Open Arts Blog

Welcome to our blog where on the second Tuesday of each month we will discuss a new topic in connection with arts and disability, ableism, accessibility, disability equality, media representation, and much more. 

September 2023 - I'm not your inspiration!
The objectification of disabled people.

While writing and doing research for last months blog, which focused on the use of language, I realised that the inspirational narrative was a huge factor to take into consideration, but given the importance and the complexity of the topic we decided it should deserve its own entry. 

Here is my take on trying to explain the concept of ‘inspirational porn’ and why it has such a negative impact on the disabled community.   

An image of an amputee running on a track with the caption: “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” A wheelchair user sits at the mountaintop and the quote below states: “What’s your excuse?”

I’m sure you have seen this type of message or something very similar on your social media feed.

I could never really explain what made me uncomfortable about this type of narrative until I came across the TED Talk video by late Australian comedian and disability rights advocate, Stella Young ( who very aptly called these types of examples ‘inspiration porn.’

She says, “I want to live in a world where we don’t have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning.”

The idea that then we, disabled people, do the most mundane task, we are amazing, perpetuates the stereotype of disabled people as helpless victims that need pity. Or that we are ‘superheroes’ who have triumphed over adversity, as if our lives are so awful that any achievement is a shock. 

There is also the “what’s your excuse?” narrative, the idea that anything can be overcome if only we tried harder! And if we fail to overcome it, it’s on us. As Stella Young says in another of my favourite quotes, “no amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp.”

The “your disability makes you so inspirational” angle, which is ever present in public consciousness and the media, means that these stories are is not showcasing a person or an artist but being used to elicit emotions that, let’s face it, are designed to make them, non-disabled people, feel better about their life. As disabled artists we often find ourselves portrayed in a very tokenistic way, where our work is reduced to our disabilities and not the stories we want to tell.

As an organisation we have experienced this type of attitude in many different settings for example, our Luminous Soul dance company being described as “adorable.” We are not puppies, we are dancers.

What’s the solution then? 

It is very simple. Speak to us, disabled people, and allow us to tell our stories how we want to tell them.

August 2023 - Disabled and proud: words have power.

Six Open Arts participants sit on a green surrounded by trees. They each are holding a letter, which spells "words out." Debbie the guide dog is lying in front of everyone.

After the controversy surrounding the comedian Rosie Jones using the R word in the title of her Channel 4 documentary, which aired in July, Cinzia reflects on the importance of language when talking about disability. 

Growing up in Italy during the 90s, the use of offensive language including the R and H words was very common and in fact, it still is today. I think that is the reason why, for a long time, I didn’t want to be associated with the word disabled. I thought ‘people should see me, not my disability!’ And to be very truthful, I wasn’t as bothered about language then, I was more concerned about practical issues, like lack of basic physical access.

I have now lived in Northern Ireland for 9 years and in that time, particularly thanks to my involvement with Open Arts (first as a dancer and now as an employee), I have realised that ‘disabled’ is not a dirty word. I have reclaimed the word for myself and I am empowered by it and proud of it. 

Being involved with the disabled community and working with an arts and disability organisation has made me realise that the language we use is actually vitally important. It can shape identity, influence how people think about disability and can have a real and practical impact on everyday life.

At Open Arts we use the term ‘disabled artist’ with pride and as Jo Varant, Director of Unlimited, says in her brilliant blog post about disability and language

“The choice to use ‘disabled people’ as opposed to ‘person with disabilities’ is a political one. It comes from the social model of disability that defines us as disabled by the lack of access in the environments, systems, and structures around us …”

It is unacceptable to use terminology that describes disability in a negative or victimised light, like ‘wheelchair-bound,’ ‘impairment’ or ‘suffering from.’ Phrases like ‘differently abled’ are also not appropriate. We are not differently abled, we are disabled by the structures and systems around us. Similarly, when talking about non-disabled people, language is also important and reflects how you perceive disabled people. Calling non-disabled people ‘able bodied’ or ‘normal’ suggests that you believe that we are abnormal or do not have able bodies. 

In Open Arts, we understand that language is never static, it evolves and changes and people may identify with different words or a mix of words.   

The solution to this, at an individual level, is very simple: ask the person what their preferences are, not only in regards to their access needs but also the language to use when referring to them.

So is providing access more important than using appropriate language? 

No, they are both essential. Language reflects how you see disabled people, your best efforts to create access will be null and void if the disabled community are uncomfortable with your view of them. Language influences how people think, how they feel about themselves and others, challenges stereotypes and it is the catalyst for change.

July 2023 - "Please do not touch."
Can visual art be accessible for all?

