Barbara Keeley MP, Shadow Minister for Arts and Civil Society

Opening speech for the Making Change Happen Symposium, 2023


Good morning everyone. I am Barbara Keeley, Shadow Minister for Arts & Civil Society, and I am delighted to welcome you all to the Cultural Inclusion Manifesto’s Symposium: Making Change Happen.

I am a passionate supporter of arts and culture. I believe they have the power to transform the lives of individuals and bring communities together. The role they play in a cohesive, diverse and vibrant civil society is truly unique. That is why I firmly believe that access to artistic and cultural life is a human right. No one should be excluded. No one should be left behind.

Sadly, children and young people with disabilities do not have equal access to arts and culture. A combination of physical and attitudinal barriers, together with societal misconceptions, deny them the opportunities to engage, participate and be represented in artistic life that their non-disabled peers take for granted. This must change.

There is no denying that the environment in which this change needs to take place is incredibly challenging. The pandemic affected us all in a myriad of ways. It exposed structural inequalities that, without action, will further impact the life chances and the quality of life for children and young people with special educational needs as well as those at risk of exclusion due to their socioeconomic situation. This is affecting their access to meaningful inclusion and participation in artistic and cultural learning experiences and, ultimately, their engagement in the wider community.

As well as the impact on disabled people themselves, the pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to the arts and culture sector. It continues to pose a real threat to both infrastructure and jobs which in turn could undermine the gains we have made over the last decade to increase inclusion.

While I do not underestimate the scale of this challenge, I believe there are reasons to be truly hopeful for the future.

When we were no longer able to access artistic and cultural life, I believe the sense of loss we felt demonstrated its intrinsic value to us as individuals, to our communities and society as a whole. Conversely, we also saw the power of arts and culture to uplift us and bring us together. Who can forget the singing on balconies across the World with musicians of all kinds joining in with their neighbours. The rare sense of joy we felt during the darkest days when music was a potent way of connecting with not only our communities but also with others across the World.

We also saw artists, musicians, actors and other creatives come together to raise awareness, shine a light on those who were most vulnerable and raise much needed funds during the pandemic. The invaluable and unique role they played undoubtedly reached the parts that others, including politicians, could not.

Amidst the numerous challenges we all faced during that time, I was both amazed and heartened to see how the arts and cultural sector responded. Numerous individuals and organisations innovated to deliver their offer in new and pioneering ways. Those advances were game changing and must not be lost. It is vital that they are captured and disseminated for the benefit of disabled people and those who support their inclusion and engagement in artistic and cultural life.

A particularly impressive initiative was launched during the pandemic by the Disability Arts Alliance called We Shall Not Be Removed. It outlines 7 principles for an inclusive recovery for the arts and creative sector and is designed to ensure that deaf, neurodiverse and disabled people are not discriminated against so we build back better.

So, as the arts and culture sector emerges from the ravages of the pandemic, we have a real opportunity to ensure that the needs of disabled people are at the heart of the recovery. I want to be a part of that and I know you do too.

The political landscape also creates opportunities to secure real and lasting change for the arts and cultural sector. We are widely expected to have a General Election in the next 12-18 months and, as many of you know, there is no better time to engage politicians than when we are seeking your votes!

Joking aside, as we move towards a general election we are looking to engage with individuals and organisations whose expertise and experience we need to formulate the policies that will shape our manifestos. We want and need to hear from you now.
Which is why today’s event is so important. It is a crucial chance for those who share a passion and commitment to cultural inclusion to come together and ensure that their voices are heard by those with the power to make a real difference.

I wish you every success today and very much look forward to working with you in the months ahead to make our shared vision of cultural inclusion a reality.

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