Unlimited's Cards for Inclusion
Image credit: Jon Aitken
This month we spoke to Ellie Liddell-Crewe from Unlimited to talk about their Cards for Inclusion. Unlimited is an arts commissioning body that supports, funds and promotes new work by disabled artists for UK and international audiences. Unlimited’s mission is to commission extraordinary work from disabled artists that will change and challenge the world.
Ellie is a northern soul with her feet now in the south, current Programme Manager for Unlimited’s Develop strand of work. She leads on new commission partnerships and holds overall responsibility for artists' development and showcasing – enabling as many Unlimited artists as possible to reach audiences both nationally and internationally.
Thanks for talking to me about Cards for Inclusion. Could you start by telling what the cards were originally designed for?
It's a card game, specifically helping those in the art sector, to explore how barriers can be removed, and how to make whatever offer they have more accessible to disabled people. The game is a starting point, it's not about saying “oh great, we've got the solution”. It's a playful way to start those interesting conversations.
So is the audience, or ideal players of the game specifically art and cultural organisations?
We'd love for anyone and everyone to play the game, notably in the cultural sector, but it can be broader than that. It's mainly aimed at organisations who want to start thinking in a playful and creative way about access. The game was originally created for international audiences, which is why it's quite a simple, predominantly visual format with one-word hints or suggestions at the bottom.
I’d also like to mention that on our website, there are elements where we're encouraging other people to create their own version of the game. Although we created it, we want it to be a tool, we don't feel like we have ownership over it. The more people use it the better. We really encourage people to interpret the game in their own way, to use it in whatever way is useful for them, do their own version in a different language, do their own illustration, whatever they want.
Could you tell me how the game was or is funded?
The original creation was when Unlimited was a programme run by Shape Arts and Arts Admin (as of last year we are now an independent organisation!). We got money from Arts Council England and British Council. That was to create the physical version of the game, aimed at international audiences.
All our work at the moment is funded by Arts Council England, Arts Council of Wales, Creative Scotland, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and British Council but there’s a new iteration of the game we are working on which is supported through our ongoing work with the British Council. Through this work we're looking at internationalising the game in Spanish, working with specific disabled artists from South America (Chile, Peru and Mexico). The artists will illustrate the packs and get them translated into Spanish. There was also a Taiwanese version… it will continue to kind of grow and change. We're hoping to have some sort of involvement with the Paralympics in Paris next year, so a French version would be ideal, but there's nothing in the immediate pipeline… watch this space. Different versions had different funding along the way, but a tangible link throughout has been the British Council.
I absolutely love the pictures on the cards! But I know there’s cultural specificity around how people receive pictures, so can you tell me how the visual identity of the game was developed? And in relation to that, who did the illustrations?
To me, the game lives in two spaces, the physical pack which anyone can ask for if they want, but it also lives on the website. The website gives a better introduction to how you can navigate the game, especially if you're playing yourself as a disabled person. There are further instructions on how to navigate the game if you're predominantly working with visually impaired people in a group - little tips for different routes into the game. But yes, the pictures are there and they're simple, which is why the words are also there as well.
We always commission disabled artists (that is our bread and butter) and we worked with Seohye Lee for the illustration on the first pack of cards. It's worth mentioning that part of the work we do is about changing the sector's (and the world’s) mindsets around access and inclusion, and how everyone perceives disability.
You talk about assisting people to make their own versions or their own similar tools. Is there a way you guide people to do that? For example, how to use pictures or words, or how to use different types of cards.
There are instructions on the website for how you can create your own version and we also offer workshops on how to use the game. Sometimes people don't even know how to get started when it comes to discussing access and inclusion. We’re happy to deliver sessions on how to use the game for any organisations interested.
Some organisations will go into the game with a very specific idea in mind. For example, they have a dance event that they want to programme in this space with this audience, which is brilliant. But that's not really what this game is for. We want to encourage wider conversations around access, which is why some of the scenarios are quite random. If you pull three cards out randomly, some might seem like a tangible scenario, some may feel slightly less tangible in real life. But the whole point is to start to think creatively. The people playing the game are then the ones doing the work.
Unlimited has been going for just over 10 years and it became independent last year (we have now become an Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisation). We’re starting to think about what happens when we don't exist. This game is a great tool because it means organisations can start to answer those questions themselves rather than come to us for help. Hopefully, by grabbing a pack of these cards, people can start to think about access, and it’ll seem less daunting. I think when a lot of organisations hear the word access, they get scared and don't even know where to begin, or they worry about what might happen if they get it wrong - that's the thing that comes up time and time again, what it means if we get it wrong, what if we offend people. As soon as we start having conversations that are more open about programming for disabled artists, inevitably, spaces will become more accessible for wider audiences as well.
Is a game format desirable so that people can make mistakes in a situation where there’s less pressure, or the stakes are lower?