This month, Cinzia reflects on making visual art accessible for blind or partially sighted people.

Our new exhibition ‘Pieces of Us’ is currently on show in Arts For All. It showcases the work of our 3 visual art groups, one of which is specifically for those who are blind or partially sighted.

Visual art is a medium of expression that can bridge gaps across language, time and culture but can it really be universally accessible?

Not all galleries are physically accessible and most often exclude blind and partially sighted people. One common misconception is that the only way to consume, practice and experience art is visual, making it difficult or even impossible for blind or partially sighted people to engage with the medium.

I chatted with some of our blind or partially sighted participants, who explained the many barriers to experiencing an exhibition or enjoying an art class. This is because access is still not provided and is considered unimportant as it will only be used by a limited number of people, which will not greatly increase public attendance or justify the costs. However, according to RNIB there are over 2 million people in the UK living with sight loss of which 340,000 are registered blind. 

There are inclusive solutions like audio description, touch tours and tactile-based art. An upcoming example is the ‘Wolfwalkers’ exhibition at The Ark, Dublin. This is a collaboration between the Butler Gallery and Oscar nominated animation studio, Cartoon Saloon, which offers audio described and touch tours.

There are also more innovative examples such as the Lancaster City Museums’ project ‘Feeling as Seeing,’ which created 3D print relief versions of paintings from the their art collection.

Two audience members enjoying a touch tour at Open Arts exhibition.

At Open Arts accessibility informs everything we do. We provide audio description and touch tours for our events. Braille and other accessible material such as audio files and large print are always planned as part of a project’s design phase. 

Our exhibition launch for ‘Pieces of Us’ on 29th June included one-to-one and small group audio described and touch tours.

Art classes can also be made accessible by teaching different techniques in different ways and offering tailored support for participants to ensure that everyone can participate fully and explore their creativity, regardless of disability. Our visual art facilitators support participants, who work in a variety of mediums, in learning different techniques and developing their creative skills in a collaborative and safe environment. As explained by Rene, member of our group for those who are blind or partially sighted.

Open Arts brought me out of my shell and gave me the confidence to try new things and do things myself. I love the interesting types of projects that we do in class, from the different types of mosaics to the wooden ‘art boxes’ which we decorated according to our individual passions and interests…It is an amazing thing to see people experience your art and to have discussions with them about their different interpretations of it.”

Our new exhibition ‘Pieces of Us’ showcases multisensory art including print, mosaic and collage. It will be on display Monday to Saturday 9.30 am – 4.30 pm* in Arts for All, Cityside Retail Park until the 31st of August.  

If you would like an audio described and/or touch tour please get in touch with us at or 028 90 240765. 

*Please Note: Opening times may vary, check Arts for All Social media pages Facebook: @artsforallbelfast Twitter: @arts4allbelfast Instagram: @artsforallbelfast.

June 2023 - Fit to fly: A reflection on touring for disabled artists in response to #RightsOnFlights

The campaign #RightsOnFlights has been gaining traction and just this morning TV personality Sophie Morgan appeared on Good Morning Britain talking about the campaign. There are many harrowing stories of disabled people’s experiences on flights. Cinzia reflects on the difficulties of travelling and touring for disabled artists. 

I have always loved to travel and after starting my journey as a disabled dancer with Open Arts, I realised how important it is for disabled artists to travel and meet, share, learn and get support and ideas from other disabled artists. 

Touring and performing, locally and internationally, not only gives us more visibility and opportunities to grow but is also essential for artistic practices to be shared, new themes to be explored, and information exchanged.

Filip Pawlak, Curator of Europe Beyond Access ‘Learning Journey’ ( states:

“When I started getting to know the art of other disabled artists, I began to find my experiences in them, find a common language, and appreciate my unique perspective. I felt part of a larger whole that bravely fights for its pride and shares similar challenges regardless of where it comes from. In this diversity of bodies, languages and sensitivities, I found my place in art again.”

However, travelling as a disabled artist is not easy and requires a lot of preparation.

Open Arts Community Choir, Luminous Soul dance company and members of our Monday Players drama group have all toured at different times to the USA, Portugal, Spain, Latvia, across Ireland and the UK. Each journey presented multiple issues that needed to be taken into consideration. For example, airlines require all sorts of technical paperwork for powerchairs, mobility scooters and medical equipment such as CPAP machines. During our travels, we have had more than one damaged piece of equipment.

Many airlines also charge for allocated seating when booking online and while you can arrange this for free for people who need assistance, it is often a long, arduous process. Disabled passengers are often left on flights for a prolonged period once the flight has landed, which causes discomfort and upset. 

