The Civic in Barnsley to host Caroline Cardus' The Way Ahead disability protest artwork

Disabled people have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic, and culture venues have stood empty. The Civic in Barnsley is trying to help both situations. John Blow reports.

Bobby Medlam (left) and Theo Madden are pictured withe signs they designed for The Way Ahead at The Civic in Barnsley. Picture: Simon Hulme.
Bobby Medlam (left) and Theo Madden are pictured withe signs they designed for The Way Ahead at The Civic in Barnsley. Picture: Simon Hulme.

In a sense, a sizeable number of people have been ‘locked down’ long before the pandemic began.

For some who are disabled, it has not been the first time they have had to stay at home for long periods of time.

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Meanwhile, cultural institutions, like all sectors, have faced hardships since the pandemic began and The Civic in Barnsley had to furlough most of its small team of staff between April and September last year because much of its income was based on theatre productions which could not be hosted.

Such organisations are now putting together programmes to get people coming back through their doors.

And one project that The Civic launches next month, as part of a national Here and Now programme, is hoped to give a louder voice to disabled people while also bringing back audiences.

It will be hosting The Way Ahead, Caroline Cardus’ touring art work of subversive messages put on to road signs, an installation that has challenged bad attitudes towards disability for years. Cardus, a Lancastrian, is based in Windsor but has worked with advocacy groups around South Yorkshire to come up with 15 new signs.

She says: “The Way Ahead began in 2004 and it’s always been a disability art protest piece.

“It was originally designed to launch on the same day as some of the new Disability Discrimination Act legislation in 2004. That came in October, so I actually designed it to launch on that day, because I wanted disabled people to be able to have a voice, very publicly, very loudly, about what was important to them. So it attracted a lot of attention. Although it was originally only designed to be a very temporary community arts project. But it was so well-received that after its initial launch, people kept asking to see it, it continued to tour, and it really has been on display publicly on and off for the last 16 years or so.”

Although Cardus initially intended to work locally with groups, when the pandemic struck they had to create the new elements of her piece remotely.

Organisations involved included Wednesday’s Voice and My Barnsley Too, two adult disability advocacy groups, ArtWorks, a South Yorkshire-based non-profit for people with learning disabilities, and a local forum for those with special educational needs and disabilities.

Because some people with disabilities have specific access needs, the Zoom calls that so many have become used to weren’t suitable for the remote collaboration work. For example, it may be more difficult for someone who lives in a residential care facility to take part in that kind of activity.

“Zoom’s been lifesaving for a lot of people but then some people have just not been able to tap into that, unfortunately,” says The Civic’s community engagement officer Jason White

Instead, Cardus and White came up with a more suitable arrangement, allowing participants to fill in an A4 booklet of road signs left blank.

“We had a kind of shortlist of signs, whose designs had potential,” says Cardus. “And then from that point on, I did the graphic design to make the signs up, sent them off to a design company, so it was a bit unconventional and pretty old school...”

One of Cardus’ favourites from the new elements is a triangular warning sign that says “I need time to think”. She has illustrated this with the sort of cogs and gears found in clocks, which are shown coming out of a head.

“Collaboration is really what has forwarded disability agendas,” she says. “So collaboration is always really important, because I could, for example, imagine what a deaf person might say about there not being a BSL [British Sign Language] signer on the Government COVID announcement, but the question for me is, is it really up to me to say that? Because I’m not a deaf person. What I want is to make work which really reflects a range of different experiences and voices and it’s not up to me to just put words in people’s mouth, you know.

“Collaboratively, we’re always stronger together, any rights movement is made up of many, many people coming together and that’s really a key part of what I do as well.”

Disabled people have been disproportionaly impacted by COVID-19, as vast numbers have had to shield for long periods since March last year. As a snapshot, the Office for National

Statistics estimated that between January 24 and November 20, 2020, disabled people made up almost six in 10 (59.5 per cent) of all deaths involving COVID-19 in England (30,296 of 50,888) despite accounting for only 17.2 per cent of the study population.

“The situation for disabled people during the pandemic has been really difficult,” says Cardus. “So there’s a lot to say about that. But then secondly, if you’re an artist working in that area culturally, if you’re funded and have partnerships with a creative organisations who want to see that work, you are capturing this snapshot in time where things became even more extraordinarily difficult than they originally were. So I think it’s massively important for organisations to work with artists who are making work about disability experience, because in the times that we’re living in, some of the inequalities have really become amplified.”

She adds: “I suppose politically, I was influenced by a lot of the original disability rights activists, people who were chaining themselves to buses and so on. And because I was a disabled person I became very aware of what was difficult for me and I began to really use this voice, my own and other people’s, in my work, because, as well as it being personal, it’s also about how things are evolving or devolving with regard to disabled people. So my practice was always going to be about human experience, and the experiences disabled people have, whether they’re frustrated or angry or stymied, or have a quite dark sense of humour sometimes. There’s so much there to say that it’s really become a central theme in my art practice.”

White says that, especially for people with profound disabilities, “this isn’t their first lockdown. You know, the pandemic isn’t the first time they’ve been forced to stay at home.

“A lot of these people are used to situations like that, it’s just that it’s taken lots of able-bodied people to be locked down to highlight it, unfortunately. So I think having a project like The Way Ahead brings all of these kinds of issues to light.”

Cardus has been on the end of other people’s negative attitudes about disability and can remember earlier in her art career people assuming she couldn’t read because she was in a wheelchair.

“I want other people to understand, from a human point of view, that there are people out there who are capable of many amazing things, and if we don’t think more broadly about how to enable people then...we’re losing out on so much.”