In this episode of Social Model Starters, Caroline chats with Ashok Mistry where they talk exploring intersectionality - and the barriers between different marginalised groups.

About Ashokkumar Mistry

Ashokkumar Mistry is a multidisciplinary artist, writer and curator working in the UK and internationally. By subverting technologies, he challenges conventional ways of making and viewing art. “As a person who sees and experiences the world differently, Much of my work is concerned with my interactions with the world and how I make sense of everything”. Ashokkumar didn’t identify as neurodivergent until he was in his 40s, and it was a seminal moment for his artistic practice. Since then, he has been focused on researching and writing about disability and neurodiversity. His writing encompasses direct research and personal experiences relating to neurodiversity with a view to sharing experiences and changing attitudes. He is currently Associate Artist with Disability Arts Online, a Development Artist with The Spark Arts and a Fellow of the International Association Of Art Critics (AICA-UK). Ashokkumar has been commissioned by the BBC and a number of galleries such as the Lowry and Southbank Centre to create artworks and exhibitions. As a curator, he has worked with AIS for a number of years developing innovative and thought provoking exhibitions. Ashokkumar has also developed a number of exhibitions in Taiwan for National Cheng Kung University and A-Glow space.


So welcome to the first of a Theatre Deli ‘Social Model Starters’.

I'm Caroline Mawer. I'm curator for the Social Model and More Festival.
So that's peeking in two weeks of workshops and exciting new theatre in London and Sheffield in November.

And my first guest is Ashok Kumar Mistry, also known as Ashok. He's an artist, writer and activist, amongst other things. I wanted to interview Ashok after I read a great article you wrote about the challenges Global Majority disabled artists face in getting noticed.

I think that's a really big deal and definitely shouldn't be an add on, which is why Ashok is starting us off.

So let's go back to basics. The medical model says doctors are going to fix us disabled creatives and they don't. Well, the social model says society should change to fit around us, but it hasn't. We need more. Or maybe different. Oh, it's complicated.

So at Theatre Deli, we start by listening to what disabled creatives thought. You can check out a huge range of what you said on our website from ‘I love the social model’ to ‘f**k the social model.’ And we use those ideas to guide our callout. We got so many great responses and sadly we just can't include them all. So these starters are trying to make sure we don't miss out on some of the big issues and they’re only  15 minutes to make them easy to fit in your day.

So let's go. I'm Caroline. I'm a skinny white woman aged with scrappy short hair and big purple glasses.

And now onto Ashok, he is why we're here. Thank you for taking part.

Could you describe yourself, please?


Hi. Thanks very much for having me here, Caroline.

I'm a greying brown man of Indian origin, clean shaven, wearing a maroon shirt.


So we've only got...thank you for taking part, Ashok!

We've only got 15 minutes. So we've had to agree some priorities to talk about, But there's plenty more good stuff. So after this, please go and check out some links that we're going to put underneath this recording into his work and ideas.

So let's start.

Could you please tell us which bits of yourself you are unapologetic about?


Okay. So the idea of Unapologetic comes from the Onyx Collective that I'm part of. And when we talk about Unapologetic, it's about presence and it's about not being afraid of yourself and not apologizing for who you are and the way you are. For me, I think unapologetic is all about me not apologizing about the fact that I forget stuff.

I'm not apologizing for not being able to read stuff properly or needing a screen reader or audio. I'm not apologizing for misunderstanding. Things that other people understand and seeing things in a different perspective. I think it's all about kind of not apologizing for who you are.

And it goes into the way that I've tried to kind of bring see other people around me as well. So people who I thought were who I would otherwise not give the time of day to or not consider in the right way.

It's stopped me. It stops me and tells me to take a step back and actually understand the person.


That's really high minded. I'm an awkward bastard and I will refuse the word ‘Sorry’. I use the word ‘Thank you’ a lot more. I say thank you. And at that point that people think that they're going to do something good for me, and they do, which is an amazing superpower. That I appear to have by just saying the word thank you rather than sorry.

I wonder if you have anything to say about that?


Oh, my gosh. This idea of the awkward bastard. It really resonates with me. And it kind of gets me to think about why we're awkward bastards as well and why people are the way they are, why they think in a particular way all the things that have happened in their life. You can almost kind of see it written on their on their face and people aren’t awkward just for the sake of being awkward, that they are something or other for a reason.

