Disabled artists no longer brushed aside

Blind painter Pádraig Naughton is spearheading a national programme for greater inclusivity, says Carl Dixon.

ARTS & Disability Ireland (ADI) promotes cultural equality in the arts for people with disabilities.

Last week, its inaugural strategy and policy document, Becoming a National Resource: ADI’s Policy and Strategic Direction 2011–2016, was launched by Senator Catherine Noone and theatre director Garry Hynes. It is a shift of direction for the organisation, from localised delivery to a national role through partnerships and action learning.

ADI’s director is Pádraig Naughton. Visually impaired since childhood, he knows the challenges faced by artists with disabilities. Art was a means to assert his individuality. “Visual impairment is something I grew up with,” he says. “According to the medics, I am legally blind; to put it into context, I can read the first line of letters at the optician’s but then it gets too blurry. Coming through the education system in the 1970s and 1980s, there were prescribed career paths for visually-impaired people. They weren’t necessarily bad per se, but art was a way of doing things my way, of finding my own voice.”

Naughton graduated from the National College of Art & Design, and surprisingly his work included subtle and detailed landscape drawings. “Initially, I found college quite frustrating,” he says. “Ceramics can be very tactile, but with a craft-and-design course a lot of the work was based on detailed drawing and plans. In second year, I tore up the rule book and started experimenting with touch and then using visual representation to refine the work. I also began working with charcoal; a medium that allowed me the opportunity to create images in volumes rather than in line.”

There seems little evidence of his visual impairment in his work, but it is intrinsic. “The narrative built around the work references my visual impairment even if that is not overt in the images themselves,” he says.

“Over time, I did become more politicised and the idea of advocacy was something that evolved. I suppose I have been diverted from my life as a working artist but I am delighted that I am still working in the world of arts. Hopefully, I bring some creativity to this position when it is needed.”

In his introduction to the Altered Images art exhibition, Naughton wrote about his relationship with the world of art: “As a visually impaired person, I can’t help feeling that over the years I’ve mostly had access to the ‘returns trolley’ rather than the entire library.” It is an effective image, conveying the difficulty artists with disabilities encounter. Artists rarely seek inspiration from one source; they soak up knowledge and ideas from a spectrum of influences. If these sources of information are curtailed, then the work can suffer.

Appropriate access is the starting point. “I know of one individual who had done Romeo and Juliet for the Leaving Cert but couldn’t see the play with his classmates due to access issues,” he says. “It was 17 years before he got to see the captioned play. You may or may not like Shakespeare, but as a writer you need to have the option to relate to a live performance.

“I remember a deaf lady I worked with in Britain noting that people with disabilities struggled in the arts because they didn’t drink in the same pubs as everyone else ... Often it is the exclusion from casual social discourse in pubs and coffee shops that causes the problem; this is often where ideas flow and where projects are sparked into life.”

Naughton is proud of ADI’s achievements as it builds its networks, provides access for artists and audiences and brings artists into the commercial mainstream via links with curators and others in the art world.

“When I came back to Ireland, ADI had a board and was very active but had no director or staff,” he says. “We have come a long way since then. One of the things which was personally important to me was improving audience access. All shows on the main stage of the Abbey Theatre are now captioned and that is a fantastic resource to have. Over 8% of Irish people have a disability and they have the right to be a part of, and to contribute to, Ireland’s artistic and cultural life.”

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