International Women’s Day

Today I delivered a short presentation for Salford City Council’s IWD2019 staff event. Below is two images from the prezi I made for my speech and my instagram blog about IWD2019.

Other speakers included: Debbie Brown (Director of Service Reform) and Magda Sachs (Principal Policy and Equalities Officer).

Image depicting a mountain. Text at the top reads: D 3 – Democracy Disability and Devolution, Manchester Based Women’s Project, Breakthrough UK – Gemma Nash (Trustee)
Image of a leaf. Text on the leaf reads: Why? According to the Fawcett Society, only two women MPs identify as being disabled people – under half a percent of the House of Commons! 42% of women in Greater Manchester who reported sexual violence were also disabled (Voices of Survivors Project 2018)

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The campaigning theme for International Women’s Day is ‘Balance for Better’. But for many disabled women, our lives are literally ‘Hanging in the Balance’. Last month I learnt a shocking, if not surprising, statistic: 42% of women in Greater Manchester who reported sexual violence were also disabled (Voices of Survivors). . . The safety of women in Greater Manchester is a key area of concern for the newly launched Pankhurst-Fawcett Scorecard. The Scorecard identifies 10 key measurements around gender equality across Education, Employment, Safety, Participation and Culture. Led by Helen Pankhurst and the GM4Women2028 Coalition, the plan is for the data to be compiled and shared annually to 2028 (which is the anniversary of equal franchise). . . One of the biggest reasons why the safety of disabled women has become more of an issue over the last few years is due to cuts in our welfare state (Sisters of Frida). In Greater Manchester, for example, many disabled women have reported a 25% reduction in their social care package, sometimes this has been reduced to 50% or even 0%. . . Unfortunately it is also more common for women to have no other method of funding their own care, making them more at risk. According to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, just under half of disabled women are neither employed nor actively seeking work. . . This is a particularly difficult situation for any women in an abusive relationship, as they can end up forced to rely upon their abusive partner to provide ‘care’. . . Anyone can become a disabled person and I always think it’s worth remembering that our fight for representation and is also your fight, or those before you – many suffragettes, for example, became disabled through their activism. Many ended up incarcerated in institutions alongside other disabled people at that time. So these brave women were again denied the right to vote, because they were disabled. #internationalwomensday #girlpower #womenempowerment #balanceforbetter #events #feminist #women #art #empowerment #feminism #iwd #womeninbusiness #artwork #sdg #celebratingwomen

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My visit to the House of Lords

Today I attended an event at the House of Lords to celebrate Voicebox Cafés work supporting underrepresented women to participate in public life.

As a sound artist I have worked in some eccentric places but none quite as grand as the House of Lords! 

I was there in my capacity as a BreakthroughUK Trustee to help promote their new Manchester based women’s project – D3 (Democracy Disability & Devolution).

There were lots of interesting speakers at the celebration talking about a wide range of empowering projects.  I was particularly impressed by the young women from Manchester’s Women Making History project talking passionately about international and domestic ‘period poverty’.  This was a subject I briefly touched upon in my sound piece about disabled women’s health.

Disabled women’s healthcare is also a topic that BreakthroughUK is addressing through their health screening workshops.  Running at the same time as D3  these initiatives will support, encourage and empower local disabled women to take action and become more politically active.

D3:Democracy Disability & Devolution

Supporting disabled women to get involved in the political process is so important because we are particularly underrepresented.

According to the Fawcett Society only TWO women MPs identify as being disabled people – under half a percent of the House of Commons!  Yet the ONS estimates that approximately  8% of the working age population are disabled women.

Our lack of representation can be partly attributed to a global culture of misogynism within the political process.  But I also think we face a hybrid form of misogynism, as illustrated by the awful sexism and ableism  Freyja Haraldsdóttir recently experienced from other Icelandic MPs.

This intersection of misogyny and ableism is apparent within all aspects of the political process – from voting to standing in elected office. 

In the UK there has even been issues at AWS (All Women Shortlists),  such as the lack of step free speaking platforms and ableist attitudes.  For example,  one AWS candidate kept emphasising her ‘physical prowess’ during Hustings.   A debating tactic which would be questioned, at the very least, if she was emphasising being white or heterosexual etc . 

We have a political culture of macho-ableism which favours the loudest, rather than the most suitable, candidate.  Alongside the lack of basic adjustments, this sends the message that disabled women are not expected to be part of the political process. 

Recently this problem has been highlighted by shadow minister Marsha de Cordova after House of Commons authorities provided an inaccessible meeting room for an event being held to celebrate the UN’s international day of disabled people!

