As Ireland Rebuilds Post-Lockdown, Artists With Disabilities Fear They May Be Left Behind

For 10 years, Sharon Devlin has been the coordinator of DoubleTAKE Supported Art Studio, based in the Rua Red Gallery, and run by Tallaght Community Arts. It’s a professional studio dedicated to enabling people with disabilities to meet and work with other artists.

“A lot of people mightn’t be able to communicate, verbalise, they could have hearing difficulties. Art is a powerful means of communication. It nearly takes all the barriers away,” she says.

The studio is about fostering a community, she says,”being with like-minded people and people who support you is so empowering.”

DoubleTAKE is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. Tony Fagan, director of Tallaght Community Arts says they set up the studio on the back of six-week projects they used to run with people visiting from disability organisations.

“At the end of six weeks, it would all be finished, and then you would see this lingering look in some individual’s eyes, which was ‘how are we going to be able to continue this?’” says Fagan.

Since the lockdown, Devlin has taken her sessions online through Zoom twice a week.

DoubleTAKE’s artists were gearing up to hold their second exhibition of work in April, but everything came to a halt mid-March.

“I thought to myself that this is only going to be a couple of weeks and we’ll be back up and running. We’re very concerned about our artists, and the connections we have with them,” she says.

The conversation about some kind of return has now started, but for the studio that’s dependent on a few things. For one, many of the artists have underlying health issues which put them in a high risk category.

While Devlin is worried that some artists might have difficulty staying in touch with the group while socially distant, some artists and their families are concerned that, as Ireland rebuilds post-pandemic, adults with impairments might be overlooked.

Rachel and Stephanie

Rachel Coen is one of the artists who was getting ready to display her work at this year’s show. She works in embroidery, painting and drawing. Right now she’s into watercolours.

Rachel is in her mid-thirties, and before lockdown spent five days a week in a day center, while her evenings were packed with activities, just one of which was art. That has all since stopped.

“Now, they’re doing Zoom sessions twice a week, which are fantastic, but for Rachel, she misses out on her independence,” her mother, Stephanie Coen, says.

From a social viewpoint, she can see her daughter getting quieter from not being able to meet with her friends. Before lockdown, Rachel took the bus to Tallaght every week for classes.

“The biggest thing is knowing when things are going to resume. It will never be the same,” she says.

Coen says she thinks that adults with disabilities carers are “forgotten,” and she’s concerned that when things begin to return, there will be a greater responsibility on families than before.

Because routine plays a big part in the lives of many people with disabilities, Coen is worried that lockdown conditions might become the new normal for her daughter, and going back to the studio might become stressful.

In its Framework for Resumption for Adult Disability Day Services, the Health Service Executive (HSE) writes that one of the main components of the plan to resume day services is communication with service users.

It mentions “the changed ways of working that are going to be necessary,” and the fact that “service capacity will be reduced and supports will be provided in a different way.”

However, Coen says she thinks the communication so far has been inadequate.

“We have been fighting for disability services for 30 years, and this is going to throw it back,” she says. “[Rachel’s] life does not revolve around Zoom.”

Darragh and Jean

Darragh Smith is in his twenties now. He went to the studio in Rua Red twice a week before the Covid-19 outbreak.

“It’s fun to do with others, and it’s great to get messy,” he says.

Jean Smith, his mother, says that his artwork , along with all his other activities, came to a halt with Covid-19 restrictions.

“They’re very good up there. They set up the Zoom calls and he’s loving them,” she says.

Lately Darragh has been working in collage, and recently led a collage workshop on Zoom for his fellow artists at DoubleTAKE.

Even so, he says “it’s overwhelming sometimes.”

He says he finds it “kind of annoying” not being able to see his friends and fellow artists, but he knows he’ll be back again.

Jesse and Paddy

When Jesse Browne was a baby, his father Paddy says, he was diagnosed with autism and doctors told his parents he would never talk or be able to work.

“We used that to motivate us,” says Paddy Smith. Now, Jesse draws, writes a lot and performs stand-up comedy for his family and friends.

“There’s a lot of art on both sides of the family. He naturally started drawing and it really calmed him.”

After a few years of developing his skills and “blossoming” in school, Smith says his son joined Rua Red’s DoubleTAKE.

“When Covid started and he had to leave school, he really missed his routine of five days a week at the day centre,” says Smith.

When the classes switched to Zoom, his son wasn’t so keen to switch to online classes, he says, but he eventually warmed to it.

“One of his strengths is the way he adapts. He moaned about losing the (arts) center … but he gets on with it.”

The studio sessions have “brought him on so much” says Smith, and they’ve really put a focus on his son’s art.

Digital Poverty

Nearly 100 artists attend the studio with DoubleTAKE per week. During the lockdown, this has dropped to about 20, according to Tallaght Community Arts director Fagan.

“The tenuous network we have, which worked when everything was normal, so to speak, didn’t work anymore.”

The other thing lockdown revealed, not exclusive to people with disabilities, is the issue of “digital poverty,” he says. Not everyone has the same access to the technology and devices that enables online participation.

“We’ve all learned to Zoom within six weeks, some of us are better at it than others,” Fagan says.

Another barrier, says Fagan, is the paperwork that’s likely to come down the line for people re-entering the studio and art spaces.

When people can begin returning, there’s no way they can have as many people in the studios as before, he says. And if an artist needs a support worker, that reduces the number of other artists who can attend.

Future Accessibility

Amie Lawless is a project manager with Arts and Disability Ireland, the national development and resource organisation for arts and disability. The body promotes engagement in the arts at all levels, and for more accessibility in the sector.

Day-to-day, it supports artists in making funding applications with other organisations, through helping with drafts, and discussing ideas.

Over the pandemic, the organisation has returned to one of its older projects, Curated Space, which is an online platform for artists to showcase their work.

Right now they have a call out for expressions of interest from curators. Considering the extra challenges many people are facing right now, they’re accepting previous work as well as new pieces.

“We sat down as a team and thought, what can we do to help artists…to get them in a position where they have an opportunity to be paid for their work,” Lawless says.

She says that in the future more arts organisations should consider how they can make their application processes more inclusive.

Like DoubleTAKE, Arts and Disability Ireland is also running some of its events online, but there are some hiccups, like networking events.

“I think a lot of organisations, very well-meaning, rushed to provide funding opportunities for artists,” she says, but there are a couple of things that could be better.

Lawless suggests two changes for arts organisations to make their grant and funding applications processes more accessible in future.

First, she says it’s important to use clear language that’s easy to understand. Second, application windows would be left open longer. A typical window is four weeks, but the body aims for six to eight weeks minimum, to account for artists who struggle with text or who might have significant time constraints.

“You might have an artist with an intellectual disability who really wants to independently read through,” she says. “I think we have a duty to make that application process as accessible as we possibly can.”

[Correction: This article was updated on 24 June at 04.14 pm. A previous version of this article said that the project manager with Arts and Disability Ireland was Amie Lavelle. We apologise for the error.]

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Zuzia Whelan: Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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