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New documentary Total Permission profiles 12 outstanding disabled artists

  • Date: 19 November 2012
  • Artform: Theatre
  • Area: London
Artist underwater Artist Sue Austin in her self-propelled underwater wheelchair in Creating the Spectacle!, John Durrant BDH

Total Permission follows conductor Charles Hazlewood, founder of the British Paraorchestra, as he meets 12 artists from the deaf and disabled community whose extraordinary work was shown at the Unlimited festival at London’s Southbank Centre between 30 August and 9 September, as part of London 2012.


During the 30-minute film by Watershed, Hazlewood talks to the artists, reviews their work and speaks to audience members at the Unlimited festival, described by Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of Southbank Centre, as 'one of the most significant festivals we've ever done'.

One reason why the festival is so significant is that, by giving a platform to disabled artists, it has the potential to redefine our perceptions of disability. In Total Permission, Ruth Mackenzie, Director of the Cultural Olympiad, calls it a 'chance [for disabled artists] to put forward more ambitious ideas, more dangerous ideas, to risk, to go larger scale, to experiment. But I think the real prize would be if we changed perceptions completely about disabled artists'.


Total Permission shows that Unlimited succeeds in challenging preconceptions by showing disabled people in ways we don’t expect. Janice Parker, talking to Hazlewood about her Unlimited commission, Private Dancer, which questions traditional dance aesthetics and the true nature of beauty, talks of the 'utter beauty of watching a disabled person – you never expect to feel that. It makes me really excited but also really frustrated. Why are there not more opportunities for disabled people to be seen as they really are, without any compromise?'

Unlimited also prompts a review of negative responses to disability. Sue Austin's Unlimited commission, Creating the Spectacle!, saw footage of her plunge into the sea in her wheelchair. She was motivated to make the film, she tells Hazlewood, by the negative reactions she received when she started using her wheelchair: 'They saw it as a tragedy and a loss.' But she saw it quite differently. Following an extended illness she had lost her mobility and become almost house-bound, so for her, 'it's always been my freedom, my power chair'. This exhilaration and freedom is clearly captured in the underwater footage. Before and after watching her work, Sue asks people what they think when they hear the word 'wheelchair'. Before seeing the film they use the words 'restrictive', 'difficult', 'inconvenient'; afterwards, these descriptions are transformed into 'graceful', 'freedom', 'inspirational', 'wonderful'. Her favourite response to her work is, 'I want one of those' because, she tells Hazlewood, 'It is so much fun, it is an absolutely ecstatic experience.'


The work produced by these artists is all extraordinary, evidenced by the responses from the audience shown at the end of Total Permission. One audience member describes the experience as 'The best piece of physical theatre I’ve ever witnessed.' Yet disabled artists are rarely given the attitude and attention of their non-disabled peers. Jude Kelly points out in the film: 'One of the key things we wanted to do was take deaf and disabled art and put it right to the front of the Cultural Olympiad. We wanted to be clear that deaf and disabled artists in this country were already doing amazing things – but people hadn't seen it, there was no critical matter bringing it all together.'

The Unlimited festival therefore acts as a much-needed showcase for this outstanding work. As Charles Hazlewood says, 'There is a uniqueness here in that no-one else could deliver the stories that these artists have delivered. What this festival does is it proves the validity of work which happens to have come from various parts of the deaf and disabled community which can absolutely stand up and be counted alongside any other work that any other non-disabled person is doing.'

Total Permission, directed by John Durrant, is now available to watch on The Space. The 12 artists featured in the documentary were commissioned by the Unlimited programme as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. See them on the journey to the Unlimited festival in two series of 90 second short films: the Push Me Collection and the Push Me Collection: The Journey.

In a year when disabled people are in the spotlight like never before, Total Permission is a ground-breaking new documentary released on Monday 19 November on The Space.  The documentary, commissioned for The Space, is the conclusion of the award-winning Push Me collection, a series of short films made for The Space which chart the journey of these extraordinary artists, many of whose work may not otherwise have been captured.

Public funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England made the arts activities in this case study possible. 

Find out more about National Lottery funded arts projects.