Community Voices: Jo Tolley – Disability made me feel trapped, but the arts gave me freedom

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Jo Tolley is one of The Lincolnite’s first generation Community Voices columnists. She describes herself as a ‘curious curtain twitcher’ and a budding freelance writer. She believes that everyone has a right to have their voices heard. “It’s my life’s goal to make a real difference and show that people can achieve their dreams, regardless of their situation.” Jo has Quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy and believes that the arts provide freedom and independence for all. 

Community Voices is a project which bridges the gap between the people of Lincoln and the news that helps them navigate every day life in the city. Read the experiences and views of a range of local people as they become regular voices on The Lincolnite and help shape the conversation in your neighbourhood.

We all know the arts industry gets bad press. Careers within the sector aren’t generally seen as “proper jobs”. Parents want their kids to become doctors, lawyers and secure a stable income. This is all well and good, but what happens when they can’t become doctors because holding a stethoscope is physically impossible? What happens if becoming a lawyer means using their voice, when they can’t conventionally communicate? What happens when their disability outwardly prevents them from doing what they love?

As someone with Quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy, I can wholeheartedly say that being disabled sucks sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, there are many occasions when being in a wheelchair is hilarious, but it can be isolating.

Flashback to a year ago, and I was sitting in Lincoln Drill Hall’s café, in the depths of what I now refer to as my decade-long quarter-life crisis. Yet another one of my “forever plans” had epically failed, which in my dramatic, anxiety-ridden brain resulted in my life being over at the grand old age of twenty-five. For most of that time, I’d been unwittingly engulfed by everything my disability wouldn’t allow me to do. The little girl in me yearned to put on a pair of ballet shoes and pirouette with the best of them.

Lincoln Drill Hall. Photo: File/The Lincolnite

Week after week, I was drawn to the creative epicentre that is the Drill Hall; observing as people from all walks of life came through the door. What gradually dawned on me was how indiscriminatory the Arts Centre is. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve popped in for a cuppa or you’re an artist who’s about to perform on stage, everyone was welcomed and valued. The Drill Hall provides a platform, both literally and metaphorically, where the people of Lincoln, disabled or otherwise, can be their authentic selves. In whatever form this may take, we are encouraged and nurtured to showcase the talent we possess.

Jo is passionate about the arts

It was the Jamie Marcus Productions’ panto season and a shining example of how disability and the arts are seamlessly integrative, flew to the forefront. When Tinkerbell, played by deaf actress, Phillipa Russell, sprinkled fairy dust in the Drill Hall Auditorium, there was no distinction between so called “ability and disability”. Phillipa is simply gifted with a natural flair for her craft and she was doing what she does best within the role of Peter Pan’s non-verbal sidekick.

I have found that we live in a society whereby, unless something is happening right in front of people’s noses, it goes unnoticed. The Drill Hall enables the topic of disability to be openly discussed; influencing the discourse surrounding disability. Their exclusive events, such as the Big Butterfly Club, offers a space where disabled people can let their hair down and have a boogie.

There’s lots of fun to be had at The Drill Hall’s Butterfly Club

Similarly, for those with learning disabilities who have a desire to develop their acting ability, Dreamland Drama Club is right up their street. I think I speak on behalf of Lincolnshire’s disabled community when I say the Drill Hall unlocks an individual’s full potential; promoting freedom of expression and the realisation of dreams.

A year on from when I emerged from my quarter-life crisis, and I was sitting in the café once again. The Drill Hall is indirectly a pinnacle aspect in my development as a writer and founder of Written Wheel.

Irrespective of whether you want to be a doctor, lawyer or ballet dancer, the arts industry, impeccably represented by Lincoln Drill Hall, gives you permission to think outside of the box.

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