MY STORY Unlimited – where disabled artists can climb over the barriers

The Unlimited festival returns in January, celebrating the artistic vision of disabled artists in a major development by the Southbank Centre, presenting 33 events - almost all free – globally for the first time. “The Covid-19 pandemic has hit both the arts and disabled communities hard” said the Southbank Centre’s Senior Producer, Ruth Hardie, “and I am incredibly impressed with and grateful for the artists who’ve been working hard, in the most challenging of situations, to adapt their work so we can present this festival online. JO VERRENT is Unlimited’s senior producer

How did Unlimited begin, and have its aims changed? 

Unlimited began as part of the vision for London 2012 – to provide a chance to do for disabled artists what the Paralympics does for disabled athletes. After 2012 Arts Council England decided to keep the programme going and Shape Arts, Artsadmin and myself won a tender to deliver it – and have been doing ever since. It still aims to spotlight the talent of disabled artists across all artforms, but we’ve moved from only commissioning celebratory work to involving a wider range of artists through a wider range of support mechanisms, especially this year. The aims are the same – to commission extraordinary work by disabled artists and to embed that work and those artists within the UK and international cultural sectors, reach new audiences and shift perceptions of disabled people.

Is it annual, how does it work and when did the Southbank Centre get involved?

The festival and the commission programme are separate – the festival is run by the Southbank Centre and happens every two years, usually in the even ones, to tie into the summer of the Paralympics every four years. Not this year, however, when we are moving online and running in January! The commissioning programme works all year round, with a major open opportunity every two years and many more strategic opportunities in between. Since 2013 Unlimited has awarded more than £4m to over 360 ambitious disabled artists and companies, through commissions, awards and support, which have been seen by or engaged with more than 3.8 million people globally and online, making it the largest supporter of disabled artists worldwide. We only say this to try and get another country to invest more. 

Are Artsadmin and Shape still behind it, and is the Southbank Centre the only place where Unlimited takes place?

Unlimited has been delivered by the disability-led arts organisation Shape Arts and arts-producing organisation Artsadmin since 2013, and is currently funded by Arts Council England, Arts Council of Wales, Creative Scotland and the British Council. However, change is afoot. We are in the process of transitioning into an independent organisation which is incredibly exciting. We have a new board, new visions and values and will have a new home.

The Southbank Centre has held an Unlimited Festival every two years since 2012, usually in September. 2020 is the only exception, as it's now happening January 2021. Global pandemics aside, the plan is to go back to September in the future, with the next being September 2022, although I think it’s highly likely that there will be a strong digital offer in the future for all such festivals. 

Above: Jo Verrent

Main image: Abnormally Funny People, appearing in Unlimited in January

In the past we have also worked with Tramway in Glasgow to hold some Unlimited Festivals, but the aim was never to have repeated Unlimited Festivals in different places – most artists commissioned by Unlimited tour their work extensively and take part in many programmes, seasons, festivals and events. It’s important to ensure the work of disabled artists isn’t just seen in one context but in many. These are artists making excellent work – full stop.

What is your own background, and how did you become part of Unlimited?

I always wanted to work in the arts. I was rejected from drama school training due to being deaf – back then there was no Equality Act or even a Disability Discrimination Act, so it was perfectly legal to reject disabled people outright. I studied theatre studies combined with creative writing at university, then did a post graduate in Theatre of the Deaf. After some acting jobs, a stint as a stage manager, I started a theatre company making work for children with a colleague, Neiladri Battacharya. I realised I had skills in planning and supporting work so that led me to work in community arts, then with East Midlands Shape, and then as a freelance consultant, trainer and producer. I also kept working as an artist – but infrequently. The last work I made was with Luke Pell – a video piece called Take Me To Bed

I was part of the selection panel for the original Unlimited commissions linked to London 2012 and also, with Sarah Pickthall, made some video work around them, linking with Watershed in Bristol. I was so delighted that Unlimited went on to become a programme, and even more so when I became part of it myself, as senior producer.

How many artists will take part in the next Unlimited, and what is the range of work they will be making?

Over 50 disabled artists will feature in the festival creating possibly the largest Unlimited Festival ever – certainly not what we thought would happen back in the summer when we had to postpone. The focus has been on paying artists and supporting their work, and we are delighted to have been able to support so many to adapt their work into something that will work online – or I should say, that we hope will work online! It’s a new space for all of us, like everyone else, and we are all still learning each day. It was crucial for both us and the Southbank Centre that we centre artists at this time, when so much of the support available is based on buildings and organisations. Artists are the lifeblood of the arts, and I hope when everyone “builds back’” or goes back “to a new normal” that artists are placed in the centre and not the margins of our industry.

