How do we make the arts more inclusive?

This is part two of our conversation with Bliss Cavanagh, click here for part one.


NW: Last year you completed a commission for the child and adolescent mental health unit at the John Hunter Children’s Hospital. Can you tell our readers a bit more about this experience?

BC: I’ve been working with Occupational Therapists at Nexus, the child and adolescent mental health unit at the John Hunter Children’s Hospital, to design some custom pieces for their sensory room. Nexus is an inpatient unit, where many of its patients stay for long periods of time.

When I was first invited to see their room, I was excited by the basically ‘blank canvas’ I was given. It was a small room, with a massage chair and a weighted bean bag, arm chair and white fluoro lights.

After months of planning, creating and installing it now features:

  • a gorgeous hand painted feature wall with colour-changing bubbles,
  • a galaxy ceiling panel with twinkling star lights
  • an array of multi coloured Furry Delight night lights
  • some funky weighted lap cushions; and
  • a soft and comfy lounge that blobs up and around the walls.

It was an absolute privilege to have the opportunity to create a space for these kids that will offer them a safe and magical place to go to help improve their road to recovery. I recently popped back over, and the staff were telling me how much the kids have been loving the new sensory room. They go in and turn off all the lights and watch the colour changing stars and bubbles, mesmerised by the calming transitions and talk about how happy all the colours make them feel.

NW: We are big on diversity at State of the Arts Media. Based on your own experience, research and working in the health space, what three principles do you think are essential for best practice in the representation of diverse abilities?

  1. Accessibility: Is your business/service physically accessible to wheelchair or mobility device users? Or even parents with prams? Have you allowed adequate space for people to comfortably move around your space and not feel restricted? Have you displayed products/signage at different heights and levels for everyone to access? I think it’s important to address accessibility as a number one priority, especially being able to tell your customers/clients where the closest accessible parking spaces are, accessible bathrooms and entry/exits to your premises or event.
  2. Inclusive Language: Our language can play a huge role in affecting inclusivity and diversity. It can be limiting and offensive to some, so I find the best practice when unsure is to simply ask what others feel most comfortable with. People are generally happy to help educate and I feel it is an important step in changing stigma associated with mental health and disability.
  3. Positive Representation: There is a serious lack of positive role models for people with disabilities or living with mental illness represented in the media. I feel that it is now more than ever more important to project a positive image out there to help drive change in this area. Stigma plays a significant role in affecting people’s mental health and can be a serious barrier to people reaching out and seeking help or treatment. I’ve dedicated my life to changing the stigma associated with Tourette syndrome and promoting positive awareness through my art making and creative business. I want to make the lives of young people living with Tourette’s a happy one, where they can know the power of finding their own strength and see the potential they have to achieve great things.


NW: What I particularly love about your practice is that you have created your own opportunities to apply your work to traditional and non-traditional art contexts. Acknowledging that experiences living with different conditions are varied, what practical advice do you have for other artists with a disability that are having difficulty accessing the systems/means to show their work or obtaining other opportunities?

BC: There are amazing organisations out there dedicated to open access in the arts. I would recommend getting in touch with Octapod if you are based in the Hunter, or Accessible Arts if you’re Sydney based – they’re an excellent first point of call to connect you to professional mentoring or skills development tailored to individual needs, and navigating the barriers to exhibiting your work to find the best places to develop your creative practice.

  • Servicing Newcastle and the Lower Hunter is Octapod, an organisation that works with individuals, community groups and local councils to support participation in the arts by people with disability as creators, participants, audience members and leaders.
  • I’ve been a member of their Creative Access Network for the past 4 years, which has been an excellent opportunity to bring together people with disability and people without disability to work together to solve these issues and create change. This was a game-changer for me, in providing the skills, networks and confidence to work between these contexts.

NW: Although some ground has been made, there remains an under-representation of artists with disability in the programs of museums and galleries. Do you feel like some of the programs offered for artists with disability are tokenistic or are we reaching more productive times?

BC: I can’t speak on this issue as a whole, but feel that it’s the individuals that make the difference and I have seen a surge in the representation of artists with disability in many museums and galleries in the Hunter region. Through organisations like Arts in Recovery, Octapod, Tantrum Theatre and the Maiwel Group I’ve seen some incredible exhibitions that showcase participants’ work in professional galleries and venues.

I taught a workshop at Open Cage Ensemble for participants experiencing mental health issues. We focused on creating tactile, sensory pieces that came together to create a final huge sculpture that showcases the beauty of uniqueness and how it works perfectly together. I work with the participants on the piece, which I feel is an important part of the process of connectedness and inclusivity to break down the separation that has occurred for too long.

Bubble Wall - Bliss Cavanagh

NW: Labels are never useful. In terms of destabilising stigma, is there a benefit to being seen as an artist living with a disability, or is it more about being an artist who happens to have a disability?

I’ve never been comfortable with labels, especially because it does bring stigma with it. But I do believe the focus on first person language and the change in ownership to a ‘person living with a disability’ compared to a ‘disabled person’ has been an important step to changing stigma and the way people think. I know how bothered it makes me from experience, when an article is written about me as ‘suffering from Tourette’s’ or ‘afflicted’ ‘tormented’ or a ‘Tourette’s sufferer’ when I only ever advocate positive representations around Tourette syndrome. The issue is that these words have meaning, they have stigma attached and have the power to reshape context significantly.

I think we are still quite behind in this area and this change in language choice needs to be taken seriously. It will make people change the way they think before we can reach a time when it’s not necessary. We’ve only just moved from not speaking about anything different and keeping everything hidden over the last 2 decades to now labelling everything – which does improve our understanding in society as a whole. Hopefully we can all just be humans together in the near future.

Is there a benefit to being seen as an artist living with Tourette syndrome in my case? Yes, but the benefit for me is actually for others. I use my creativity to advocate positive awareness for Tourettes. I want people to associate more than just the stereotypes and understand that it’s a complex disorder that makes me no different to anyone else but at the same time completely unique.

We’d like to thank Bliss for her generous responses. Our conversation has formed the foundation of State of the Arts Media’s ‘Contributor Style Guide’ where we inform our contributors about the importance of language when discussing diversity. This is a living document and we welcome participation and contributions from any experts in this field.

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