Picture of 9 people some of which are wearing luminous soul black and orange dance group t-shirts. They are standing outside a bookshop in Porto, Portugal.

Once landed, there is another set of challenges. Access means very different things in different countries so using public transport is a minefield. Accessible accommodation is limited and in fact, not always accessible. Open Arts has had to hire additional equipment while on tour for hotel rooms e.g. shower chairs, hoists and grab rails as they are not available as standard. 

The British Paraorchestra published a list for less stressful international touring that gives useful tips to travelling disabled artists and organisations (

This is incredibly useful but it does highlight the level of pre-planning and additional time that is required by disabled artists and companies with disabled performers to tour.

It’s time for the travel industry to stop thinking about disabled travellers as the exceptions and put accessibility at the forefront of everything they do.

For change to happen, it is essential to listen to disabled people when they speak out about these issues and support campaigns like the Rights On Flights campaign ( It is calling for the airline industry to be held accountable for damage to wheelchairs, essential mobility aids or when they fail to provide adequate assistance, and are now asking the public to take part in the Civil Aviation Authority’s airline accessibility consultation, which closes on 21st July, you can find it here: (

May 2023 - The price of disability: Reflecting on the extra costs of disability and on our worth as disabled artists.

As disabled people continue to face unfair extra costs, Cinzia Savonitti reflects on the additional costs of disability and how it affects their lives.

People in Northern Ireland are being greatly impacted by rising costs at a time when they already have the lowest gross weekly income compared to the rest of the UK, all of which is compounded by the lack of a functioning N.I. Executive. In addition to the cost of living crisis, disabled people have to deal with the extra cost of disability.

According to the Disability Price Tag 2023 report from the charity Scope “… on average, disabled households (with at least one disabled adult or child) need an additional £1,122 a month to have the same standard of living as non-disabled households (with disability benefits taken into account).”

A picture of a group of people one of which is a wheelchair user walking along the footpath towards Stormont Parliament Buildings.

This shocking data made me reflect on my personal experience. The first thing that comes to mind is my powerchair, an essential factor in me being able to be independent – the reason why I can get to work and pay my bills. I have to charge my chair every night for at least 16 hours and sometimes top it up during the day if my routine changes even slightly. This has a huge impact on my electricity bill.

I rely on public transport and have to find other ways of traveling every time there is an issue with ramps and lifts not working (or not available). This means that I have to pay for an accessible taxi (when I can find one) or take a longer route to reach my destination, adding extra cost to the already expensive daily bus and train tickets (not taking into account the cost of paying for my PA when she needs to travel with me.)

When thinking about grocery shopping I can’t always go for the cheapest option. For example, I can’t physically prepare certain foods (opening a standard can of tuna is impossible for me so I buy the easy peel type which is great but not cheap) so more expensive ready meals are sometimes the only option I have. I also rely on deliveries for heavier goods that I cannot carry, which cost additional money.

These are only some of the examples that affect me personally and they don’t even remotely cover all the extra costs that disabled people have to deal with like specialist equipment, mobility aids, car or home adaptations etc.

In addition to those issues we have also to take into consideration that disabled people are often asked to use their skills for free, especially in the arts sector where 82% of disabled artists, arts workers and creatives are regularly expected to do something for nothing, as it emerges from Unlimited’s Nothing for Nothing 2023 report.

So how can we address the extra costs of disability and stop the exploitation of disabled artists and art workers?

I don’t have a ready solution apart from continuing doing what Open Arts and other organisations and charities do every day, raising awareness of these issues, supporting campaigns like the Disability Price Tag and #NothingforNothing campaign and continuing to support and fight for disabled people’s rights.

April 2023 - Creating Access is not static.

Eileen Branagh photo she has dark curly hair just past her ears and is wearing a pale blue neck scarf.

As she celebrates her tenth year in the role of CEO with Open Arts, Eileen Branagh reflects on the reasons she started to work in the arts and disability sector, how things have changed, and the work that is still to be done.

My earliest understanding of disability was when my Daddy acquired total sight loss from a brain haemorrhage when I was five years old. While he regained sight in the following years, he remained partially sighted for the rest of his life. I remember Daddy using his white cane and while I tried my best to sighted-guide him, I wasn’t very good at it as a child! 

So growing up, my idea of disability access was based on my personal experiences with Daddy and mostly focused on physical access. When I started working in the arts sector, over 20 years ago, the idea of disability access as a tokenistic, ‘one-off’ gesture was very prevalent and while there have been many improvements, unfortunately, it is still widely present today.

