Inclusive Pathways for Young Disabled Creatives

Stopgap Stories

As April and Autism Acceptance month draws to a close, Content and Access Artist Lily asks the question ‘How can autistic and learning-disabled artists be empowered to develop and progress their creative voice and practice?’. Exploring this enquiry, Lily shares a small case study from Stopgap’s creative learning programme – discussions with young autistic dancer Anne and reflections from teacher and arts award supervisor Nicky Norton.

Listen to an audio version of this blog read by Lily,

Lily Norton during a workshop.

Image Description: Lily Norton during a workshop, they reach their right arm outwards and curl their left arm into their chest, they look along their left arm. Lily is white and has curly coppery brown hair tied up, they have multiple face piercings and wear a black shirt over a green t-shirt. Other dancers stand in the background.

As I grow older and my career progresses, the questions often bubbling around my mind are ones of ‘what is next’ and ‘how will I get there?’. As an autistic person I internalise a lot of negative perceptions about myself, and these thoughts can really halt potential growth and success. The times I feel aspirations kindling, happen when I’ve been truly listened to, when I’ve been allowed to work to my strengths and when my whole-self is seen. I am intrigued by all the many ways autistic and learning-disabled people can be empowered. And fascinated by the process of developing an interest to a deeper level – seeing that spark of passion in someone and figuring out what the next steps are for them to realise huge potential.

It is sadly not often that young people get to choose their own path and travel down it. So much of education feels like being hammered into a plain shape, ready to fill any available mould, that you seem to forget about choice. Passion and creative energy discouraged in favour of the more reliable careers. Young people’s extra-curricular activities often simply labelled hobbies, not taken seriously and valued as a potential career. This feeling doesn’t leave the moment you finish education, it can be hard to shake limitations that might’ve been imposed on you. When you are disabled, the freedom to choose, to try, to attempt, to trial, to explore… is very often not an option – as even the basic requirements of accessible education aren’t yet met. Being able to figure out what it is you love and really want to do is a luxury, as disabled people we are often focussed on the surviving and living part. But, when access is an ongoing conversation, inclusion is practiced and not just vaguely gestured to, and time is allowed to melt with fluidity and much needed flexibility – then the potential for growth and creative development can be colossal.

One such example of this is young disabled dancer Anne’s journey, which she has shared with teacher and advisor Nicky Norton. Below, I share some of the ways Anne has been empowered to develop her creativity and realise her aspirations, with insights from Nicky on their journey together.

The Beginning

Nicky: “I think it was in 2018 when I was the Creative Learning Manager for Stopgap, that I began a conversation with Anne and her parents about her future.  From a brief meeting in a coffee shop to talk about her aspirations and future pathways, we went on to devise a two-year, post-16 project to develop Anne’s dance skills, creativity, and teaching experience.  Her parents had started to look at what opportunities were on offer for a disabled young person with a tremendous passion for dance and found them to be very limited; support, training, and opportunities all sadly lacking.

From that first meeting and with my solid belief that I could help, all four of us embarked on a strategy to make this happen.  Now nearly four years on since that initial meeting, we are coming to the end of this project and it is very useful to be able to reflect.”

Anne dancing

Image Description: Anne, a young white person wearing glasses, during a dance workshop. Anne stretches her arms wide in a star shape and smiles, other dancers stand and stretch their limbs in the background too.

Meet Anne, a young autistic disabled person and aspiring Assistant Dance Teacher.

Anne has been part of Stopgap’s Farnham Youth Dance Company since 2013. For her dedication to learning, and her enthusiastic support of the rest of the group and teachers, she was awarded Dancer of the Year in 2019 at our annual Winter Platform. With a Bronze Arts Award already under her belt, Anne is completing a Silver Arts Award in conjunction with our Respond level of IRIS (Stopgap’s Inclusive Dance Syllabus). At the Respond level of the syllabus, committed dancers have a programme of bespoke sessions that work on inclusive dance skills and technique, tailor-made to meet their interests and develop their talent.

A guided structure for creativity

Nicky: “Respond and Arts Award have provided a guided structure for creativity and ownership of what Anne has wanted to learn.  I have constantly said “it is your Arts Award.”  Respond encouraged us to develop a common vocabulary for movement that resonates with her understanding of her own choices for choreography.

20 months on I am really keen to make her final solo with her and see how this might contrast with her choreography from a year ago.  During this second year we have really been working hard on ‘feeling the movement’ as we call it, or somatic movement and understanding, something that is deepening the colours for Anne’s palette of movement.  Highlighting this awareness has been a huge shift in the way we dance together.  And filming, watching, talking, and drawing has greatly helped this process.”

Anne focussed during a dance exercise.

