The best of failures – autism & inclusion in the creative industries

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It was early autumn 2019, I was hot and sweaty, and it was the best of my failures.

“You should definitely do this” said one judge and the others nodded. Me? I knew it was over, so stood to leave. To be fair, it was the worst pitch I’VE EVER DONE IN MY LIFE. I was failing. Not failing well with dignity and stiff upper lip like you’re meant to but failing badly while sweating. The story I was meant to be pitching is WHEN I WAS A TROLL, about street-sleeping while autistic. It had been shortlisted for the Old Vic 12 and I’m in the final pitch – unable to tell the story in a linear way. I’m embarrassed and the judges are trying not to be. The final pitch session was in London and I’m in Manchester – so I went in on the train, got sensory overload, and hopelessly lost. Then I was late. Those of you who know me appreciate lostness happens to me a lot. Especially in London. (Being piss poor means I can’t always pay for travel support workers)

Anyway, I made the whole event a mad farce, but the judging panel were nice and pretended not to notice. They didn’t like the idea, not really, but they weren’t showing overt boredom. They were… you know, neurotypically polite and genuinely nice human beings (no monsters here) but polite situations are really really hard for me to read which is TERRIFYING! (Just be honest with your autistics, don’t mince words please, it helps us shine.)

Box ticking worries

In many ways, like a lot of disabled applicants, I can leave pitches (like this one) wondering if I’ve paid to travel five hours to tick a representation box (X amount of disabled people applied, and X amount were interviewed – hooray! Our diversity figures have changed) when in reality they had no intention of working with your piece at all and the job was always going to Dave, maybe Josh.

I mean, they must have read the pitch beforehand. I moan on the train home, squashed next to 6 million commuters who have all decided to go to Manchester. Then I had a wee cry (not a piss cry, a little cry and the man in a suit opposite tried not to see me).

This is a real concern and not just for disabled people, but for other marginalized artists too. If I were not white and possibly English (I’m duel heritage) I’d worry double (it’s intersectional and it’s REAL). Over the past 18 months, I’ve been learning these things the hard way. Yet learning is good, I know, it’s making me wiser in who I work with blah blah.

Listen, I am NOT saying The Old Vic 12 were box ticking. Let’s get that clear – totally clear. What I am saying is that I WORRY about box-ticking EVERYWHERE I go. That’s what diversity schemes and drives can do; they can inject you with a sense of otherness that originates in the very word diversity. For something to be diverse, there needs to be a core that something diverges from. That core is “normal” and everything else is seen as an offshoot or a deviation. I’m a big lover/hater of twitter and I recently saw a “progressive” white producer bemoaning the lack of funding she gets to “make diversity happen” and diversity schemes and drives do this, they encourage the “norms” to see us as risky , unskilled, untrained, problems that will suck the lifeblood from them. It’s implicit in the language and why we’re are not hired. Just employ us.

Is it radical to want a job?

When Lenny Henry gave his speech to the RTS, I was so relieved I wasn’t alone in wanting to be hired. I can write and with a good script editor magic happens. Some days I do wonder whether I should go back in the disability closet and mask like days of old, I’m not joking either, it’s a challenging industry and being openly autistic might be putting barriers in my way that I don’t even know about.  (I JUST WANT TO WRITE STORIES!) Some barriers I do know about are bad enough, like building concrete creative confidence when you are referred to as “the token disabled” which has happened at every single networking event in 2019. Without fail. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. (It’s always someone’s idea of a joke) I’d like to be positive about it, but these are my peers and it makes me sad. It could seriously undermine all my hard work if I wasn’t so pig-headed.  But putting up with bullshit sometimes makes people like me come across as defensive, suspicious, or (insert your own here). Yet we are used by an industry not willing to level up. Schemes are run by people ill-equipped to train, or at other times schemes are designed to go nowhere but a feel-good photo opp or article. And the marginalised smile, apologise, and say thank you (because we might be wrong this time) and we all know the “providers” of opportunity don’t like it when you’re not gracious or magnanimous.  That’s how backlashes happen isn’t it? When you get too big for your boots and actually dare to think you deserve to be in the room, or don’t apologise enough for being in everyone else way. Always say sorry and thank you, it’s like a depressing “teeth and tits” version for disabled people.