Working with Open Arts has made me aware that access is not ‘one size fits all’ – it is a dynamic, ongoing process and needs to be tailored to the individual. What we do as an organisation is focused on individuals and involves constant development, planning, and communicating with our users, as laid out in our access statement. In my role as CEO, I have made it my absolute priority to meet, work with and learn from disabled artists, participants, and colleagues.

Our ultimate goal as an arts and disability organisation is not to be needed anymore. Until then we will continue to do what we do working to improve the artistic and creative life of disabled people and to fight ableism in all its forms.

March 2023 - The art of not making a fuss: Should disabled people hide to make society more comfortable?

A picture of Cinzia with short dark hair, wearing dark rimmed glasses and is in her wheelchair.

With incidents of disability hate crime in Northern Ireland at their highest level since recording began in 2005, Cinzia Savonitti asks – “should disabled people hide some or all of their disabilities, to make society more comfortable?”

In rural Italy, where I was born and raised, disability was not something that was openly discussed. Growing up, I was encouraged “not to make a fuss” or be an inconvenience. The doctors that I encountered were following my country’s medical model of disability – where my body was something to be ‘fixed,’ with or without my active participation or consent. 

Thankfully, since I moved to Northern Ireland and became involved with Open Arts, I have learned about and embraced the social model of disability, where the ‘problem’ is not the disabled person, but society around them.

While consulting with my fellow Open Arts participants as part of research for our new Disability Equality Training programme, we shared some hair-raising stories of everyday ableism in Northern Ireland. These stories include:

  • Being asked by a train worker “Do you need to use the train every day?” (No expectation that we might have a full-time job!)
  • Being talked to IN VERY LOUD VOICES, as if we don’t understand
  • Being asked if we ‘know’ a certain other person, simply because they are also a wheelchair user  
  • Being talked to as if everything we do is a big accomplishment or an inspiration

Since “…21.7% of respondents aged 16-64 in Northern Ireland (Apr-Jun 2017) reported a long-term illness and a disability” (The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency), we’d like to offer some suggestions about how to make life easier for both disabled and non-disabled people here:

  • Talk to me – the disabled person – not the person accompanying me
  • Don’t patronise me or talk to me like I’m a child. Just because I have a disability, doesn’t mean I’m not well-educated.
  • Come over and say hello to me – especially if I’m visually impaired.
  • Don’t assume I need help. Ask first, and if I agree, ask permission before touching or entering my personal space.  
  • If I tell you what I need, don’t feel you’re being criticised – just listen.
  • Don’t ask me about my disability or what is “wrong.” It’s a personal matter and sometimes, I just don’t want to talk about it.
February 2023 - Strictly speaking, every body can dance!
Picture of two female dancers, one of which is a wheelchair user with her arms stretched wide. The other dancer is sitting on the floor with her arms stretched in front of her.

Following the ableist backlash to the news that Strictly Come Dancing will cast a wheelchair-user celebrity for this year’s series, Luminous Soul member Cinzia Savonitti shares her thoughts and experience as a wheelchair dancer and her hopes for the show.

As a wheelchair dancer and as a disabled person working in the arts, I’m really pleased about the news that Strictly Come Dancing is set to cast a wheelchair user for the upcoming series due to air later this year.

The decision comes after the successful casting of the first ever deaf participant in former Eastenders actress Rose Ayling-Ellis. She won the contest in 2021 alongside Giovanni Pernice, whilst Paralympian Ellie Simmonds made it to week six last year.

While the proposed casting is obviously good news, it is deeply concerning that it sparked mixed reactions on social media and in the press. Several disability rights campaigners have spoken out to highlight the shocking ableist comments made by some not wanting to watch a wheelchair dancer and comparing the prospect to” having dancing dogs or cats as partners”.

In addition, some media outlets referred to the possible contestant as being “wheelchair-bound” and “a difficult situation to manage,” perpetuating the stereotype that our wheelchairs are chains that limit us and that working with disabled people is ‘difficult’.

I am not limited by my wheelchair – my wheels allow me to move freely and dance in different and amazing ways, thanks to Luminous Soul, the dance group run by Open Arts. What is ‘difficult’ is a lack of accessibility in media production, and disability awareness, both in the media and in society as a whole. 

Research from a 2021 report from Creative Diversity Network shows that it will take almost two decades for disabled people to be properly represented in the media. While 17% of the U.K. workforce is disabled, and 18% of the U.K.’s population, in the TV industry there are only 4.5% of disabled people working behind the camera and 6.8% in front of it.  Decisions like the one that the Strictly team has taken which showcase disabled artists on “prime time” television are a step in the right direction.

As my fellow Luminous Soul member and mentor Linda Fearon says:

“The world is full of disabled and non-disabled people. We walk, run and wheel past each other every day, so it makes sense to me that we dance together.”