Susan Austin lights up

Light up, light up, as if you have a choice (Snow Patrol)


susan underwater in her wheelchair

Susan Austin is an artist who has been on the Sync Intensives programme. Last month, we published her case study and this month she speaks about her working practices, and how she ‘sparks’ and is able to pass this flame on to others.

The process for creating this article has, in itself, been formed by following its own guidelines. Jo Verrent has edited this from Susan’s ‘sparks’, using Susan’s own words where possible, in order to create a balance between access and energy.

Sparking up

a sparkler

I want to use this article to explore a metaphor of acting like a spark of light, becoming a torch bearer if you like, to describe what I have come to understand about my leadership through the Sync Intensives programme.

This metaphor for a leadership style has developed in response to Sync Intensives helping me to realise that having limited mental and physical energy to act in the world needn't exclude one from meaningful leadership roles; and that, in fact, the experience gained through 'difference' can be a very positive asset. It means I am well versed in being able to 'think outside the box' and generate innovative solutions.

The concept revolves around cultural leadership through attitudinal change and generating new ideas which 'create a spark' of inspiration.

Lighting torches

one torch lighting another torch

So how does my ‘spark’ become passed on to others?

This spark firing up within me lights up my mind and I find the challenges and possible solutions just suddenly emerge in those moments of inspiration. Next, I begin facilitating dialogues with others, which draw on all the expertise available to me and opens out the process. This is what feeds my flame; the oxygen for me is this intense desire to connect and communicate. Through the awakening of my own passion comes the compelling desire to reach out and share with others that which has inspired me. Amongst those I speak to and have contact with, many too become alight with the possibility of the idea that I wish to pursue, that they now wish to engage with too; often adding new layers and dynamics to enrich the original concept.

The light cast by that torch then draws people's attention to the area that it is 'casting a light' upon – which means many more people can see the idea and become drawn to it. Instead of a single spark, there is light now from many torches – a greater illumination.

This process of igniting others enables those others to develop a shared sense of ownership of those ideas. They then 'stoke the fire' which leads to that one 'torch' lighting another and then another 'torch' until they in turn then light many torches… Suddenly, and often surprisingly, that initial spark spreads like wild fire.

It’s an often miraculous process. At the same time as spreading the ideas onwards, each torch is also bringing its own unique light to the matter. It is this shared sense of vision, this collaboration, which will contribute to eventually 'setting the world on fire'.

I received an email yesterday asking if my image ‘Portal 2008’ – the one of myself and my wheelchair underwater - could go on the front of a poetry book from Cinco Puntos Press, in El Paso, Texas. I love the sense that sparks can fly off and ignite elsewhere, often without one being aware of quite how far the fire is spreading.

Together we can flame

a procession of flaming torches

Assistance from other people is essential to my whole journey into leadership and this brings a sense of being interdependent with all those who collaborate with me, which therefore profoundly influences my sense of which styles of leadership are open to me. My dependence on physical assistance to access events and create work is therefore less of a barrier and instead becomes part of my creative approach.

I have always been very interested in pursuing innovative solutions, and this, coupled with my desire for collaboration, provides a very useful working practice.

One current situation that was taxing me was the particular problems that we have become very aware of for disabled artists accessing grant funding and setting up systems that allow them/us to do that in a way that avoids creating financial vulnerabilities. The ‘benefits trap’ is very much in existence and stops many of us from engaging as much as we can with our artistic abilities.

So how to tackle this? I am in the process of creating a consortium to examine creative ways of addressing this issue with others.

A new aspect to this idea comes from the 'strengths assessment' model where you look at the very specific strengths and support needs of that specific disabled artist/worker and work to match them up with another disabled artist/worker with very complementary strengths/needs so that each person can be working by meeting the other persons 'access to work' needs (through their particular strengths) while receiving the support they need in return. This is then a symbiotic relationship rather than one based on dependence.

Sync – a fire starter

survival knife being used to start a fire

I want to explain how constructive Sync has been for me and how empowering its approach to access has been. It has been part of what has enabled me to ‘spark’. I am realising that having my access requirements met without question has really helped me understand what it could be like if everywhere responded like that.

By making those needs 'invisible' (because they are so well met), it has facilitated a shift in me from an unconscious sense of 'creating a problem' or causing people inconveniences (because of having to ask for those needs to be addressed) to being able to focus on my skills and see what I have to offer. I have been able to raise my aspirations – it's freed me up to gain maximum benefit from all that Sync – and others - have to offer.

I have always had this desire to collaborate, but it is this journey I have had through Sync that has enabled me to really embrace it in relation to leadership, to my own ability to lead. Through Sync I have been able to find, and extend, this metaphor of creating a spark and passing ideas to others who can, together, create flames.

I have been able to recognise the vital importance of doing so, not only for myself and in relation to my own work, but also for others. Yes, I want to leave a mark on the world, but I also want a generation of people to not have to go through the struggle of seeing themselves as ‘other’, ‘different’ or ‘lesser’ simply because of what they physically can or cannot do.

Extinguishing stereotypes

Do you remember Daniel James, the rugby player who became disabled as a result of an injury and who went to Switzerland’s euthanasia clinic because he couldn’t face the idea of being a wheelchair user for the rest of his life? He was 23. He was quoted as saying he didn’t want to lead ‘a second class existence’.


a picture of Daniel James, who died aged 23 at Digitalis in Switzerland

Disability is still seen by many as a negative thing. Even as disabled people ourselves, it can be hard not to respond unconsciously to societies perception of disability equaling ‘second class’. These stereotypes are dangerous to us, they can be fatal.

The model of work I am exploring deliberately challenges these perceptions, but hopefully without lecturing. It recognises the power of starting with the personal – allowing oneself to be the spark. From this one can find the archetypal images that communicate with many, through connecting with universal human experience. One can start a process that begins to ‘fire others up’ as they connect with the concepts behind the work and come to understand them in relation to their own lives and experiences.

I wrote the following (abridged here) to explain my fascination with challenging these stereotypes within my artwork; that playing with the sense of presence and absence and the ambiguities that opens up:

“Without this wheelchair I am absent from society… unable to add my own story to the many stories from which our lives and cultures are woven. Within this wheelchair I also find myself absent from society, a cloak of invisibility seems to descend when negotiating social spaces.

Through the traces of play created by performing my identity and the use of techniques used to mark out fields of play, I can re-establish a presence within myself, a social absence becomes a physical presence. It also becomes a conceptual presence through the way it leads those observing to become playful as they begin to interact with the presence of the wheelchair through its traces when it is a physical absence. By exploring the subjective narratives created by my use of the wheelchair and the traces it leaves, I hope to reconfigure the pre-conceptions of the viewer and lead to a revaluing of the wheelchair."

To read more on the theory behind my work, you can go straight to my website page

Going for the long burn

a fire with embers

Connecting with others and using the combined strength of many also means each idea can ‘burn’ for longer – and therefore reach many, many more people. I’m also extremely interested in developing theoretical frameworks around my work and working practices which again follow the same ideas, building layers and levels of engagement and enabling the work to reach more people and have a greater impact.

In these current times, it's even more essential that we form strong partnerships so we can all burn for longer. By taking this approach, we can reject the ingrained dependency with which we often approach the concept of partnerships, and instead see each opportunity as dry wood. Can we spark with this person, this company, this organisation? Can we set them alight with our message, our vision, our initial concept? Can we share the heat and the light of the work and accept that a shared flame provides greater illumination for us all?

Or go directly to Susan’s own site…

To find out more about Susan Austin, read the Sync case study...