One of the best privileges of being a GLOCAL is having the ability to travel around and learn, explore, and discover inspiration in different cities. This August, I visited Edinburgh during the 2022 Edinburgh Festival Fringe (still happening at time of writing), one of the greatest celebrations of arts and culture in the world! In sunny mid-August, the streets of Edinburgh were packed with talented street performers from around the world, with countless flyers being handed out to promote comedies, musicals, magic shows, theatre performances, and exhibitions. The bustling and lively city was filled with laughter, music, and singing, but it was in an inconspicuous and quiet alley that I came across one of the best art exhibitions I have ever experienced.
The exhibition is called “The Marketplace and I: Commercial Experiences of Disability Explored Through Art,” which was developed from a research project undertaken at Lancaster University by Dr. Leighanne Higgins. Showcasing various artwork (videos, poetry, sculptures, paintings, and installations) created by different NGOs and artists, the exhibition specifically explores the experiences of people with disabilities in public marketplaces.
It is hard for us to imagine the inconveniences and how much courage these artists need to do all the things that we consider “normal, everyday living.” Buying clothes, taking escalators, finding a job, having dinner with family and friends in restaurants, and celebrating birthdays in theme parks — everything that people who do not have disabilities consider normal can be a challenge. Meanwhile, unfriendly environments and a lack of infrastructure can deprive people with disabilities of the opportunity to have similar experiences. Through the lens of artists with different disabilities, visitors can understand their frustration, anxiety, uneasiness, and the challenges experienced in their daily lives when they are interacting with commercial marketplaces.
My favorite artwork in the exhibition was The Journey created by POPSY. The Parents of Partially Sighted and Blind Youngsters (POPSY) is a small UK Charity, which was founded by the parents of a child who was diagnosed with Warburg Micro Syndrome. The organization coordinates wheelchair-accessible and inclusive trips and adventures for families in the UK.
The Journey depicts a parent’s transition into the world of being a parent-carer. The whole journey starts with words printed in bright colours, Disney-style fonts, and positive meaning, depicting the parents’ expectations and happiness of having a child. However, as their child is diagnosed with an illness, everything they learn each day from doctors and experts are about all the things that their child cannot and will never be able to do. The dark, grey, and negative words demonstrate the parents’ despair, confusion, and frustration.
The words and colours turn into autumnal tones with a touch of orange and brown as the journey continues, when the parents become more positive, receive support, and connect with families in a similar situation. Their journey is still not as colourful as they thought it would be, but with some support, their world can still enjoy a shed of colours. The whole journey culminates in a photo tree of POPSY, which one of the exhibition visitors named “the tree of smiley faces.” The tree highlights all of the adventures that the families have embarked upon, including abseiling, surfing, skydiving, and swimming with dolphins.
Another insightful series of paintings is created by Scott Bleasdale. With autism, Scott always finds common marketplaces unwelcoming. The three art pieces, Claustrophobia, Embarrassment, and Anger, illustrate different emotions that he experiences in public places. Surrounded by a lot of noises and sensory input, Scott feels like people are staring at him all the time, aiming their words at him, and that he is constantly being mocked by the crowd. Even though people are just laughing and chatting with their friends without paying much attention to him, as a person with autism, Scott still feels like all those words are shouted directly at him via a loud speaker. Frustrated and embarrassed, he also feels angry — not at the crowd, but more at himself for not being able to enjoy shopping like everybody else.
If you are interested in learning more about the emotions that Scott experiences in public places, you can watch the YouTube video below of Dr. Higgins explaining in detail the three art works created by Scott.
The artwork in this exhibition not only helped visitors understand the artists’ emotions and experiences, they also urged people to think of how society and our marketplaces can be more friendly and inclusive. The three art works presented by the Piccadilly Support Services demonstrate the barriers, challenges, stereotypes, and discrimination that people with autism encounter in their everyday lives.
From seemingly small things such as champagne and balloon popping to bigger challenges such as mobility difficulties, job hunting, and having meals in a restaurant, the lives of people with autism are more complicated than we can imagine. However, we can create a more inclusive and supportive society by raising the public’s awareness of “autism-friendly quiet hour” in shops and restaurants (a UK-based initiative), and putting instruction stickers at the entrance of escalators to inform passengers of what to expect when reaching the top.
The most heartwarming artwork in this exhibition is arguably Aurora’s Castle, created by the Eaton family, and which illustrates their unforgettable family trip to Disneyland. Aurora Eaton is now five years old, and she was born with no right eye and a left eye with poor vision. When the family visited theme parks in the UK, the little girl was not able to acquire an easy access pass to skip the line because she was considered “not visually impaired enough.” Meanwhile, as the stairs in the park were not equipped with yellow stripes, Aurora often fell down and the family couldn’t fully enjoy their day. Fortunately, at Euro Disney, the whole family was granted an easy access pass, and they could finally enjoy the roller coasters together as a family without leaving anyone behind.
The art piece features a castle built from all the memorable photos from the family’s trip to Euro Disney, and in the centre of the castle is a photo of Aurora hugging Mike Wazowski, a beloved character from the Disney movie “Monsters, Inc.” as she screamed happily “he’s only got one eye like me!”
The “The Marketplace and I: Commercial Experiences of Disability Explored Through Art” exhibition is a perfect combination of art, creativity, and social impact. It is being held within a small exhibition space with simple decorations, but the sincerity of the artwork successfully reflects the emotions and experiences of these creators, while challenging our preconceptions surrounding people with disabilities.
There were more installations as part of the exhibition that I could not cover in this article, but behind every art piece is a life fighter and a story worth listening to. The exhibition is open from August 18 to 24 at the 2022 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but if you won’t be able to attend the exhibition in person, you can also learn more about the exhibition on Twitter and Facebook, or follow Dr. Higgins’ research on LinkedIn and Twitter.