formidAble voices

Joanne Roughton-Arnold is a freelance opera singer, and Artistic Director and Co-Founder of formidAbility, a female- and disability-led opera company breaking new ground in accessibility and inclusion in opera, onstage and off. formidAbility engages a healthy mix of disabled and non-disabled professional artists and places audience accessibility at the heart of the creative process, rather than tacking it onto the periphery. Here, she discusses her fears - and plans - around the place of disabled creatives, crew and audience members in the future of the arts.

June 5, 2021
Joanne Roughton-Arnold

We are all acutely aware of how difficult this period has been for everyone working in the arts. However, the pandemic has given time and incentive for us all to reflect on what sort of a world we want to live and work in, what we want to retain in our profession and what we want to change. In particular, the period since March 2020 has witnessed a proliferation of conversations around systemic exclusion to the performing arts based on gender, ethnicity and financial background. I want to widen the scope of those conversations to include all protected characteristics under the Equality Act, drawing on the challenges I have faced as a disabled woman and my own efforts to break down the barriers to inclusion.

The opera profession in particular has been achingly slow to embrace diversity in all forms. While dance companies and orchestras like Candoco, Culture Device, Ballet Black, Chineke! Orchestra and the Paraorchestra are now established fixtures receiving invitations from the country's most respected venues and festivals, opera is still inexplicably wading through blackface and sexual abuse scandals.

A circle of dancers in white clothing and brightly coloured paint crouch in a circle on black dance flooring, surrounding the lead dancer who dances in the middle with her arms outstretched.
Dancer Sarah Gordy in The Rite of Spring, with Culture Device at the Royal Opera House, 2019. Photo by Richard Kaby.

Signs indicate that the will to evolve is strong, with even traditional institutions like the Royal Opera House publishing comprehensive Equality, Diversity and Inclusion strategies. But it will take far more than discussion and pledges to make meaningful change. My interest is in how we move on from hopeful discussion to affirmative and lasting action.

Women are in a prime position to initiate and lead meaningful change. Not so long ago, women were regarded as incapable of performing many of the roles that we now fulfil as well as our male colleagues. I am proud to be a New Zealander, to come from the first country in the world to give women the vote, with a female prime minister whose kind, inclusive and decisive leadership has brought the country through the pandemic with only 26 Covid-related deaths to date. I would like us to use our collective lived history as women and our capacity for empathy to open doors for everyone.

Disabled people are still fighting for inclusion, having to make the case again and again that our talent, our work and even our lives are valuable. In February the BBC reported that disabled people accounted for 60% of UK Covid deaths, and the current discussions regarding Covid-vaccine passports to facilitate the reopening of society entirely entirely dismiss the restrictions this will place on those unable to be vaccinated due to underlying health issues. Ironically, it was only once the pandemic threatened the work access and communication patterns of the non-disabled population that provisions were made across all sectors to accommodate flexible working conditions, a basic requirement of disabled workers that has gone largely ignored for decades.

In the flurry to reopen the cultural sector and simply survive, we risk creating a cultural apartheid where disabled people are seen as unimportant, thanks to a shortsighted belief that accessibility is too difficult and too expensive. The financial challenges ahead mean that disabled artists and audience members risk being placed in the "too hard" basket. Yet Arts Council England have placed meaningful inclusion at the heart of their strategy for the next ten years: “Let’s Create”. I would argue that this is the perfect time to reflect and ensure that the reopening works for everyone, to build back better.

The Seven Principles For An Inclusive Recovery For the Arts Sector are well worth a read. They provide practical guidance to arts organisations and they are endorsed by a wide range of leading sector bodies, including the UK arts councils, the Royal Philharmonic Society and the British Council. After a year of advocacy and activism, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has now included them in their updated guidance to the cultural sector.

Of course, my own lived experience as a disabled woman and as a partially sighted opera singer, drives my hunger for change.

Singer Joanne Roughton-Arnold, dressed as Colombine, sings to the audience with a grimace. She has a white flower in her hair and her right hand is raised angrily. The image was taken during formidAbility's semi-staged performance of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire for the 2019 Grimeborn Festival.
Singer Joanne Roughton-Arnold in Pierrot Lunaire with formidAbility at the Grimeborn Festival, 2019. Photo by Cathy Pyle.

When I graduated from music college, I was given a reference stating that I could do anything my sighted colleagues could do with minimal extra technical time and without risking the safety of myself or my colleagues. As my visual impairment isn’t obvious to the casual observer, I was advised to show this reference to audition panels after I had sung, so that I could disclose my disability while reassuring them that I was not a health and safety risk. The reaction was usually embarrassment (on their part, not mine) and no work.

So I stopped saying anything and the work offers grew.

I kept my disability secret from most of my colleagues and from company management for four years, putting my white symbol cane away several blocks from rehearsal or performance venues in case someone saw me. As a freelancer, you want to be noticed for the right reasons, never giving a company a reason not to hire you. I was afraid that disclosing my disability would mean that I wouldn’t be offered further work.

Fast forward to 2019.

A white musician in white tee-shirt and green trousers raises his clarinet over his head, and a smiling black singer in a long green dress holding some hand chimes in the background. In the foreground is a white, red-haired singer smiling with her hand outstretched in a white shirt. They are performing in a room surrounded by audience members, including a smiling man in a denim short with tinted glasses. There are stage lights in the background.
Singer Joanne Roughton-Arnold in Paraorchestra, The Nature of Why. Photo by Toni Wilkinson.

