The Quiet | Audio | 02 minutes and 26 seconds
[Please note: the text below contains references to an eating disorder, which some readers may find distressing.]
The early few weeks were strange. Suddenly, the world was turned on its head. Being autistic in a world built for neurotypical people is difficult. Being autistic in a world built for neurotypical people while a global pandemic was raging around you was inconceivable.
I bunkered down. The four walls of my small studio flat became my haven. This flat had saved my life before, there was no reason to doubt it could not do so again. I did not leave the house. My partner, furloughed, and a best friend began to get my groceries. I felt the independence I fought for slipping out of my hands. I could not queue. I did not understand. I slept for ten hours a night, my body pushed to exhaustion by my mind. I tried to practice yoga everyday. Suddenly, people started to notice how little the government expects you to live on Universal Credit.
My anxiety was out of control. My eating disorder took over, seizing the opportunity to take hold of my mind at its most vulnerable. Mental health services closed, you’ll get a letter in the post soon. Having fought for months to get through the door, I was left to cope alone. Prescriptions were missed and I forgot to take my morning meds. The GP surgery increased the number of hoops we had to jump through to speak to someone. I stopped sleeping before 1am. I started running. My stutter got worse, I could not answer the phone. My head was torn to pieces, covered in cuts that stung sharply every time I washed my hair.
I began to create a ‘done list’ for every day. Sometimes, it read as simply as ‘took meds, watched TV’. On better days it read ‘managed to help someone at work today, left the house, watched a play’. It became my new routine. The days began to merge into one long, insufferable Zoom meeting. I had to learn my access needs in a new world where everyone expected you to be constantly available, as I ate, slept, worked and lived in one room.But then I began to realise how much of the noise had stopped. Not the noise in my head, which was louder than it has been for years, but the noise of the outside world. Less traffic. No public transport. No time spent in rooms with fluorescent tube lighting, trying to figure out if it was rude to put on my sunglasses. No visits to shops necessitated no spontaneous social contact. No visits to theatres, or bars, or cinemas, or restaurants, no ‘hi, how are you?’s, no ‘yes, it was a great show’, no ‘haha, yes, I also understand this joke you are making and it doesn’t make me want to die at all’. For once, the world was quiet. The obligations had ceased. As the world crumbled around me, my world opened up.
Safe & Sound? | Video & Audio | 11 minutes and 28 seconds
Safe and Sound grew out of our experiences as autistic artists over the first period of lockdown. Even though many aspects of our situations were isolating, the sudden change in the soundscape was a relief. The constant, low rumble of London traffic had almost disappeared overnight; both wildlife and human life was suddenly more audible, the rattle of passing bikes replacing the roar of car engines.
However, being confined to our homes for most of the day presented some other soundscape issues. The hum of the fridge, or the fluorescent light, or the hot water pipes? We couldn’t escape it. The radio in the kitchen, the sound of the bathroom door creaking open, the squeak of a floorboard as we crossed our rooms for the hundredth time that day? We were stuck with them, indefinitely.
As autistic people, this new sound world had greatly affected us, and we wanted to know how other disabled people felt. Although we’re originally from theatre backgrounds, Calum as a sound designer, Aisling as a director, we realised that sound art was the perfect lockdown artistic medium; we could make it at home, and easily collect sounds in a socially distanced way. As Aisling is a Lewisham resident, and very active in their local community, this seemed like a great place to start.
At the beginning of this project, we received a small commission as part of Conversations / Future Selves, where disabled artists were invited to make work about what kind of world we wanted to see after the pandemic. It gave us an opportunity to test some creative ideas, play around, and lean into hope – hope that things really could get better, that the world we’d return to would not be the one we left behind.
Basic adjustments disabled people had been requesting for years were now granted without a second thought. It opened the minds of a lot of people who’d never thought about disabled people before – they suddenly realised that a lot of us had been living like this for years, hidden in plain sight. They saw how easy it was. That all it took was the desire to imagine things differently.
But as summer wore on, things began to change. Most of us naively thought this would be a short-term change, that things would be back to some kind of normal by the end of the year. With every passing day, it’s clear that will not be the case.
This is the new normal – somewhere between two-worlds, with ever-changing rules and a government who don’t seem to care that ordinary people are suffering. We have felt this ourselves – worries about Universal Credit, mental health referrals delayed indefinitely. Two-thirds of people who have died from coronavirus are disabled. The longer term impact on public mental health is already huge. People can’t isolate because they can’t afford to take the time off. We are living in a kind of purgatory where our fate lies in the hands of people we don’t trust to have our best interests at heart.
The final composition isn’t what we thought we would create a few months ago. We don’t have as much hope. Pretending that we feel optimistic about the state of the world for disabled people at this point would be dishonest. Art by and for disabled people does not exist to make non-disabled people feel comfortable. What we’ve created is a reflection of how we feel at this moment in time. We hope you don’t feel comfortable when you remember that this is how many of us feel across the UK.
Safe & Sound? – Audio Description
Aisling Gallagher (they, them) is a disabled director and writer from Belfast, now living in Lewisham. Their aim as a practitioner is to make work that embeds access within the aesthetics of production at every level.
In 2020 Aisling established Good Behaviour, an autistic-led theatre and arts company, with sound designer Calum Perrin. Good Behaviour have made work with Sydenham Arts, The Library Presents In Your House, and have recently undertaken a Festival Echoes residency with Festival Stoke, working with autistic arts group, The Social Agency. Their commission for Conversations / Future Selves was featured on BBC Radio 4 Short Cuts in November 2020. The importance of disabled-led work lies at the core of the company, along with a commitment to co-creation and genuine collaboration with communities.
As a writer, Aisling completed the Croydon Emerging Writers Programme with Disentangle Productions/Stanley Halls, has been commissioned by Spare Tyre for the nationwide Signal Fires project by English Touring Theatre, and is currently writing their first play. They are also the Agent for Change at Theatre Royal Stratford East. They are directing Illusions of Liberty, written by Lorna Wells, which follows a musician coming to terms with a chronic illness diagnosis. Aisling is excited to work on a new piece by a disabled writer, exploring how live streaming from a theatre can be accessible and COVID-secure (tickets available from Applecart Arts here).