A hand holds a glass sphere with a tree seen through it.
Photograph by Mark Pickthall

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies growth and freedom 

Hetty Einzig


We are living through daily uncertainty, awash with challenges and the best and worst of our behaviours as human beings. Yet volatility gives rise to possibility. So how do we harness the heat of these uncertain times? Coaching is one way to tap into disturbance and disquiet within ourselves, seeing, feeling and reflecting on the possibilities, that changing our tack might bring. Meg Wheatley has more to say about the power of reflection and paradox questions here

Coaching and Bias

Coaching is a space for us to take time to think and reflect in relationship with another. Through absolute attention and questioning from the coach, the coachee is able shape new possibilities, challenging the default patterns that may not be serving them well.

So what are these patterns? We know as human beings we are very quick to react and that responding quickly to what happens is a natural part of how we defend ourselves at times of threat – but it’s not always a good strategy.

These well-trodden paths can also be about our beliefs and assumptions, ‘perceptual snapshots’ as Deepak Chopra calls them, and may be biased.

Bias is something we all have. To say that we are unbiased would be untrue, because bias is built from when we are young and not in control of how our life is shaping around us. As a result, however much we think that we don’t judge or discriminate, this simply isn’t the case. We may be negatively biased about what we ourselves feel we can, and cannot do, as Deaf and disabled people. We need to deal with this, but how?

Study and Practice

Every time our awareness is raised about the bias we have or the privilege we hold is an opportunity. These things are nothing but a mark in sand unless we look in the face of our bias and change our behaviours; to completely reshape the beach beyond the ebb and flow of tides.

To do this we need to take time to study and reflect upon the history informing our present lives; to see clearly the bias we hold and then be the change at every turn, asking ourselves – who is not in the room and whose voice is not being heard?

We can do this when we gather together and work things through in collective inquiry in a way that welds together our diverse lived experiences and differences of opinion.

Renewal and the New

At the still point of the turning world…..there the dance is.

 T S Elliot

Many of those who have joined us on the Sync programme have benefited from Sync’s blend of leadership, coaching and collective working for what it has revealed.

For instance, Sofya Gollan from Australia shed her skin through Sync, saying no to the discrimination she faced as a deaf woman in film and yes to different routes into getting to the position of power she now holds. And Won Young Kim from Seoul, who said ‘why not?’ to combining his legal career with a dance and theatre practice, reshaping ideas of kindness, beauty and form in South Korea.

Sync is dedicated to tapping into the leadership possibilities for Deaf and disabled people in arts, culture and beyond, unleashing this untapped potential for change.

Sally Booth

A photo of a painting taken from above of a London underground station with paint tubes water and a paintbrush a plate for a palette and a mug of tea
Sally Booth’s painting of a London Underground Station whilst in Lockdown

Sarah Pickthall meets Sally Booth

In the first month of the COVID-19 contagion, I dropped visual artist and Sync alumni, Sally Booth, an email to see where she was up to in isolation and whether she would be up for a catch-up on all things cancelled and on what it’s like pressing the re-start button on her career.

Sally wrote an article about her practice for our Sync programme back in 2010.  A decade on from the Sync Leadership programme in 2010, Sally has gone from strength-to-strength and has been in regular employment as an artist and facilitator, returning to the UK just a few days before lockdown from a successful cultural exchange in Chicago with Shape Arts.

drawing of chicago skyline
Chicago Skyline, drawing by Sally Booth, March 2020

From Edges and Extremes across Shetland and Cornwall with showcases and performances at the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, to sketch-booking on the London tube, her portfolio career has combined commissions and training around the social model of disability.  As a regular trainer for VocalEyes, Sally explores and shares the depth of her experience of visual impairment, bringing art and culture alive through audio description.

Speaking together in the fourth week of lockdown in England, Sally shared that the solitude was lovely to start with and very familiar to her as an artist, but after a few days, the impact of losing all foreseeable work and the impending isolation ‘hit home hard.’  My email to reconnect led Sally to address the digital gaps in her day-to-day routine. Whilst her website won a Jodi Award for Accessibility in 2009, her lack of access to social media, and more importantly digital meet-ups and hangouts, so relied upon by us all, was painfully thin.

a woman is holding an ipad in her garden whilst a neighbour and small child calls out instruction from over the fence
Sally works out Zoom on her iPad with her neighbours

In preparation for our Sync Zoom interview, with the help of the neighbours, Sally managed to download Zoom and Otter.ai apps onto on her iPad, creating captions and audio of our conversations. This will help with captioning the short film we made and she will continue to use this tech, despite its limitations. Sally has even been doing audio descriptions of her pictures over the fence.

a small girl plays a game with an adult on a table
Sally and her father playing ‘Pick-up Sticks.’

Together we were able to have a joyful conversation, exploring a new leadership metaphor that explains very clearly the experience of having to start-over a childhood game she played with her father, called ‘Pick-up Sticks’.  We also spoke of intimacy; that we will both miss the nuances of working closely with people, be that in training, coaching or at a gallery. We both remarked that despite this, we had in our virtual reminiscing together rekindled our lovely rapport and laughed our socks off.  You can watch the video of our conversation with an Audio description introduction for the film underneath.