Back to failure

I’m lucky, I guess. In an industry built on failure and shattered dreams, I can fall back on my disability cushion to protect my ego from the sharper aspects of failure – I get to spin in that direction (who says autistic can’t be sarky bitches?) But I can accept when people think I’m not good enough to be hired. But I’m not stupid. The people who ARE hired aren’t exactly geniuses either. Most are mediocre, just like me. No one is good enough, just like me. Despairingly average people do really well in lots of fields, including the creative industries. (Genius is a myth. As is perfection.) Acknowledging this doesn’t discredit the truth of my previous observational grumbles, it just demonstrates how mentally exhausting being a disabled creative is and why many give up.

In the Old Vic 12 case though, my story was wrong for the scheme. Why I was invited in I’ll never know. WHEN I WAS A TROLL is based on some of my own experiences of street-sleeping and teen pregnancy. It’s exciting to write about it! There’s magical realist elements (as that’s the best medium for exploring socio-political themes) and my main influences are Frankenstein, The Hulk, and the film Happy as Lazzero. There’s even a bull-man monster too. My story shows death as transcendent release, (not the jolliest tale), but I NEEDED to explore an event from my life (being held in a room against my will for hours. Hours that felt like days) anyway enough autistic tangents…

“You should definitely do this” and it was over, I got up to leave and they were surprised. (Apparently non-autistic people like you to stay even when it’s over???) As I put on my coat, she added “But you should be careful who you do it with” I was surprised now. I waited. She continued. “To me, your well-being not this story is important. And I would hate to see you trying to say something so raw with people who can’t support that process.” WHAT? I didn’t know what to say. I’ve been writing a while now and no one NO ONE has ever said that to me. EVER. Like I said, I cried on the train home and eventually the man in a suit pretending he couldn’t see asked if I was ok – such kindnesses are life’s sugar.

Anyway, her words showed me something is shifting in the arts. I’m forty and have been writing for about ten years. Everything so far has been “you’re replaceable” “no one cares” “get over it” “be faster” “snooze n lose” “fifty million words by tomorrow” “just do it” and “where there’s a will there’s a Dave way.” This felt different. This shift is the new wave of fresh people entering the field and into positions of power. They have differing priorities and perspectives; therefore diversity is important, but I hope people don’t think it is a substitute for INCLUSION.

Inclusion is vital

Inclusion is an active process that enables active and sustainable participation. After winning the Alfred Bradley Bursary Award I was invited to speak about it at a BBC Writer’s Room event and the Writer’s Room team did two small, but massive things.

  1. They offered me directions, in depth, to and from the building
  2. They asked what I needed to attend BEFORE I was in difficulty

Both demonstrated the BBC Writer’s Room wanted to actively include me. They asked about my access needs rather than leaving me to push for my additional needs to be met. This is progressive. A regressive practice begins with bullshit like “I don’t see disability, I treat everyone the same” or only asking if someone needs help after booking a disability unfriendly building (check out #takingthedis for wild examples of people doing this!) Treating people the same isn’t equality, or bridging the gap, it is lazy thinking. Having conversations about reducing barriers is the starting point in building an inclusive environment. It says we want you here and will change things so you can stay. To do this, the creative industries could learn from the disability civil rights movement and their motto “nothing about us without us”.

Instead of employing outside organisations to train in diversifying your organisation from a non-disabled perspective, please employ disabled people to do your unconscious bias and disability awareness training. That’s what real inclusion looks like. Non-disabled people in roles talking about disabled people is yucky, unless led and informed by disabled people themselves. I’m optimistic we will get there to be honest. Exciting times do lie ahead – I’m hopeful this will change in my lifetime and we’ll all benefit from improved stories on our stages and screens. (It makes economic sense to diversify to be fuckin’ honest.)

The benefits of non-Daves

Fresh people bring different ways of marking success too (beyond economic models). If these priorities are integrated into the various creative industries, we will have more writers crying on trains in a GOOD way. We need our writers soft; not hard, resilient and defensive. It is in the soft-heart-spaces that the truth about love waits to be spoken and every story is a love story, if you’re honest. For writers to be at their softest, they need supportive teams. Writing isn’t just beats on a sheet, it’s about the quality of the heartbeat within the creator. That heartbeat needs to be powerful enough to propel stories into the hearts of others. To keep one writer soft, takes a strong team. The Old Vic 12 judge (she knows who she is) offered me something more valuable than making the shortlist. She showed me things are changing. She invited me to think again, make wiser choices, to find people who will support the soft rawness in me as I write, until all that needs to be said, is said. Her kindness for a lost stranger, who had once been a Troll, will not be forgotten.  She softened me and gave me hope.

It was the best of failures.