I've just had a note put through the door from my kids!

I'll have to pick it up in a sec. Okay.


I'm going to go on to another question. [...] Can you remember when you first heard about the Social model?

Was it a useful concept?

Was it working in a useful way for you?

And has it ever worked usefully for you?


I think the social model, gosh, it was a while ago and it was a revelation. It really I found it life changing in the sense that for once I wasn't the problem and I could actually kind of start to see the reason why I had a problem or why I had problems in the world.

So I wasn't the actual the reason why things either went wrong or when, you know, kind of a belly up and for me, the social model, the main thing is about how the world is designed. The world is designed in a in a particular way like we live within operating systems, I guess like our political culture, our educational culture and all of that there, that it's a bit like operating systems. So you have different operating systems on different devices. And if you can kind of see that sometimes the operating system isn't made for you or is only made to actually kind of create a particular outcome for a particular type of person, then you can actually see what you need to do to actually circumvent or try and kind of patch those problems. I'm using programing terminology here. 


But I mean, I can’t Patch, I can't get around, so I can’t patch stairs for me, if you see what I mean.


No, but. But legislation can.

Legislation like with teeth, you know, we can campaign, we can. Patching is as much about being an activist as it is when we talk about patching, it's not about us making the changes ourselves. It's about us pushing for the change as well so we don't have to actually create the change ourselves with our bare hands. We can actually create a permanent, lasting change through campaigning and, you know, kind of voicing the problems that are at stake.


I desperately want to ask my third question, but I'm just going to come back to you on this, because you say I can I could argue the things, but I'm tired. I'm really tired.

It takes me loads of time to get up in the mornings. And so the process of me using up my small amount of available time and arguing with the bastard who aren't providing a load of things is just fills me with horror.


Yeah. So I guess then it's a choice is either we live with the world as it is or we try and change it. And if there isn't a kind of like a formal path to change it, then we use our own informal paths to change it. But if we work together and that's our whole idea of kind of collectivism and so on, if we work together, then the burden for that change is lessened to a degree, and not everyone needs to be an activist.

The problem is that when you're from marginalized group, it's almost as if activism is- what is it? It's inherent to what you do. So you can be one of two people. You can either just allow things to wash over you or you can kind of just hit back with things and just not accept thingsas the way they are.

And I think I'm not sure maybe it's genetic that because I know other people, my family were like this as well. They hit things head on and we don't take things for granted. 


I'm going to move on. I'm really sorry. I've diverted.

You told me that when you were, you had a big breakdown which made you we started you thinking about how you were and how, but how you actually get pigeonholed as disabled or brown. So that means half or maybe less than half of your actual self.

Do you want to say more please?


Yeah, that's a difficult time in my life. That was. But it was very poignant in the sense that it was the first time that I started to understand myself. So before that I was masking all the time and I was kind of what everyone else wanted me to be. And I, we suffered a bereavement in our family and, you know, a close family member and it changed a lot for me in the sense of kind of the way that our house, our family functioned and so on and so forth, brought out a lot of kind of problems and so on.

But out of that, all of this stuff that was that was pushing down of myself suddenly started to leap out. So it was like a cognitive pressure that had been built, building up that was suddenly kind of the lid had come off and was out in the open. And I started to actually start to question myself and try to understand who I was before This time, it was almost as if I was trying to create this jigsaw of myself without any image, without the box, and everything was all over the place, you know, some, some pieces were hidden and so on and so forth.

And at least what I was able to do is start to turn through this process, start to turn the pieces of the jigsaw the right way up. So I started to understand myself and I could see that there was some form of map there.

So, yeah, for me that was an amazing time. And I started to read up on things like the Social Model and Neurodiversity was just coming out then.


So I'm going to go back to my point about you getting pigeonholed as either disabled or brown, and you've told me about the time when you were in contact with somebody who probably we're not going to name.

Tell me about that. Yeah.


So it was a public body and they were trying to put this initiative together to take marginalized people to this theatre conference in another country. And it was fantastic. But it was all very, very last minute and you had to apply and so on and so forth. And I got the application.

