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The Paralympics kick off this week, giving disabled athletes the chance to do Team GB proud as Mo and Jess did during the Olympics.

To honour the sporting event, disabled artists from around the world are kicking off their own celebration of achievement in Unlimited, a new festival at the Southbank Centre, that’s set to challenge expectations and prejudices as much as its track and field cousins.

“With the Paralympics in London, Locog and Arts Council England wanted to provide an opportunity for deaf and disabled artists to achieve their personal best,” Unlimited’s head of programming Wendy Martin says.

“So they invited artists to submit ideas and to dream the biggest dreams for the art projects they wanted to make.

“As part of the Cultural Olympiad, they commissioned 29 new works with a budget of £4.5m.”

A celebration of disability, arts and culture, Unlimited provides a platform for disabled artists from around the world, and it challenges people’s attitudes through work that “opens doors, changes minds and inspires new collaborations”.

Worldwide programmers have been invited by the Arts Council to ensure the work has international life past its London one.

Different disabilities across many art disciplines are represented – deaf, visually impaired, physically disabled
– as are the non-disabled, contributing works covering dance, theatre, music and art. “We had a commitment to present the work of as many artists as possible in a programme that has a broad appeal,” Martin explains.

One of the shows she added to Unlimited’s initial commission is Graeae’s Reasons To Be Cheerful, a musical drama that’s toured the UK driven by the greatest hits of the late outspoken disability campaigner Ian Dury and his band Ian Dury And The Blockheads.

Pushing beyond that which has been achieved before has been a key festival component, as illustrated by Sue Austin’s Creating The Spectacle, an underwater wheelchair performance, and Claire Cunningham’s 12.

Solo performer Cunningham, choreographed, with the support of disability dance company Candoco, a group theatrical performance that plays with ideas of what supports us in life, often with surreal humour.

“It is a huge leap to go from being a solo performer to choreographing for 12 dancers,” Martin says. “But the project she has created is just phenomenal.”

Challenging people’s expectations of what disabled art can, and should, be is the cornerstone of much of the work – and Kate O’Reilly’s In Water I Am Weightless is an especially ambitious project.

Examining human difference, it’s performed by a cast of deaf and disabled artists but draws on the lives and experiences of disabled people across the UK, with O’Reilly projecting their words across the stage throughout the performance.

Incorporating people’s experiences was not unique to this project, though.

“A lot of the performances have embedded this idea of disability into their performances,” Martin says.

“O’Reilly’s projections are not just add-ons but they have been seriously considered as part of the show and that has been central to a lot of the work – the artists have thought about making accessibility an aesthetic consideration.”


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Breaking barriers: The Unlimited arts festival is here to change the way we think, as the Paralympics kick off in London
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