Inspired by my recent work singing with the Paraorchestra, the world’s only large-scale ensemble of professional disabled and non-disabled musicians, I decided it was time to bring the same inclusive approach to the opera world. I co-founded formidAbility and we created our first production for the Grimeborn Festival: a double bill pairing Gillian Whitehead’s Hotspur with Schoenberg’s iconic Pierrot Lunaire.

In the foreground of a dark stage is a Cuban woman dressed in black with dark curly hair. Her She is standing in profile, with her eyes raised to the lights. Behind her is a white woman with red hair in plaits, wearing a blue dress. her back is to the camera, and her head is turned to the left in profile. She looks anxious.
Isolte Avila from Signdance international and singer Joanne Roughton-Arnold in Hotspur with formidAbility, at the Grimeborn Festival, 2019. Photo by Cathy Pyle.

We collaborated with Signdance Collective International, who have extended Sign Language into Sign Dance. Most of the audience were unaware that they were watching disabled artists: a visually impaired singer, a deaf dancer playing Pierrot and a physically disabled dancer signing the libretto for Hotspur.

A man in white face paint, dressed in a shabby black tailcoat with a bowler had, white hirt and bright red gloves stares directly at the camera with a half smile on his face, with his hands splayed either side of his face. There are orchestral musicians onstage behind him.
Signdance International's David Bower in Pierrot Lunaire at the Grimeborn Festival, 2019. Photo by Cathy Pyle.

At formidAbility we create challenging and powerful work that speaks to as wide a demographic as possible. We don’t specialise in making work about disability any more than female conductors only conduct music by female composers - that would erect more exclusionary barriers than it removed. During last summer’s lockdown, for instance, we commissioned The Bridge Between Breaths, a new opera centred around the felling of Colston’s statue, and held Covid-safe R&D on Act 1 as part of the 2020 Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival.

We ask anyone working with us about their access requirements so that we can do everything possible to meet individual needs and enable everyone to do their best work. This applies to disabled and non-disabled people alike.

A closeup of a woman's arms in a brown cardigan, with an engagement ring on her left hand, touching braille sheet music at the piano.
Photo by Mayeta Clark, courtesy of

When it comes to inclusion, the arts have been lagging behind behind other sectors, and opera seems to be dragging its feet at the back of the field. The sporting world is streets ahead: Nobody watches the Paralympics and says “They’re not very good, are they?”

Two elite athletes in assistive cycles, racing on a rainy street. ont he left is a mixed race man in a black racing suit and white helmet. on the left and slightly behind him is a white man with a beard in a white racing suit and black helmet.
Photo by RUN 4 FFWPU from Pexels.

We are all enthralled by the talent and skill on display. So I was understandably dismayed when one of the instrumentalists who played for formidAbility’s Pierrot Lunaire wrote anonymously in our artists’ feedback questionnaire that they felt deceived by the company because they weren’t told in advance that they would be working with disabled artists. How was that relevant? There was no compromise on artistic standards.

A stage scene with three large white banners with abstract symbols in black, blue and red. A small chamber orchestra plays in front of them. On the floor is a large white letter  X. At its centre is a white woman singing in a blue dress, with her arms outstretched. On the left, in front of one of the banners, is a Cuban dancer dressed in a flowing black dress, looking to the ceiling with her hands on her head.
Isolte Avila from Signdance International and singer Joanne Roughton-Arnold in Hotspur for formidAbility at the Grimeborn Festival, 2019. Photo by Cathy Pyle.

There is much work to be done to open hearts and minds both in the opera profession and among audiences. Is it worth it? Imagine a young blind girl who loves to sing. Would she dare to dream that she might one day find herself on the main stage of one of the UK’s leading opera houses? Probably not. She has no one to look up to on those stages who is like her. Her family, teachers and friends can give no encouragement because they see no examples to aspire to. But what if someone cast a blind Violetta…? Extraordinary things happen when we see the talent and not the disability.

I would like to leave you with three thoughts and a question:

•  A huge amount of talent goes unnoticed because for many people the usual routes into the profession are closed to them, for all sorts of reasons. If we always look in the same places,we will only ever find the same people.

•  We need to adopt the social model of disability: to recognise that the barriers put up intentionally or unintentionally by people and organisations are more disabling than any impairment or difference.

•  Disability-led projects are a starting point, but not the solution. Real progress will only have been made when it becomes normal to see truly diverse and inclusive teams creating great work of the highest standards on all our stages.


And, finally, the provocation:

How can we cast our nets wider when recruiting all members of our teams: creatives, performers, technical and administrative, and seek out talented individuals who are not yet on our radar because they happen to have a disability or possess one or more of the other protected characteristics under the Equality Act?

If we find ourselves relegating the accessibility needs of audiences, students and colleagues to the "too-hard" basket, our response must be to weave a better, more adaptable basket.

In a dark stage space, an audience stands in a broken circle around male french horn player in a wheelchair, wearing white trousers and shoes and a pink shirt, tipped back against a female dancer crouching on her knees in a white shirt and pink trousers. the audience members are wearing colourful clothing and look relaxed and happy.
The Paraorchestra’s The Nature of Why. Photo by Paul Blakemore.


This article is based on the text of a provocation for the Royal Opera’s Engender Network, an initiative to change the gender imbalance in opera and music theatre, delivered on 29th April, 2021.