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Hailie Pentleton explores the work of Glasgow-based Project Ability, a visual arts organisation.

This past year has been an especially tough time for disabled people. When the first lockdown was imposed, many found themselves unable to leave the house because of shielding measures, relying on loved ones to drop-off shopping when delivery slots were scarce, and often had to forego the regular care and support they required.  For some disabled people, the mass disruption to our routines has been especially exhausting, and the constant changing of circumstances has made it all the more difficult to function in an already difficult world. The unique set of circumstances thrust upon us this year have been pivotal in highlighting the all-too-common inequalities experienced by disabled people, inequalities that existed before the coronavirus showed up and slaughtered any sense of normality. We can only hope that the revelation of these inequalities will allow for the creation of a better environment wherein disabled people are welcomed, supported, and cared for. 

One community that has both created and maintained such an environment is the Glasgow-based Project Ability, a local arts group that facilitates a variety of artistic opportunities for disabled people to come together and create. Since 1984, the group has helped to support hundreds of artists, working in partnership with disabled people from all walks of life to develop local and national arts projects. Although it was initially challenging, the group found ways around the extra challenges posed by lockdown measures, and have continued to support disabled artists across the country. Elisabeth, the project’s director explained: “Many of our participants are experiencing extreme distress. Learning disabled people have reduced support [...] and are experiencing increased social isolation, which is compounded by digital exclusion. Learning disabled people are among the most disadvantaged people in our community; they are the most likely not to have internet access, mobile phones, tablets, or computers. People with mental ill-health are reporting increased social isolation, lethargy, anxiety, and depression.” 

This year, Project Ability managed to adapt and thrive throughout lockdown, fostering connections old and new. They offered 97 exhibition opportunities to their artists and hosted 9 exhibitions in their gallery, three of which were hosted virtually. As recipients of the Scottish government’s Covid-19 wellbeing fund, the group were able to host a number of events both off and online. They have shared art tutorials via their social media, held weekly classes via video-conferencing, and hosted a postal art challenge. One of their tutors was also able to deliver weekly sessions in two learning disability inpatient units. Although many of their artists have struggled with not being able to access the studio, Project Ability has succeeded in continuing to foster a sense of community amongst the group and encouraged their artists to enjoy creating in new and exciting ways. 

The project also continued to support a group of autistic artists who, previous to lockdown, worked in Project Ability’s studio. The Autistic Artists’ Research Group formed in late 2019, with the original intention of visiting Glasgow’s galleries and museums and using these experiences to develop their filmmaking skills. Thanks to the pandemic, their in-person plans were put on hold. However, with the support of Project Ability and workshops led by Media Co-op, the collective has continued to enhance their film and editing skills, creating films on a variety of topics, with a particular focus on documenting their experiences as autistic adults throughout the pandemic. One artist, perfectly capturing Project Ability’s impact, is grateful for the sense of purpose offered by the collective: “AARG has given me a purpose during lockdown. I’ve been able to fill my time with planning and filming for my videos. Without that, I think I would have really struggled being on my own.” 

Throughout the pandemic, Project Ability has exemplified the importance of connectedness and demonstrated the way in which art can create meaningful connections, both in-person and otherwise. This year has been challenging, not least for disabled people, but it has presented the opportunity for creators to find new ways of viewing and representing the world through their medium of choice.


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