Dancing with disability - Arts Professional Article

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Read Rosie's interview with Arts Professional about the need for better access at showcases and festivals


Second Hand Dance is a dance company that creates shows for children and adults. We’ve toured the globe – from the UK to Europe, China, Canada, and the USA. We create beautiful, sensory live dance experiences with a rich visual and participatory aesthetic such as We Touch We Play We Dance, a celebratory dance performance for 0-3 year olds that’s currently touring. We’ve also expanded into the digital realm to create dance films for young audiences like our Getting Dressed Films and Grass Films. Attending and performing at festivals and showcases has been vital to our development and success as an arts organisation.  

Many festivals are wonderfully welcoming. Often weeklong events, they offer a chance to see several shows a day from around the world alongside breakfast talks, networking lunches and symposiums. For delegates with disabilities (visible or otherwise) or chronic illnesses this can present an uncomfortable choice – miss out on the fantastic opportunities and experiences, or attend at significant personal, physical cost.

According to a US survey, 74% of the billion people worldwide living with disabilities do not have a visible impairment that immediately identifies them as disabled. The tricky thing with invisible disabilities is that they are hidden, and you may not want to or be able to declare them.

 I ‘came out’ as disabled in a blog post in September 2020. In reality I had been disabled for a while, but my journey until then had been private.  It was 2013, the year that Second Hand Dance was constituted as a company, when the first signs started – pain in my fingers and difficulty standing or walking for long periods. I was terrified. Back then the doctors thought it was arthritis and as a trained dancer and choreographer, it felt like the earth was dropping away from beneath my feet.

By 2017 the increased pain and fatigue that was affecting my ability to walk, work, socialise, cook, shower and generally function. I’d endlessly gone down medical and holistic avenues with the hope of ‘curing’ myself. My understanding of disability was very different then. I was at the point of leaving dance because I felt ‘I didn’t have what it takes’, particularly when it came to festivals.

Through tears and awkwardness, I admitted to my producer and to a few close friends about the toll that work, and particularly travel, was taking. That I was hiding the pain and fatigue of being unable to work for 2 weeks or more after a project ended. That travelling to a showcase often wiped me out for a week.

Since then I have gone through a lot of highs and lows, and received generous support in reframing my identity in the social model of disability  - towards understanding the barriers I experience. These barriers can be removed, and through Access To Work and Arts Council England funding I have a travel grant and I work with a team who can support me or step in to deputise if needed.

It is, however, important to acknowledge the huge journey it can take for someone to understand and accept a changing condition – especially when the phrase ‘no pain, no gain’ is a dance industry standard.

Acknowledging my disability to my family, friends and colleagues was only the beginning. I still have  to perform my role as Artistic Director and attending festivals and showcases is a part of that. However, the intense conditions and expectations of attending and working in festival environments can impact on my health and pain levels  - and exclude me from participating. But I don’t believe it has to be that way.

When I had to pull out of presenting my work at a festival, Surf the Wave commissioned research from Second Hand Dance to identify ways to support artists with access needs.


The first phase of research for this project took place in 2020. We conducted seven interviews with individuals across the cultural sector in UK including Artists, Festival Directors, Producers, Directors of development agencies, Choreographers and Chief Executives. 70% of those interviewed identified as disabled.

The research was a small start, and needs a wider network of people to learn from, but there are some key recommendations festivals and showcases can take away:

  • Ask everyone about access requirements at the point of booking, artists, staff and delegates, and have a key contact that can support anyone with a disability before, during and after the festival
  • Release schedules at least 6 weeks in advance, but ideally up to 3-6 months so delegates and artists can plan adequately and apply for funding to cover access needs
  • Think carefully about the timing of networking events – early morning and evening events are often more difficult for artists and delegates with invisible disabilities.
  • Build in rest times for both artists and delegates as part of the schedule to avoid disabled artists having to miss out.
  • Provide quiet/rest spaces at key venues
  • Offer comfortable seating or lie-down options with mats and cushions during networking events or talks
  • Provide information on the venue, local terrain and services – what is seating like? is it hilly or cobbled? Can you easily get a taxi?
  • If possible, offer bursaries to cover access requirements – not everyone will be able to apply for Access To Work funding
  • Make companion tickets easy to buy, without proof of disability

Our research and its recommendations are a starting point from which more can be done to understand and improve the accessibility of festivals and showcases. The nature of festivals and showcases has changed due to Covid-19, with hybrid live and online options more common, offering some solutions and some additional barriers including time zones and internet access. Second Hand Dance is now working globally supporting the Assitej Executive Committee Access Committee in its thinking and planning. Having lived with invisible disability, and with festivals and showcases such an important part of my working life, I hope that event organisers take note and put accessibility and inclusion on their agenda for invisible and visible disabilities.