There’s an open format to playing a game, right? It’s a playful way to start talking about subjects that can often feel quite dry and can be a bit tick boxy. When creating the first iteration of the game and thinking about international audiences we realised a lot of countries still use a medical model of disability which can often cause tension when Unlimited commissioned artists who often use the Social Model of Disability work internationally. This is a great tool to use if you are new to the Social Model ways of approaching disability. The social model focuses on barriers rather than specific individual impairments or disabilities, it puts the focus on society, spaces and systems and what we can all do to make positive changes. A game exploring this vast subject is less daunting, it's playful, it's engaging, and it's accessible globally, because of its simplicity.
The game can come up with combinations of impossible barriers, or situations that seem impossible to overcome. Do you think this element of the game helps frame barriers less as things individuals need to deal with and more as social issues that everyone needs to try and tackle collectively?
Absolutely, it's saying, everyone is starting from a different point, everyone is starting with different resources, which could relate to physical space as much as financial resources or even internalised stigma or prejudice. It's starting those conversations around the fact that an organisation might not be able to do it all, as well as highlighting small things that could make a space more accessible.
Minor tweaks here or there can make an event more accessible to a wider audience. Rather than me delivering a presentation on the social model and what access and inclusion mean to Unlimited and our artists, we’ve gamified that conversation around barriers, to shift the perspective away from individual impairments and encourage people to think about different barriers.
So, it’s less about imagining a perfect solution and more about accepting that maybe nothing is going to be perfect given a certain set of resources. The game throws out situations to make the players realise that perfection might not be possible but striving for better access is an ongoing practice.
Exactly, I’ve often seen events described as completely accessible for everyone. The thing is, there’s no such thing, there often actually can't be something that is fully accessible. There might be a space that's having, let's say, a relaxed theatre performance where people can move around and not have to be quiet. That’s brilliant if your access requirements mean you want a relaxed theatre performance environment. But, if you need a specific quiet resting space to watch a theatre show you need to rest and lie down within that space, which then clashes with others moving around. These are quite specific examples but a great way to see how some people's access needs may clash with others and the idea of a fully accessible event is often a myth. It's great to ask how to make spaces that are accessible for as many people as possible. That's one thing, which is brilliant, but who is your target audience? We can all strive and try for better access, but naming your intended audience is really useful, the game is a starting point to begin to dive deeper into accessible programming and ways of working.
Do you think people or organisations can be paralysed between the difficulty of making events accessible, and box-ticking exercises where they want to appear to be doing their best, rather than doing the work that might go into realising what might make something accessible and for who?
Yeah, people feel that access is some kind of brick wall that it’s impossible to climb or go around, rather than thinking, oh well, let's just take down the brick wall one piece at a time. The game is part of that, part of that dismantling of fear, I suppose. The brick wall can be the sector as a whole. It can be application processes, it can be a step to get into a building, there are so many different elements that we often don't think about when it comes to access. It could be that people want to work from home now, so Zoom is preferable. How does Zoom work with access? As soon as you start to have those conversations it becomes innate within your thinking going forward.
Sorry, I’d just like to rewind and apologies that I used ableist language in my last question. I think I do that far too much and am trying to do better, but yeah, sorry for that.
Ablest terminology is embedded in our language. Words like mad or blind come up all the time. We don't even realise most of the time, or when we do, the moment to highlight it might have passed and then it feels even more difficult to go back. It’s difficult to create a culture where things can be called out, or just highlighted. It happens at Unlimited, we do it as a team as well. Many of the terms we use to describe are based on physical impairments, like I felt paralysed or blind (when something is hidden), they're the ones we notice more as being unacceptable. I would say now as a society we're starting to be better at changing that language, language that is intrinsically linked to disability but also historical stigma and prejudice. However I think the one that I hear almost daily is mad, often used in place of angry, every time I hear it I get so frustrated- we have so many more words that can be used in its place. As more people start to identify as being neurodiverse I do wonder if we still start to see even more of a shift in changing ableist language.
Yeah, there are obvious pejorative terms which people are getting better at not using. But I find it more difficult to catch myself if a term isn’t obviously used as a value judgement towards someone else's disability when it’s more of a description of my own specific feelings about myself at a certain moment. As you say, these terms are deeply embedded within language, deeply embedded practices which must be constantly reviewed and revised. I think that sense of a need for ongoing reflexivity links back to the game.
It's learned behaviour, so much so that we often don't notice it. If you're applying to Unlimited for a commission, the platform you have to use is Submittable (an American platform). Although we felt it was one of the most accessible application portals to use, they previously used the word blind to hide bits of the application. We questioned it, and they listened and actually changed the language! It now says hidden, at the time it felt like a mini victory because it's a global platform that’s used well beyond the arts or cultural sector.
