The Monthly speaks to the University of Atypical about the organisation’s recent rebranding.

When was the Arts & Disability Forum (ADF) set up?

ADF was set up in 1993 so we’ve been in existence for 25 years and initially the organisation was set up as a meeting place for deaf and disabled artists. The idea was to meet up, engage with creative endeavours in a more organised way and to share experiences.

The organisation has changed substantially over the years and so now we have a professional gallery space, there is a disability arts festival that we run every year and we have a grant award which we administer to deaf and disabled artists and we have an outreach and education programme.

It is still a gathering point for deaf and disabled artists but because it is so much more than that we have been looking at what we do for a few years now and we felt that we needed to re-brand the organisation to more accurately reflect what it is that we are actually doing.

What is the size of the constituency that the organisation provides services for?

Our numbers vary depending on the work that we are doing; the Bounce Festival attracts thousands of attendees, the gallery and our visual arts programme attracts large numbers of visitors annually.

We have maintained contact with many of the artists we have worked with or supported over the last 25 years.

We are connected to a network of arts and disability organisations, locally, and internationally so our reach extends well beyond Northern Ireland and Ireland. and we’ve been involved in European Partnerships and so there are ties with European organisations and of course we have hundreds of regular users of the various services that we provide.

Would it be the case that deaf and disabled artists would exhibit in the gallery where it wouldn’t be possible in other galleries?

It would be reasonable to say that there are barriers to deaf and disabled artists to gallery spaces. Our aim is to break down those barriers and provide access for the artists that we support.

It may be the case that galleries aren’t set up to provide for the physical needs for disabled artists. There are problems of acquiring funding, problems of assessment of the work.

Our organisation provides a space where artists with disabilities or who are deaf will get a professional gallery space to exhibit their work. We think it is a prestigious space, and it means that if you exhibit here you have done so effectively at a professional level and that should create a pathway to exhibit at other galleries. We see this as a stepping stone to exhibiting in other galleries.

Is there a distinction to be made regarding disability artists and artists?

There is a big difference between artists who identify as disabled and artists who practice disability arts. We support both but there is a distinction; disability arts is where the artists utilises the experiences of their disability, their lived experiences, as the starting point for their artistic focus. It is the use of their lived experience which matters and without that lived experience it wouldn’t be possible to produce disability art.

Would you see your gallery for example exhibiting material that asks difficult questions?

We have certainly showcased artists who ask probing questions about disability and about the lived experience of disability. Some of the work may not fit into the frame of some galleries, and we are quite proud of our record of showing works which ask difficult questions.

We have exhibited work which asks challenging questions and we certainly see our role as supporting those artists.



Why the change to the University of the Atypical?

The Arts and Disability Forum reached out across our community, our board, our staff, members and supporters and initiated discussions about what we were doing and where we wanted to go.

The University of Atypical moves the organisation in a wider direction. The University element suggests that we have an educative element to what we do, atypical suggests that the work we do is not necessarily typical. With the new name we are not beholden to the notion of the word disability and what that might suggest to people. There has been discussion about that and we feel that this new orientation suggests inclusivity.

You will still be an organisation which supports deaf and disabled artists?

Yes absolutely. That won’t change. The original meaning of the word University suggests community of people and we will still be a gathering place for all those artists who we originally were set up to support.



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New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.