I could either apply as a disabled person or I could apply as someone from an ethnic minority background. And I chose to focus on my identity as a disabled person because it was very important to me that and they said, No, you can't do that because it was easier for me to apply as an ethnic minority background.

It's almost as if the visual, you know, the thing that you could see was much easier for other people to understand, or rather the thing that people could see of me that marginalized me was easier for other people to understand. And I found that really distasteful, really, because it was as if they wanted to control my identity.


But did you work? Did you work? Did you get it? Did you work with these people I did.


I went to the conference. I went as an interloper. So the reason I went was and it kind of went beyond, you know, I went against myself in a sense, against my principles.

But I wanted to see how they worked with people. I wanted to see how they treated people with disabilities, how they approached disabilities. And I learned a lot. I learned about equality in different countries. I learned that in other European countries, this idea of disability and equality and so on and so forth, is very different, the concept is completely different. And I learned a lot about this organization as well and how they basically were trying to catch up with themselves. 

And that's where some of this this idea of kind of making people choose or not, not allowing people to choose, rather was kind of coming from.


There’s so much to… I’d love to pick up on some of the stuff you’ve said there. But I'm going to ask you my next question, which is how you are working, amongst other things as part of Onyx Collective, you have said this is as creatives from Black, Asian and dual heritage backgrounds who identify as being disabled, neurodivergent, crip or living with long term illnesses. Is that what your first art college meant when they said to find your own tribe?

I mean, I really don't like that phrase and I don’t think you do. Would you like to say a bit more?


Gosh, going back years and years now. And when I was at university I didn't understand myself as Neurodivergent. I kind of knew I was dyslexic, but that was kind of like the jus the tip of the iceberg really. And they didn't either, so they couldn't connect with me and they thought they couldn't connect with me because of my cultural background and it was more my disability. So they didn't know about any of that.

And so, for instance, they would pigeonhole people or they would try to kind of like make an easy solution to something. So they tried to get me to kind of go with other brown people or to kind of associate more with Indian art or whatever and the problem is that that wouldn't work for two reasons, because if someone as soon as someone tells me to do something I want to do the opposite. I'm always asking myself, why has this person asked me to do this and not something else?

And the other problem was that even kind of culture of diversity, it's not as simple as that. It's not as simple as kind of just banding a bunch of brown people together.

With Onyx, it's much different. It's not about kind of just banding a bunch of people together. It's about making space for people to be who they are and share their experiences. So it's a very, very different space and it came out of a…it was a something that was put together by Disability Arts online in the wake of Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd. So it's more about giving people space to be who they want to be, but having some sense of kindred spirit.


So does this mean that you are keeping comfortable?

But I don't mean that in a nasty way, please don’t take it in a nasty way, but is a now you found people who are got some similarities with you then?

Is it okay to be like that?

How does it fit with your idea that you have to be an activist, just want to give you a chance to respond to that please?


I think the problem with activism is, as I said before, is it's something that's inherent to your identity as a marginalized person. If you don't shout, you don't get anything. And, Whereas in a lot of cases, we're always we only interacted with if we're if we're in that shouty activist mood. Whereas what we've created with

Onyx is a space where we can share if we want to, but we don't have to and we can be who we want to be. We don't have to be Activists 24/7, And that's and it's a space that we've created, although DAO - disability arts online - they facilitated it. They haven't kind of controlled that. The conversations amongst us in a sense. And so sometimes you have to switch off being an activist as well, because it is, as you said, it's exhausting.

But what you can do is share experiences of that or share just general life experiences or focus just on your your on your practice, on the work that you make. So, yeah, it's kind of like this multifaceted space.


Thank you. Thank you so much for this. It's like, I'm really aware that I've cut you off and I'm not...I'm not.. you and I have spoken with a much more length and so I know a little tiny bit how much more there is within you. And so that's why I'm really encouraging everybody to click down below and to link up with more of your art and work, which is super splendid and really worth spending time on in my view.

Thank you very much indeed. Thank you so much for sharing a tiny bit of yourself with us here today.


Thank you. Thanks for having me.

The Social Model…& More Festival 

Taking place across Theatre Deli's Sheffield and London venues in November 2023, the festival, which has been curated by artist Caroline Mawer, explores new perspectives on disability and the relationship between disabled people and the world around them.

Find out more about The Social Model…& More Festival here