out, it’s a good idea to talk to your local Citizens Advice office to find out the best situation for you in terms of your finances that will be compatible with your artistic practice.

You can find the link to your local Citizens Advice office here.

Some of the organisations I mention below in the next section, will have more information about this too.

You can also find out more about what is happening in the different regions via the Contemporary Visual Arts Network (CVAN). Each region has its own programme, of which the Visual Arts South West is the South West counterpart.

Visit the CVAN site here to find out what is happening nationally to support artists on a strategic, as well as practical level.

Specific advice & support for chronically ill, d/Deaf, disabled, neurodivergent, mad and/or sick artists

The places I have mentioned have been about building localised connections, and there are some national organisations that are good places to start researching as you begin your work in the arts. Thinking more specifically about your experience as a chronically ill, d/Deaf, disabled, neurodivergent, mad and/or sick artist; here are some organisations that support making and practising from this perspective.

DASH creates opportunities for Disabled artists to develop their creative practice, with a mission to develop Disability Arts practice and work with artists, audiences, communities and organisations to challenge inequality and implement change.

DASH works closely with several of the organisations I have mentioned so far including Newlyn, Wysing and MIMA; and my own practice has been supported by their flagship Future Curator’s Programme (you can find a link earlier in the guide). The dedicated support of a programme that is designed to support Disabled artists and curators was a revelatory experience. The benefits of that programme are now seeping into the structures of the sector as the art world takes notice, understanding that not only is access a necessity, it has its own creative potential.

For resources, opportunities and to get in touch with DASH, visit their website here.

Shape Arts is a disability-led arts organisation which works to improve access to culture for disabled people by providing opportunities for disabled artists through training cultural institutions to be more open to disabled people, and running participatory arts and development programmes.

To explore Shape’s extensive resources and find out about opportunities such as their annual exhibition, click here.

Shape also commissioned the first disabled artists pavilion at Venice Biennale this year. You can find out more about the work here.

Photographic documentation of a protest, with people gathering and banners including the text 'is this a cripple free zone' and don't call us, we'll call you'

Unlimited is an arts commissioning body that supports, funds and promotes new work by disabled artists for UK and international visitors. Their mission is to commission ambitious work from disabled artists that will change and challenge the world as we know it.

To find out more about regular funding opportunities, artist development and more resources such as guides to accessible marketing and top tips for accessible commissioning, visit here.

Disability Arts Online showcases disability arts content, artist development programmes, partnership and consultancy work, accessible events and a vibrant community of disabled creatives.

To access opportunities; extensive resources; a network of artists; podcasts about subjects including climate change, AI, and Disability Pride; and to get involved in the community of artists, visit the portal online here.

Across the country there are a number of smaller organisations dedicated to different practices and experiences. Here are a few to look up:

DaDa is a pioneering disability and Deaf arts organisation based in Liverpool that provides an ambitious artist development programme and annual festival of disability arts.

To get involved, click here.

Deaf Explorer, based in Birmingham but supporting Deaf practitioners worldwide, is an empowerment organisation for artists and creatives providing skills development and training. Follow them on Instagram for updates on opportunities here.

For Deaf artists over in Wales, there is a growing collective called Our Visual World, providing networking and development opportunities. Visit the Instagram page to find out more information and connect here.

Up in Scotland, Neuk Collective, is a new collective of neurodivergent artists providing a manifesto for working with neurodivergent artists, regular meetups, networking opportunities and artist development.

For more information about Neuk, click here.

Critical Design Lab is a collaborative art and design membership group rooted in disability culture. As artists, designers, critical makers, storytellers, filmmakers, activists and scholars, members begin in one-year cohorts before joining the member network. To find out more about the projects and joining the Lab, click here.

I’ve also pulled together a few resources about ways of working in the arts:

Access Toolkit For Arts Workers by Iaraith Ní Fheorais (and I helped edit!) is a practical resource for art workers, such as curators, producers and arts administrators working independently or in galleries, museums and arts organisations. It is a toolkit that contains practical information on how to plan, produce, and exhibit accessible art projects, including information on access riders, financial planning, slow production, display and creating an accessible workplace. Although primarily for art workers, this is still a useful resource for thinking about the kind of support you should be expecting from organisations and the sector more widely.

Visit the resource here.

The Art of Access Adjustments by Jamila Prowse is a resource within VASW that provides examples demonstrating the importance of reframing the relationship between access and the arts.

Learn more about the kinds of access support you could be asking for via this link here.

