Success for Sensibility Festival

A woman touching a textured see-through piece of fabric

Sensibility was a three-day disability arts festival in Birmingham that showcased the contributions and connections to arts and creativity of sixty deafblind and disabled people. It brought together a diverse audience from all over the country, to celebrate and share a unique experience.

Organising the festival needed a lot of support, that meant recruiting a large number of volunteers and performers to be in place to make sure everyone was supported and nurtured to connect with the event.

The week of the festival was incredibly busy, at times I wondered if we would make it, but by Friday morning the team had come together and we were ready to open to the public!

A large group of smiling older people sit round a table with their hands in the air

Audience members could smell the different art practices, taste the textures used in the ‘sensory maze’ installation, use their bodies to see and feel our creative processes, play and relax within the festival environments and different rooms co-designed by our deafblind and disabled artistic advisers.

By the end of the first day, we had audiences saying, “Wow! Really lovely tapping into all of the senses. So engaging and friendly staff. Thank you!”

TouchBase Pears was the perfect venue

A group of women crouching on the floor in the middle of a studio space with dark lighting

The festival took place at Sense’s new multi-purpose venue, Touchbase Pears, and the Midlands Art Centre. Over 10,000 people connected to the festival at both venues, including a large proportion who toured the sensory maze. Our aim was to create an arts event for deafblind and disabled audiences and over 70% of our guided audience identified as being deafblind and/or disabled.

Disabled people and artists worked together

A woman stands next to another woman in a wheelchair, guiding her hand which touches painted art on the wall

Workshops to create the different artworks started in November last year. These were attended by disabled people with complex communication needs, including those who are deafblind and/or identify as living with dementia.

A woman stands next to a man in wheelchair who reaches out and touches art on the wall

Working with local artists Justin Wiggan Lynn Cox, Saranjit Birdi and InterACTION, the artistic advisers created artworks, different installations, film, dance and movement performances, a full body of work that created the program for Sensibility Festival, which was generously supported by Arts Council England and the People’s Postcode Lottery.

My role as national arts manager put me in charge of organising many of these incredibly hard working people, alongside sense’s arts coordinator, Sunney Sharma, who helped us all get the festival ready.

A man touching multi coloured patterned paper chains on the wall

Sensibility was an event where deafblind, disabled and non-disabled artists and audience members explored creativity and arts on an equal platform – and that is no easy feat!

There is a lot of learning to be done on how the event can be improved and what needs to be done to make the event sustainable, but it’s a big step in the right direction.

From sensory mazes to tea dances and interactive workshops

A large group of smiling older people sit round a table with their hands in the air

At the festival there was a ‘sensory maze’ which displayed many of the artworks. It was created from over a tonne of wood, which included 100 pieces of artwork – ranging from tactile paintings to hanging trails. We’re so grateful to the design team who led on the build of the maze and to Soul City Arts who reclaimed the wood after the event.

As well as the sensory maze, there was an all-singing, all-dancing sensory tea,  interactive sensory poetry workshops, a ‘sensory hands’ installation and a guest musical performance by deafblind musician, Mark Pampel. At each new room of the maze there were Sensibility gatekeepers who welcomed groups into the maze and offered exciting ways to explore the different rooms .

An older man looking through a sheet of clear plastic at a plant in a bell jar with uplighting

Audiences loved the relaxed atmosphere of the event and we had a lot of family members come back for the full three days. One audience member said

“What a fantastic display! Love that you are increasing awareness of deafblindness across all of the ages.”

We are proud of the diversity of our audience and that the festival celebrated the community by having a strong multi-generational, multi-ability audience and volunteer presence.

Personal highlights

A personal highlight for me, was welcoming a high number of deafblind audience members and support staff who had volunteered on their day-off to bring people to the event. It was also great to see residential managers and family members come and experience the final pieces for the first time.

I also loved the variety of different experience and spaces within the maze and how the events gave enough time and space for each audience member to connect in a way that was meaningful to them.

Another personal highlight, was dancing with my mum during the Suspended Motion performance which invited the audience onto the stage. It was the first time she had met a group of deafblind performers and they performed movements each person had created. I think that moment showed the power that arts and creativity can have to connect people from all walks of life.

The Sense Arts team and I are so grateful to everyone single person who supported the festival, including the volunteers, support staff, artists, performers, interpreters, the bus drivers, the welcoming team, catering staff, technicians, and all the managers from countless homes and partnering orgainstions .

Each and every one of these people played an important part in making the event truly accessible to all and we are already busy planning the next one.

Stephanie Tyrrell

Author: Stephanie Tyrrell

Arts and Wellbeing Projects and Development Manager at Sense

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