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We Want It All: Fighting For Disability Rights Onstage

by Niall Walker

"We came here not to be ignored; to tell the Labour Party that we will be listened to, and if they’re not going to listen to us, we’re not going to stand for it."
The Baked Bean Company onstage during their performance at the World Transformed in Brighton, September 2019. A group of actors with physical and learning disabilities raise their hands onstage during a play. (Photo: Baked Bean Company)
The Baked Bean Company onstage during their performance at the World Transformed in Brighton, September 2019. (Photo: Baked Bean Company)

As part of The World Transformed, a festival of culture, politics and ideas organised annually in tandem with the Labour Party Conference, actors from the Baked Bean Company were invited to perform. With the help of Wimbledon Labour CLP, several of their members came down to perform to activists and members of the public at Brighton's Old Market Theatre.

We went down to watch and talk to this inspiring retinue of actors...


Living in the background: disability care under threat

On Monday 23rd September, Brighton’s cobbled paths were invaded by a flock of journalists in anticipation of the Brexit buffet Labour’s annual conference was about to throw them.

While the nation’s media squawked and flapped with the city's seagulls, a group of actors took to the stage at the Old Market Theatre. In the shadows of the conference, the spotlight fell on performers from the Baked Bean Company, an organisation for people with learning disabilities, who gave the relatively modest audience an afternoon of entertainment.

Living in the background has become an all too familiar feeling for those living with disabilities. The past decade has been one of unprecedented pain. Social care funding has been cut by nearly £8 billion in the last decade; a real-terms drop of income of around 30% for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Meanwhile, vital services such as the Independent Living Fund have vanished altogether, and the draconian reforms to the Department for Work and Pensions have left thousands in a permanent state of limbo.

Against this backdrop, organisations like the Baked Bean Company are increasingly precious. On stage were just nine of their nearly 200 associated performers. They have performed across the country, at events as varied as discos, holiday camps, hospitals and care homes. They produce their material with support from the staff, and ensure the material allows a space for all performers to express themselves.

"The Labour Party must listen."

The sense of empowerment emanating from the crowded dressing room post-show was immediately evident. “We came here not to be ignored”, Wayne, one of the actors, said. “To tell the Labour Party that we will be listened to, and if they’re not going to listen to us, we’re not going to stand for it.”

The performance chimes with this sense of defiance. Joyful displays of comedy and music are balanced against powerful scenes of real life trauma. “As actors, we all have the skills to show the suffering and pain which comes with living with learning difficulties,” said Daniel. The result is something truly powerful. The audience witnesses the crude stereotyping and condescending social workers encountered on a daily basis by disabled people across Britain in a drama driven by the actors' own experiences.

“We need to stand up for ourselves. Just because we have disabilities, it doesn’t mean we are any lesser human beings,” argued Ramatu. In a powerful floor discussion following the performance, the point was reaffirmed by Dawn Thorpe from the Being Heard in Government Group. Following comments from several audience members with learning disabilities, she asked the sympathetic audience: what is being done, outside of events like these, to make sure the Labour Party represents these people?


Without a home

It wasn’t the time for self-congratulation. While the sizeable number of activists who had turned up for the performance was encouraging, many others had been drawn away by the Brexit debate, or other simultaneous events on gang crime, nuclear energy, or Love Island. That the debate’s keynote speakers - Masha de Cordova MP and Francesca Martinez - had to pull out at the last minute was unfortunate (both sent apologies and explanations). But it did add to the sense that even Europe’s largest political party, whose raison d’etre is to provide for society’s most vulnerable, still overlooks these individuals.

Their lack of political representation is staggering. One scene in the performance showed multiple actors being turned away at a polling station for a myriad of reasons: at the last election, 4 out of 5 of the 1.4 million people with a learning disability were prevented from exercising their legitimate right to vote.

“I’d like every political party to see this and to hear the voices that are represented in the Baked Bean Theatre Company” said Hannah, one of the Company’s support workers. After a political era marked by commitment to individual liberty, this performance felt like an example of how freedom can only truly be realised with the help of others. What would those paragons of austerity - Cameron, Clegg, Osbourne, Gove - make of this? Perhaps it would unruffle them, so divorced from the impact of their actions they have become.


Acting with disabilities

This is not simply a performance directed at the corridors of power, however. Jenny, one performer, told me how important it was to perform to those working with learning disabilities. “They can learn about us and what its like to work with people like us”.

“I think there’s something in other people with learning disabilities seeing this too,” adds Dave, another of the support workers. “The scene that Daniel’s in, where a social worker says ‘What? An actor with a learning disability? No, you can’t do that.’ People with learning disabilities are told they can’t do things, even by those who are trying to help. If they say they can do it anyway, after seeing our performance, then we’ve done a good day’s work”.

The World Transformed can play a crucial role in the evolution of politics on the left. Yet while the biggest crowds of Momentum’s cultural festival were reserved for the leviathans of the left - Yanis Varoufakis, John McDonnell and Ash Sarkar were all in attendance - it is in opening up the political space to people who are typically unheard where it can be most effective.

Empowering people who the Labour party - among others - have disenfranchised in the past won’t be easy. But if we don’t: what will be the point of our movement?

Backstage, in an atmosphere of recognisable post-performance relief, I asked the performers what their aspirations were for the future. A volley of voices responded: Wayne, who primarily dances, but came to support the other actors, told me that “I can see myself being on stage one day. If not, I would love to be maybe driving a train or working for TFL.” (He is also blessed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of London transport routes).

“We’ve just performed Brighton, and now we’re going to go out and celebrate”. As I leave the actors to enjoy their success, Hannah enters with the collections taken from the audience: a sizeable wad of notes, and a jangling bucket of coins. “And look what we’ve got to celebrate with!”


Niall Walker is the founder and Co-Editor of The Radical Art Review


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