If you take a look at the mainstream art world, you’ll see that there are few successful artists with a disability (and by successful I mean - “who can make a living from it”). There are however efforts being made to reform certain attitudes in the art world, and Mike Layward is one of the people leading the charge.


A little more depth

Having first joined a community arts group back in 1975, Mike has been involved with the arts ever since. He encourages all forms of artistic expression although he does have a personal favourite. “Personally I favour Carnival. It’s not dependent on any institution or building; it goes out where the people are and turns the street from a commercial centre into a canvass. That gives it a radical aspect and that’s exciting”. In his time he has undertaken many varied projects, however, presently he serves as the artistic director for DASH Art, a disability arts organisation based in Shropshire.


As an artistic director

He scoffs a little at this title which he considers a little grandiose for himself. Nonetheless, in this position he has spent many years now working to create opportunities for disabled artists whilst trying to change attitudes towards what is called “disability art”.

So what exactly is it? According to Mike, “the textbook definition of the term is ‘Art made by disabled people that reflects their life experience’”. This certainly seems like a subject matter that has boundless artistic possibilities, but Mike tells me that curators - and the artistic community in general - don’t always see it in this way. “People are often reluctant to identify themselves as ‘disability artists’ as they fear it may have a negative impact on their career because of certain connotations the term carries. What we’re trying to do is open up the minds of curators as to what disability art actually is”.



When he first came to Dash Arts back in 1999, it was a part of and dependent on Shropshire Disability Consortium, a very pro-active disabled rights group. The activities of DASH Art though, were limited to hosting a small annual arts festival. “It was great but it was only for about three weeks every year. And the risk was that people wouldn’t be that keen to return year after year”.

So in 2001 DASH Arts became an independent organisation and took on a more varied role. A big part of what they do is raising funds to enable artists to develop projects. At the same time they work closely with several galleries trying to help artists get a bit more mainstream acknowledgement.


Art for all

DASH Arts’ efforts however are not limited to professional artists. They work extensively within their immediate community in Shropshire, running art workshops and mentoring enthusiastic artists who have disabilities.

The workshops take place in various remote locations around the county, going to where the people are as some of them can’t easily travel far. “Some of the people who attend wouldn’t describe themselves as disabled, but the effects of old age mean that they are limited in their mobility. And the public transport not being great, it’s best if we go to them”. Regarding the workshops; the long term goal is to get further funding to host more at different times to allow more people to join. “That would be great in the long term”.

On the subject of mentoring, I’m curious about ways in which Mike caters to budding artist who have varied and complex disabilities. On this he says “listening is the number 1 technique. It’s very important” - going on to confess - “but ‘m not necessarily always very good at it”, citing his natural enthusiasm that sometimes runs away with him. None-the-less mike’s experience as both an artist and working with people with disabilities mean that he overall feels well qualified for his role as mentor. And if help is ever needed, he isn’t by himself. “We once had a visually impaired young boy whom I passed on to another artist who was himself blind, thinking he could relate to him better than I could and teach him better”.


The outlook

If you go onto the DASH art website, you will see that they are constantly taking on new projects. Most lately they raised £1,000 for a film shoot to go ahead. But the ongoing philosophy is to gain ground for “Disability Art” and artists who have a disability.

“What it’s all about is - trying to change big arts institutions through a practical partnership by working with their staff in order to commission disabled artists. It may seem naïve to some people but you can begin to change institutional behaviour”.


Click here to go to the DASH Art website.

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