Autistics at Work by Sonia Boué provides an understanding of the barriers autistic people face within the workplace. This is an essential read for organisations looking to implement access and inclusion for autistic people, and for artists to be empowered to access sustainable careers in the arts.

To download and read Autistics at Work, click here.

Spatialization of stimming, Diagrammatic Praxis by Sam Metz is a reflection on stimming as communicative, artistic and embodied praxis, challenging the normalised hierarchies of verbal communication above other forms of communication.
To read the text, follow the link here.

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Delve into the resources above and link through to the many artists that these organisations work with, you’ll find writings, think pieces, podcasts, videos, support networks and more amongst the virtual pages.

A few other artists and writers to follow are:

Ashokkumar Mistry – read his writings via Disability Arts Online at this link here.

Babeworld – delve into the Babeworld state of mind via moving-image, zines, texts and more on their website here.

Hamja Ahsan – watch this brilliant Q&A celebrating Disability filmmaking, intersectionality, and community-led action towards an inclusive film industry via YouTube here.

Abi Palmer – watch and read several interviews and talks with Abi over the past several years of her growing practice on her website here.

Access support

We’ve talked about where to look for connections, support networks, opportunities and building community. Now you are maybe thinking about a particular project, fund or job that you want to apply for.

For places to find further funding check out Catherine Herbert’s guide to Funding for Early Career Artists on VASW, via this link here.

Depending on where and what you are applying for there will be different levels of access support built into the application systems.

Some of the bigger funds such as Arts Council England and British Council have opened up funding streams to include provision of Personal Access Costs.

This means that if you identify as d/Deaf, disabled or neurodivergent, they will provide two things.

  1. They can support you before you apply by paying for a support worker to help you make an application.

  2. Cover your access costs for the delivery of the project on top of the final project budget (access costs to make your project accessible to the public must be included in the main budget).

There are lots of people who can provide support for writing applications, e.g. DASH and The Uncultured, as well as individuals (often artists and art workers who do this to supplement their practice). They can’t help you formulate the project idea itself, but they can help you put your ideas into the right format that funders such as Arts council ask for.

Visit the DASH website here about accessing this support.

Visit The Uncultured website here for similar support.

Please note that the Arts Council England now ask you to complete a short form to request this access support.

You can find more information about access support from the Arts Council here.

You can find a link to the access support request form here.

Although not all funders offer this level of support, many applications and funds now offer the opportunity to apply in alternative formats such as video or audio responses instead of written. And many do have small access budgets that they can supply. Some funders and organisations make this really clear in their callouts, some don’t, so if you are unsure, ask!

When working with an organisation on projects and exhibitions, make sure that access costs are planned into the budget. You can use something like the Access Toolkit for Art Workers as a guide for where and when these budgets should be discussed, or find resources via Shape and Unlimited for specific kinds of accessible commissioning and exhibition making; but essentially access costs should always be considered at the start of any project. If you need something to make your work happen, make sure you ask for it.

Access riders and Access to Work

On this note, let's assume you have secured a project, grant or job, and now you are thinking about the conditions of working with a new group of people or team. This is where access documents come in. Access documents (or riders) are a crucial part of my working life as a disabled artist and art worker. It is a document I have put together over a period of time with encouragement from key people in my support circle.

It is essentially a document that outlines the things I need from the people around me to ensure that I can do my job to the best of my ability.

Creating an access rider is a deeply personal thing to do however, and not always straightforward. Our needs are often in flux, and we don’t always know what we need and when. Hopefully you are working with supportive people and organisations, and you can be open about this. If you are unsure about what you might need to do your work, or if you think it might change over the course of time, it is important that you are clear about this, don’t dismiss your needs.

There are a few places you can find advice about putting together an access rider.

Access Docs for Artists was put together by Leah Clements, Lizzie Rose and Alice Hattrick.

You can find this online resource and how-to guide via this link here.

A digital image with a turquoise background and the text 'what is an access doc?' in white

Unlimited also share resources about creating access riders. They provide a template that can be directly downloaded and there is an audio file to follow via this link here.

Unlimited have also worked with several artists to share their experience of creating access riders.

Christopher Samuel, an artist who makes work about disability and identity politics, shares how important it feels to ‘normalise’ the use of access riders in the workplace and the recognition of making yourself vulnerable in writing about what you need. Read more via this link here.

Aby Watson, an artist, choreographer, performer and academic, talks about the pros and cons of providing an access rider and whether to have multiple access riders for different roles.