Hopefully initiatives like D3 and VoiceBox Cafes will go some way in changing this status quo.

For more information about D3 please see the Breakthrough website: https://www.breakthrough-uk.co.uk/democracy-disability-devolution.

Beware the Beginning – Interview with disabled artist and anti austerity activist, Liz Crow

Last month I was fortunate enough to interview disabled artist and anti austerity activist, Liz Crow.   I first met Liz twenty years ago through disability activism, and have been following her artistic career spanning the last fifteen years. My own recent work ‘Hanging in the balance’ is somewhat influenced by Liz – bringing the effects of austerity on disabled people visual representation through art.

Background

Specialising in film and live performance art, she is probably best known for her hour on Antony Gormley’s fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square dressed in full Nazi Uniform.   Her hour of brilliance took place at 10pm on a Saturday night, and was something she describes as being ‘one of the most terrifying’ live performance pieces she’s ever done. This controversial performance earned her eighth place in the Guardian newspaper’s top ten plinth contributions in 2009, and accompanied her Resistance project – a powerful film about the Aktion-T4 programme of murder.

Liz Crow

As a disabled artist myself, I was curious to find out more about her journey, and discuss her views on the current austerity situation in the UK.

Liz has been a disabled person since she was ten years old, but it wasn’t until she experienced discrimination at university that she began to question her identity and rights as a disabled person. As a medical student, with an undiagnosed impairment, she faced layers of institutionalised discrimination and was eventually forced to leave. This situation led her to attend a disability equality session run by two disabled women where she discovered the social model of disability. Liz states “in about 20 seconds flat everything changed for me, absolutely the course of my life changed that rapidly because I could suddenly make sense of the last ten years”.

Following this moment of political epiphany, she got involved in disability equality training, and joined a variety of disability rights networks, including London Disability Arts Forum.

Liz describes herself as being quite artistic as a child, interested in drama and performance. However, she says, “that kind of got knocked out of me in teenage years, probably quite a lot to do with impairment and discrimination”. In the late 1990’s, her passion for arts resurfaced after she read a book about female anti militarists. One of the women featured in the book was Helen Keller, and Liz couldn’t quite believe that this was the same Helen Keller she had learnt about at school.   The Keller she had learnt about, and subsequently loathed, was famous for being a tragic but brave figurehead.   But it was clear from this book that Keller wasn’t just this all American icon, but a radical socialist who was way ahead of her time, tracked by the FBI and supporter of women’s rights.   Liz knew she wanted to get that story out to people, so she approached a film maker; Anne Pugh, and together they made a film about the real Helen Keller.

From making ‘The Real Helen Keller’ Liz has gone from strength to strength, producing hard hitting and thought provoking work about a range of difficult subjects. Much of her latest work has been in response to the austerity narrative and the scapegoating of disabled people.

“I think one of the effects of austerity is a kind of unleashing of petty cruelty, though I am not sure it is even petty.”

“I wanted a really strong distribution across the different experiences of austerity. I wanted it to be a range of things; from zero hour contracts to NHS rationing, you name it. “

Recent Work

Her most recent work Figures was a mass-sculptural performance creating a visual representation of the human cost of austerity. For Liz ‘Figures’ was a particularly challenging, as well as interesting, piece because it involved working with natural elements and lots of physical labour.   A lot of the time she worked on her own and was quite isolated, invoking austerity symbolism, however Liz also worked with a team of people to help her get on and off the foreshore: “I really liked working with natural elements and natural materials. There are all sorts of creation mythology, globally, about human beings coming out of the mud and returning to the mud. I like the idea of the isolation, the idea of working with the tides and natural features, the contrast with that and the social structures that are doing so much damage.”

figures

During this process, the team needed to work in absolute harmony, which in many ways depicted the values the project was trying to put forward. She suggests this is something that society should be moving towards; cooperation, and interdependence, all those sorts of values that we need if we are to move beyond the austerity and the damage that austerity does.

Alongside the sculptures are a collection of online narratives of those adversely affected by austerity.   These narratives tell a chilling story from different viewpoints: “I wanted a really strong distribution across the different experiences of austerity. I wanted it to be a range of things; from zero hour contracts to NHS rationing, you name it”

At the most extreme there are people who have died, for example David Clapson in Oxford, who starved to death due to benefit cuts. However, for the most part these narratives show the emotionally draining fear about insecure futures.