The range of work? As usual we are covering most art forms – music, theatre, dance, visual arts – and a whole lot more. The work is eclectic, surprising, provoking, soothing – like nothing you will have ever experienced before! 

Disabled artists have always had to struggle for recognition and to stop the erosion of their rights. Is that improving, and has Unlimited helped?

The rights of disabled people in society seem sadly to be going backwards rather than forwards, linked to the outcome of years of austerity measures – something that’s unlikely to change in the next few years. It’s harder and harder to get the support that we fought so hard for – support that’s only designed to give us an equal chance.

For disabled artists we are seeing slow, slow progress, and Unlimited is part (but only a part) of that. It’s not enough and it’s not fast enough. Unlimited should not have to be here. It’s only here due to the systemic discrimination of disabled artists within our arts sector. 

There are more opportunities for disabled artists – but the need now, especially due to Covid 19, is greater than ever. We had a 70% increase in applicants to a “first stage” funding round. We selected 77 to go to the next stage but had to tell over 350 that they hadn’t made it through. It's brutal, unfair, and unnecessary. I’m heartened that some places, like Wales, are starting to pilot Universal Basic Income scheme – it’s so needed. 

We moved as much money to artists as we could this year – this describes what we achieved in the first six months (

How has Covid-19 affected participants, many of whom must have been shielding?

I’ve been in an office – socially distanced – for one meeting since March. That’s it. The rest of the time I have been at home. No public transport, no international travel. As a team we have met once – at an outdoor retreat for three days where we all stayed in separate caravans.

Two thirds of Covid-19 deaths in the UK have been disabled people. The fact that this isn’t being screamed from the rooftops by our politicians shows the extent to which disabled people have been side-lined and seen as expendable. From the scandals around our care homes, the use of Do Not Resuscitate orders for disabled people without permission, the initial placing of us as 6th on the vaccine list (now amended to 4th). Our lives are seen as expendable. Commerce wins.

I’m on the “clinically extremely vulnerable” list – I don’t see myself as vulnerable. I am made vulnerable by the way in which we as a society are dealing with the pandemic. Even the use of such words places a responsibility on me and not equally on everyone else. “Shielding” is another uncomfortable word – and all the letters, texts and calls make it very clear that it's my responsibility to do what I can to avoid the virus. 

Disabled artists and companies have come together to try and push the narrative in a different direction and to look instead at what an inclusive recovery might look like for the arts sector. We Shall Not Be Removed is a campaign group which sprang up during Covid with over 700 members – its seven principles for an inclusive recovery should be the bedrock for anything that happens from here on -

Do disabled artists and performers have to take bigger risks than the non-disabled, both within and beyond the pandemic emergency?

Yes – due to all the above. Disabled artists still have to be twice as good to get half as far. Think of it this way. If a non-disabled artist could potentially be programmed by any venue, festival or promoter, a disabled artist can still only be programmed by a fraction of those due as so many barriers still exist. Those barriers might still be physical – inaccessible stages, dressing rooms and so on – but more often than not they are now attitudinal or built into the systems that arts organisations use. We still get organisations saying statements like “I’m not sure our audiences would like to see work by disabled artists” - such a sweeping statement about art, artists and audiences!

Apart from being online and playing to an audience many times larger than before, how will the festival be different this time?

The move to online is the biggest difference, and we are all working hard behind the scenes to ensure the work is as accessible as we can make it within the time frame we are working to. I’m not going to lie, with the year we have had we are all delighted and frankly just a bit surprised that the festival is going ahead at such a size and scale. 

The arts sector has been decimated due to Covid-19 and so many jobs lost, people placed on furlough, teams reduced or entirely removed so the festival will have less people working on it than usual. Within Unlimited we are trying hard to manage capacity and insist staff take breaks, although it’s hard when there is so much great work to see. 

How will you measure its success?

It's tempting to measure success by numbers but that’s not really one I look for – some works, for example Raquel Meseaguer’s Cloudspotting, deliberately have restricted numbers because they’re intimate work in which you feel safe and held. And restricting the size of the audience is an important part of that. I’d rather measure impact on artists and on audiences. What impact does being shortlisted or commissioned by Unlimited have on an artists’ career? How does being programmed at the Southbank Centre, the largest arts centre in the UK, impact on the future prospects for an artist? And what about the work? Does it make people think? Gain a fresh perspective? Move them, entertain them, connect them? After the year we have all had, a shared space in which to be moved, entertained and connected is exactly what we need!

The Southbank Centre's Unlimited festival is online at from 13 - 17 January 2021.

It features 33 events, 32 of which are free, and 16 available on demand. 

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