Written by Jenny Sealey


“Independence is a right not a privilege”

When Jenny Sealey co-directed the London 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony, the landmark event felt like it signalled a positive step change for the disability community. Five years on, she writes about the battle simply to retain independence in the face of brutal cuts.

Jenny in rehearsals for Graeae’s current production, The House of Bernarda Alba. Photo: Becky Bailey.

Putting disability centre stage is what Graeae theatre has been doing since it was founded three decades ago to provide a much-needed platform for Deaf and disabled performers. As the UK’s foremost disabled-led theatre company, we’ve fought to empower disabled people and ensure disabled actors and audiences aren’t relegated to the sidelines.

When I was appointed to co-direct the London 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony, it felt like a turning point. Together with co-director Bradley Hemmings, the creative team and a cast of more than 400 disabled and non-disabled professional and volunteer performers, we created an event that transformed perceptions and got people to embrace disability in a way they never had before.

The ceremony, Paralympics and the Unlimited Festival at Southbank Centre were an incredible moment in time and all involved were euphoric. What none of us were expecting afterwards was silence.

“We have a verbatim show called Sorry in which we’ve gathered true-life stories about the reality of the cuts. We want to take this to the House of Commons to hit home to the decision makers the impact of their actions.”

The feeling that we could go on to achieve anything was abruptly and horrendously squashed by the inhumane government cuts to the Independent Living Fund and Access to Work. Our ceremony was deeply rooted in human rights. The irony is not lost on me. Five years on, the fight is ongoing.

Our Paralympians are often portrayed as being ‘superhuman’; well, they’re not. They’re just bloody good sports people. But none of us can be good at anything if we don’t have the right resources and support that will enable us to be the best we can be. That’s an ongoing and painful battle for the disability community.

From next year, Access to Work will be introducing a cap on the amount of support available to me – and other Deaf and disabled people.

When the cap is enforced, it will severely limit my sign language interpreter hours and I will have to completely rethink how I do my job. It breaks my heart when I meet young Deaf people and they say, “Jen, I want your job.” I want to say to them: “Yes! Of course you could have my job,” but inside I’m thinking, “Oh God, maybe you won’t be able to have my job because you won’t have enough access support.”

The 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony, including a giant version of Marc Quinn’s statue Alison Lapper Pregnant. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Access to Work is a real struggle for our freelance artists: there is a burden to prove your freelance business is profitable and that you are earning enough to pay National Insurance, which is hard to do if you’re a freelance performer, writer or director.

Future claims are being capped, essentially setting a glass ceiling for disabled artists. Huge factors such as PIP (Personal Independence Payment), ILF (Independent Living Fund), ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) and other crucial support streams are complex and have started to become barriers to participation to the arts, either as a worker or audience member.

But the closure of the Independent Living Fund is even more of a catastrophe because it is literally the equivalent of the government handing out incontinence pads so people have to sit in their own wee, waiting for their carer to come round in eight hours’ time. We are going back to Victorian times. When will the government recognise that independence is a right not a privilege?

With the changes to welfare so drastically altering the lives of disabled people, we’ve had to go back to our roots and use the theatre as a political platform. We have a verbatim show called Sorry in which we’ve gathered true-life stories about the reality of the cuts. We want to take this to the House of Commons to hit home to the decision makers the impact of their actions.

An image from The House of Bernarda Alba.

Our production of The House of Bernarda Alba, which I’m directing, is still in the realm of rights, as a company of 11 disabled and non-disabled actors perform a new translation of Federico García Lorca’s dark comic tragedy. As with all Graeae shows, British Sign Language, captioning and audio description is creatively integrated, making the production fully accessible. It will be the first time so many of us will be present at the Manchester Royal Exchange.

Whether it’s in the arts, sports or throughout day-to-day life, Deaf and disabled people have a wealth of ambition and talent to contribute to society.

Just a few years ago, we felt we were reaching for the stars, but what we face today are barriers to simply living and working independently – and a real danger of being brushed away.

The House of Bernarda Alba is at Manchester Royal Exchange until 25 February. Click here for more info.


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Written by Jenny Sealey

Jenny Sealey co-directed the London 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony. She has been Artistic Director and CEO of Graeae since 1997 and has pioneered a new theatrical language; the creative integration of sign language and audio description within performance.