Click here to read Aby’s reflections.

Steph Scott-Bailey, a theatre maker and consultant, shares her experience of getting the content of her access rider wrong before getting it right and the subsequent power this has created in her working life.

Visit the Unlimited site to find out more here. (BSL, captioned video and transcript)

Access documents/riders will sometimes be an access pack, depending on what you need to share with the people you are working with. You may decide it is not for you and that you would prefer to ask for what you need as and when the occasion arises. There is no right and wrong way to gain the access support you need. And there is no reason to say that it can’t be as creative as your work! I’ve seen access riders written in note form and I’ve seen them covered in emoji’s – find what works for you.

Below I share two open-source access riders for two very different sets of access.

The first is mine, it is a one pager that I use to send out to the people I work with on a regular basis. This is shared for those who specifically experience differing d/Deaf profiles and may find it useful. Although anyone is free to use it.

You can download a template from my website here.

Another is shared by the performance company Yewande103, and offers an intersectional perspective on how to ensure you ask for the access and care you might need to undertake your work. You can download a template from the website here.

Access riders can be used for both project work, (when working with an organisation on a one off basis on a commission or exhibition), and in freelance and permanent roles.

Whether you are working freelance or as part of a team in a permanent capacity, one further step you can take for access support is to apply for Access to Work.

For a comprehensive breakdown of who is eligible to apply and how to apply visit Disability Arts Online here.

You can find BSL, audio and written guidance on what steps to take to get the support you need at work, including several case studies that provide an indication of the kinds of things you can ask for in your application.

To give you a bit of an idea, some of the kinds of things you might ask for are; special equipment that enables you to undertake your work, BSL interpreters, support workers and notetakers, and travel costs. The process of applying is not always smooth, it is a government scheme and so I advise you to get as much support as possible from your employer, support circle and the organisations mentioned above as possible.

After Care

The subtitle of this section is borrowed from an artist and friend I have learnt a lot from in the last couple of years, Roo Dhissou. Roo took part in a conversation; Liverpool Biennial x British Council Biennials Connect Online Symposium: ‘After Care’, and created a zine in response: – Don’t Make After Care an Afterthought. This conversation and zine were an important reminder about the need to regulate our bodily systems, to put support structures in place and to think about the aftercare as much as the lead-in or delivery of any given project or piece of work.

You can watch the recording of the talk with automated captions about After Care via this link here.

You can find out more about Roo’s practice and the zine via this link here.

A digital illustration including heart, water droplet and face emojis, along with plants, a plaster and a graph; with the text 'don't make aftercare an after thought' overwritten in bright green handwritten font

In writing this, I see how useful guides can be, breaking down something that feels daunting and huge into chunks; someone puts the links together for you on one page and you can take your time to go through it all. But I also remember (and still feel now sometimes) the sense of overwhelm when you see everything laid out before you. Even when it is broken down, where do you start?

In this guide, it felt difficult to distil something as massive as ‘finding support as a disabled artist’ into a document. It has been ten years of work to figure out half of what I have written, and we are still a long way from the sector being accessible in the ways we need it to be. I write this not to put a damper on things, but to say that it’s a process, trust yourself in it, listen to your body/mind and take courage in knowing that you are not alone.

I wanted to end with some links to texts and resources that have helped me articulate and understand my practice over the past few years and who I take heart from when navigating the tricky systems of ableist structures:

Leaving Evidence by Mia Mingus - read the blog here.

Sick Woman Theory by Johanna Hedva - read the text here.

The Disability Visibility Project from Alice Wong - explore the online community here.

10 Principles of Disability Justice from Sins Invalid - read the principles and find out more about the work here.

Ill Feelings by Alice Hattrick - read the article here.

The Future of Climate Justice - AMUK: A performance by Khairani Barokka - watch via YouTube here.

Stimpunks, mutual aid and learning space for disabled people - explore online here.

The Limping Chicken, d/Deaf blogging site - read the blog here.

So much of my learning and accessing over the past few years is indebted to the past, ongoing and undoubtedly the future work of disabled artists. We are in this together. So, I say it again, find your people. Online, in the streets, in the gallery, on zoom, in the fields and coastlines of Somerset, Cornwall, Dorset. Wherever it suits you and in the time that feels safe for you, the important thing to remember is that you have the right to ask.

In solidarity,

Part of the West of England Visual Arts Alliance (WEVAA), a three year programme that includes professional development, commissioning, and support and resources. Find out more here https://vasw.org.uk/wevaa.