But to circle back to the game, if you play and start thinking in a social model way, you start to catch yourself out. If you're catching yourself out, that's brilliant, because then you're catching out other people around you and their use of language and how we're communicating with each other. But we all do it because it's what we've learned, it's all around us, isn't it?
In terms of words that are derogatory, we're all shifting and changing and learning on that journey. I think the UK is doing quite a good job. I mean, this is from a micro-cultural lens, working with disabled people, our language and self-described terms are ever-changing. For example, some of the d/Deaf community don't identify as being part of the disabled community as they may feel it’s not the best fit for them it is about language and culture. Another example is around Neurodiversity, which is a whole new word that's cropped up in wider public knowledge over the last five years. Through that, we're seeing an increased number of people that identify as disabled, which is really exciting for us.
So yeah, it's ever-changing. And we will always get it wrong at Unlimited as well. But we're a disabled-led team, which is wonderful because it gives us permission to try things that can come from lived experience. If we get it wrong, we will own up to it, but try and learn as we go. There's also something in this discussion about power, and I don't quite know what that is. But it's around how we share that power. Who has the power to create language, take decisions, and have influence? The most important thing is letting any disabled people you work with self-identify, which, yes even includes people not wanting to identify as being disabled! It’s all about choice and creating room and space for individual decisions.
Rather than assigning people’s identities in terms of physical and/or psychological traits, the game is more focused on framing possible projects or events. Does this help people think about how the context of a project might affect multiple people with different identities and attributes?
Yes, although it’s based on an idea of barriers there’s nothing to say you can’t use it in a context with a different audience, say around language or cultural barriers (if working internationally), or when thinking about working with older or younger audiences. There are so many different uses for it, I think it's applicable to almost everyone.
Everyone experiences barriers.
Exactly, and that’s what’s interesting about the game. We often think of barriers in terms of physical obstacles. We think of wheelchairs and ramps. Physical barriers are very much still a barrier- a classic thing I often see is a disabled toilet which is also used as a storeroom, or it's a brilliant disabled toilet but the route to get to it is too narrow for a wheelchair.
But there are also different barriers that people may have that you can’t see, they could be internal, hidden illness, Neurodiversity, or possibly around some kind of stigma. There are barriers around isolation, social barriers, and internal barriers to oneself. There are barriers to language… the list goes on and is complicated and nuanced. The game is wide and starts to get people thinking about barriers beyond the physical.
Have you gained much feedback on who has used the game and how successful it is?
Yes, I would say it's more qualitative than quantitative. We still get requests for packs to be sent all over. There's still a desire from the sector for the game to be used. When we had the Unlimited Festival at Southbank Centre in September, we had packs for our international delegates and artists that came along. That caused a big uptake in people wanting them.
We often get asked if we're visiting or delivering a talk that we bring some packs along as well. But I really think as a sector we've got such a long way to go to be more accessible and inclusive, the space for the game and Unlimited, in general, is still present. Ideally, in the long run, Unlimited and the game won’t need to exist. When we’ve smashed through that glass ceiling, we're at an equitable place, and the whole of the cultural sector and beyond is accessible and thinking in the social model, but at the moment, that isn't the case.
But I think for me, the only way we can get to that point of the perfect utopia is if we change as organisations but more so, change as individuals. We need to start thinking in terms of that social model as individuals and start to change our behaviour, our patterns, and our radical acts of generosity. If we all go about everything we do with a sense of kindness for ourselves and kindness for each other, while also allowing space to make mistakes and learn from each other’s radical generosity, then I think we're not that far off reaching the goalpost.
If you would like a pack, let me know too!
Finally, I’d like to ask if you’ve been inspired by any other games.
My colleague Fi said when thinking about the social model there’s a connection to role-playing games. Role-playing games get you thinking about being a different person and how to navigate spaces in a different way. Especially Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, because you can shape them how you want, I have never played D&D myself so I cannot speak to that, but I’m sure there’ll be some avid D&D fans out there who will agree.
This isn’t a game but Jo, our director, said Winnie the Witch, which is a book written to explain to children about the social model of disability. Interestingly both are aimed at young people and as an organisation, we work with 18 plus. We're not doing that work for the next generation. And you know, we're having these interesting conversations right now about language and change in the sector, which is brilliant, but if we're all doing it as adults, who’s passing that information on? Something like Winnie the Witch is interesting because it's starting early when we should start these conversations.
In general, we're all a bit nervous when talking about access, we don't want to tackle things head-on all the time. But, if we teach kids who are going to be the most susceptible to it, teach them to be open and to think about access, they won’t have to unlearn biases we carry around. Teach kids, so that by the time they get to be the head of a cultural organisation we can have that utopia where the social model is embedded across the board and a world where Unlimited doesn’t exist! Maybe it's all about Winnie the Witch and not about Cards for Inclusion…I’ll let you decide.