One narrative that really stayed with Liz was about a man who was required by the Job Centre to go on a training course despite his son being in surgery on the same day.   Liz recalls him saying the course trainer said she couldn’t understand why he was really resistant to switching off his mobile phone.   Fortunately she asked him why and he told her his child was in hospital having surgery that day, about to go under anesthetic, and the Job Centre had told him if he didn’t attend the training he would be sanctioned. Although in this instance the trainer took pity on this man and made sure he got to the hospital, the situation represents an alarming shift in the type of inhumane behaviour that is now considered acceptable.

 

“I really liked working with natural elements and natural materials. There are all sorts of creation mythology, globally, about human beings coming out of the mud and returning to the mud. I like the idea of the isolation, the idea of working with the tides and natural features, the contrast with that and the social structures that are doing so much damage.”

 

“If you look back at history in Nazi Germany, it started at stage 1 and worked it’s way through to the absolute extreme. So when people are dismissive of somebody drawing those parallels… it is foolish to be so complacent.”

Beware the Beginning

Liz and I discussed whether she felt there were links between current austerity measures and the experience of disabled people during Nazi Germany.   She said that although there was a danger in making absolute comparisons, if you look at the values that permitted the beginning of those events – they are very similar. Quoting an expression, ‘Beware the Beginning’, and highlighting plenty of evidence about the 8 point scale of genocide she suggests the pattern is there. The 8 point scale starts off with the kind of insults that you might get in in the street (we have seen those escalate in the last few years) and then it builds up from there. It builds up through physical violence, it becomes increasingly institutionalised and early on ‘jokes’ made about certain groups. Liz argues that “if you look back at history in Nazi Germany, it started at stage 1 and worked it’s way through to the absolute extreme. So when people are dismissive of somebody drawing those parallels… it is foolish to be so complacent”. Continuing the link Liz suggests: “I think one of the effects of austerity is a kind of unleashing of petty cruelty, though I am not sure it is even petty.”

One of the most profound moments of the ‘Resistance’ project was visiting the cremation ovens of the death centres. There were portrait photos of all the people who had been killed there.   Liz says, “You look at them and they are all of us. All ages, different ethnicities, different classes, women and men. They are all there, and if you are there with other disabled people you see them in these portraits. The mannerisms, or facial expressions or characteristics of a person. For me it felt very profound that I was able to connect it to now. Looking around the group I was able to think ‘wow how many of us would have been here”.

Indeed, how many of us would have been there – Beware the Beginning.  Liz’s work continues to be at the forefront of disability arts in the UK, and with austerity becoming increasingly severe, her work serves a greater and more meaningful purpose, viewed by many of us as a necessary visual representation.

“There were portrait photos of all the people who had been killed there. You look at them and they are all of us. All ages, different ethnicities, different classes, women and men. They are all there, and if you are there with other disabled people you see them in these portraits. The mannerisms, or facial expressions or characteristics of a person.”


A Womb With A View – documentary sound installation

In response to recent cases of growth attenuation and forced sterilisation of disabled people, I composed a unique documentary sound installation – ‘A Womb With A View’.  My installation is a journey into the complexities of ‘womanhood’ and our reproductive rights.

The documentary is both funny, hopeful and at times heart wrenching.  In 2016 I worked in collaboration with visual and textile artist Jennifer Bryant, to present the piece in a physical form.  Their installation piece was showcased at the Shoddy exhibition in Leeds, Spring 2016.

Quotes from ‘A Womb With A View‘:

“Fundamentally it means that I am female, it has dictated the shape of my body and the sound of my voice…. my hormones, so my emotions.”

“It’s holding a little baby.”

“I didn’t start my periods till i was 17 and what it did was heralded the beginning of puberty, and for me that meant I got a lot stronger.”

“Women with epilepsy were routinely sterilised  in this country until quite recently.”

“My sex education came from behind bomb shelters and walls and things.”

“It’s the one thing you can’t give a man who wants to become a woman, the essence of being a woman is having a womb.”

“One of society’s concepts is that to be a real woman you need to have a womb amongst other things like breasts,  and dress a certain way and behave a certain way,  but a womb is an important part of womanhood for a lot of people.”

“Womanhood is about the inner self and not the superficial exterior.”

“Protecting her from pain or distress by cutting into her body and slicing through skin and muscle and membrane and taking organs out, seems a really brutal overreaction.”

“Part of the notion that you should sterilise somebody with an intellectual impairment comes from a deeply discriminatory position tied to a kind of sense of gothic horror that some people might be sexual.”

“I certainly don’t think that people who don’t have wombs, I don’t think they’re not women because they don’t have that, I don’t think you need breasts to be a woman, I fundamentally don’t believe in that tie.”