Anne focussed during a dance exercise, she lifts her elbows up to create a horizontal line across her forearms, she tilts her head and looks forwards. Other dancers follow the exercise and mirror the same positions in the background.

Anne’s interests drive the structure of her studies, with Nicky’s guidance she is able to work to her strengths. In a recent interview with Anne I asked what she thought her strengths were, alongside being an encouraging teacher, confidence and courage, Anne said,

“I am perseverant, I am assertive, I am never ashamed of being me”.

Sitting there and listening to her it struck me just how little I’ve heard other autistic people say things like this about themselves. I marvelled at this and realised that at nearly 25 I cannot yet say these same things. Anne knows herself and what she wants, there is no doubt in her aspirations. Encouraging and fostering this sense of self-determination means that even when working on challenging goals, Anne is not discouraged.

A close up of Anne’s feet as she stands on tip-toes.

A close up of Anne’s feet as she stands on tip-toes.

Invested Equal Partnerships

A significant part of what’s enabled Anne’s progression is the depth to which she and Nicky work together. In many traditional forms of education and training, teachers oversee so many students that nurturing any form of close connection is made impossible by limited time and capacity. Anne and Nicky work together one-to-one twice a week, which also still continued online throughout the pandemic where they adapted to virtual learning and created digitally based projects.

Nicky: “The key to working this closely with someone is an openness. An easy two-way dialogue that involves a large chunk of trust, but above all clarity and directness.  This takes time to foster and develop.  It also takes patience and honesty.  I have learnt so much from Anne.  It hasn’t just been me that has done all the teaching.  There have been moments whilst she has been in a hall full of children that I have been astounded by her insight and utterly natural pedagogic skills.” 

There is an important message here about reciprocal learning, reminding us to consider that wisdom flows both ways. It makes for a better teacher when they accept that they don’t know everything and let themselves be guided by someone’s lived experience and valuable perspective. Anne shared about times in other educational settings where she’s not felt listened to and unsupported: ‘[I’ve] had ideas that would have been useful, but people weren’t listening to me.  People thought I couldn’t understand what they were talking about, but I did.’. 

This speaks to the redistribution of power in an educational setting. Learning should not just flow in one direction. There can unfortunately be many power imbalances between a teacher and disabled student – this needs to be demolished and power returned to students to advocate for themselves, direct their own learning and not be pushed in ways that aren’t helpful.

Taking the time we need

Something I remember and appreciate constantly when working inclusively is just how important time is, there is a reason why it takes us so long to create and showcase choreography and new major productions. We heavily invest time, as we know that without it, quick, hasty processes leave many disabled people behind. Realising this too, Nicky deeply appreciates the precious commodity that is time:

Nicky: “The time to explore, the time to observe, the time to find fresh approaches that extend and create a tailored fit to the individual.  I have learnt how to not rush things, how to not expect the person I am with to look like me or move like me, but to move like themselves.  I have learnt how to observe clearly and to really see what might support their progress and development.  It has been challenging, not always successful, but time has allowed me to tweak and return with a fresh approach.”

Nicky Norton as she leads an exercise for class

Nicky Norton as she leads an exercise for class, she reaches both arms her head and looks upwards. Nicky is white with dark brown and silvery-grey hair, she wears a deep electric blue long sleeved top. In the background, Anne and other young dancers follow along.

It is clear that when empowering autistic and learning-disabled creatives you need a bespoke, individualised approach. I so wish that resources and structures were in place for everyone to experience the same opportunity that Anne has. At Stopgap we recognise the struggle Anne’s parents had in finding opportunities for her to progress with her ambitions.

We recognise the need for more creative pathways for disabled dancers, choreographers, and artists. Through things like IRIS, our apprentice company Sg2, and our long-term commitments to the professional development of our dancers; we have created openings and woken the industry up to rich pool of disabled talent.

It is in these quietly brilliant stories that I find signs of progress. With shining examples like these of inclusive processes and models of working, we can encourage more and more companies, businesses, and educational settings to train and work with neurodivergent, Deaf, learning disabled and disabled creatives.

It takes hard work, it takes resources, it takes time. But none of this compares to the feeling of seeing people achieve their ambitions. With this experience, the next steps in Anne’s journey are ones taken with great confidence.

A final note from Nicky,

“This journey would not have been anywhere near as successful without the commitment and determination of Anne and the incredible support and encouragement she received from her parents.  I feel too humble and shy to take any credit, but maybe one day I will be able to quietly appreciate the gentle guiding hand I placed on her back.”

Anne during a dance exercise

Anne during a dance exercise, she lifts both arms above her head and looks to someone in front of her. Other dancers also reach upwards in the background.