The Journey Ahead

We’ve been in Germany for a couple of days. It’s our first in-person international work since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re here for Festival Theaterformen and next week we’ll be sharing a new piece called Journey To A Better World. I was invited to speak at the opening event last night, and, refreshingly, the Festival Director Anna Mülter encouraged me to be political.

I thought I’d share the edited text of my speech here as it marks a significant milestone:

Jess Thom a white, wheelchair using woman sits in front of a theatre building in Braunschweig Germany a banner for Festival Theaterformen is in the background.

Lots of artists, funders and venues talk enthusiastically about the value of risk-taking, but sometimes this feels like an empty concept. What does it actually mean? Who gets to take the risks?

As disabled people, we take many risks, and we don’t often get to choose which ones they are. By the very nature of our non-normative bodies and minds, we’re perceived as being inherently risky.

As a disabled and neurodivergent led company it’s rare for us to have space to take truly creative risks in ways that don’t endanger our health, wellbeing, or identities. That means we’re very grateful to Festival Theaterformen for giving us the opportunity to take creative risks by inviting us to participate in Gathering in A Better World. We’ve had the space, support, and resources to experiment and imagine new possibilities.

At the start of the pandemic back in March 2020, systemic changes took place overnight and the barriers I experienced as a disabled person shifted too. In the UK, COVID, on top of ten years of Austerity Politics and Brexit, has drastically increased and deepened existing inequalities, and I’m sure this is true in many other parts of the world too.

These inequalities are particularly pronounced now. Many people and organisations are returning to pre-pandemic norms, leaving those of us who can’t safely do this yet with very real practical and emotional consequences.

Earlier this week when another artist said they were excited to see my work I realised I was excited to see it, too. That’s because there have been many moments in the last two and half years when I wasn’t sure that being an artist was still a possibility for me – moments when the barriers were so numerous and so unrelenting that I couldn’t imagine a better world because all my energy was focused on surviving the one we are in.

It’s deeply significant to me that I’m here with you and able to be sharing new work. This is only possible because of the support, solidarity, and nerve of Festival Theaterformen, our team and our communities.

We’re living at a time of intense change, under governments that are systematically removing our safety nets. Many people at the hard end of this process go unrecognised.

The marginalisation of disabled people is often presented as natural or inevitable and whether we realise it or not, many of us are complicit in maintaining this form of exclusion which, is not natural. Simply put, if we fail to challenge systemic oppression, we become part of the harm it causes.

Disabled children learn from an early age to compromise and expect to have worse experiences than their non-disabled peers. It’s easy to internalise this and think of yourself as the problem. That’s the reason why, in the twelve years since I co-founded Touretteshero, the belief that positive memories are protective has underpinned much of our work, particularly with disabled children and young people. We focus on creating inclusive, joyful, playful spaces so that when disabled young people experience barriers, they know it doesn’t have to be that way, that a better world is possible, and that we all have a role to play in shaping it.

This festival is a crucial opportunity to connect with each other and with new ideas, experiences, and ways of being. It’s a chance to talk, plan, create and resist together. As an international community of creative thinkers, it’s never been more important to find ways to address challenges, dismantle barriers and unite people across borders.

We all have a right to share the biscuits, not fight over the crumbs.

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