A film of Sally Booth talking with Sarah Pickthall about leadership metaphors
Audio Description of Sally and Sarah’s Zoom conversation

Won Young Kim

shows a man performing on a shining floor seen from above
Won Young in an improvised film performance, Seoul, 2019

When Won Young Kim took part in Sync Korea, he was exploring a dilemma: that of needing to continue to practice law to meet the responsibility of supporting his family – but with his heart very much taken up with developing his artistic practice. Since that time, using a simple metaphor, he has managed to blend both ambitions, honouring both his values and his desire to make great artwork and challenge ideas and thinking around aesthetics in South Korea and beyond.

Sarah Pickthall talks with Won Young Kim

Meeting online in May, Won and I spoke of the impact of Covid in our respective cities, me in Brighton and Won in Seoul. This hadn’t been the first time we had met up together since running Sync in Korea in 2018, the last time being to work on a profile of Disability Arts in South Korea for Disability Arts International in 2018.

Won shared that there had been a lot of disabled activists challenging the government and some successful and significant movement in moving people out of institutions during the pandemic, ensuring disabled people had the right to be treated in hospitals alongside everyone else. This had felt like a huge achievement and a step forward politically in South Korea.

shows a man speaking into a mic and holding out his hand as he gestures
Won Young Kim

Law has been part of Won’s life for many years, but there has always been the underlying compulsion to make artwork, be that theatre, dance or live art. At the time of Sync in 2018, Won reminded me that I had just simply asked him one question: why? Why wasn’t he able to do both? What was stopping him? This simple question was the start of him finding a way to bring both interests into play, culminating in some acclaimed performances in Seoul in 2019.

“The artworks described a piece of fictitious law – ‘An Act of Love and Friendship,’” he told me, and as part of this performance he told the audience about this law. Alongside this, Won made a significant step to get out of his chair, something he had never done in public before. “I was worried at the time, that audiences would see me doing this as ‘a freak show.”

On the contrary the work was felt by many to be visceral and powerful but not in a patronising way. The ‘move’ was received well with people quite active across popular mainstream culture, lauding it and his work being nominated for an award.

Won went on to talk of the ‘big trousers’ that he has over many years worn, to assume a so-called ‘normal form.’ It seemed this was important for him to appear a certain way when out in the world from a very early age and through his legal career.  An artistic colleague and friend drew his attention to the performance work of UK dance artist and performer, David Toole, someone who has used his physicality in bold and exciting ways in a career that has not shied away from the public gaze.

shows two men in a dramatic scene, one in front of the other, one in a wheelchair, the other standing behind.
Won Young Kim performing in Love and Friendship Act by Zero(0)set Project, Seoul, 2019

Won can now more easily see himself pursuing his performance work, with plans temporarily on hold, to do workshops with choreographer Adam Benjamin when restrictions are lifted and international travel is possible again.  This fed into our conversation about the Sync metaphor he chose during the course in Seoul in 2018, which I had remembered as ‘The Game of Go.’  Won reminded me that it wasn’t the game itself but the simple ‘ordinary’ stone that was the metaphor.  

As disabled people, when we are in the confines of our own spaces, away from the gaze of others, getting out of a chair or moving in a way that suits us isn’t something we necessarily think about. However, how we reveal ourselves in public can be a very different matter, as we bid to conform with what society deems acceptable.   

This has now extended into how we show up in virtual spaces too, and the potential is there for us all to be a bit more flexible and relaxed in this respect. Here’s an article on the Softer Edges of Online-ness.

Dolly Sen

In late April, writes Sarah Pickthall, I had the chance to tap into the brilliant mind of Dolly Sen to see where her Sync thinking was, in this, the time of COVID-19. I found Dolly to still be the subverter, albeit softer, calmer, more contained and in isolation by the sea, waiting for the right moment.

shows a portrait photo of a woman looking at the camera, her arms folded in front of her.
Dolly Sen by the sea in 2020

In a bid to draw together contemporary disabled and Deaf Sync alumni leadership perspectives for a refresh of Sync Leadership online in May 2020, Dolly Sen was an obvious choice.

Having interviewed Dolly several years ago when she was part of Sync Leadership in the UK, I was curious to see how this artist, activist and curator, performer and filmmaker was using subversion to chart her particular approach to life and her practice. I wanted to know what, if anything, had shifted and changed in how she was making work and fighting for what is right.

She has certainly focused more exclusively on her art practice more recently curating a group show at Bethlem Gallery.

Our conversation started with a fond reference to Homer Simpson, an underrated philosopher in her mind, who, taking his daughter Lisa’s reference to the word crisis, in Chinese characters blending ‘danger-opportunity’ (危機) coined the indelible phrase, ‘Crisistunity’. The current pandemic challenge is potentially brutal and yet provides a very clear crisistunity for Dolly. “People at last are seeing and experiencing the cannibalised health and social care system, the decimation of benefits,” she shared.

The need to strike whilst this particular iron of COVID-19 is hot feels pressing. “I can reach more people, who have seen it with their own eyes, not just in the abstract. Normal is what was wrong in the first place. I am beginning to see how I can use this really harsh time to change things for the better.”

shows a smiling woman in a white medical coat holding a yellow colored card in her left hand
Dolly at the Wellcome Collection, 2020

She reminded me that she’s never had a particular strategy or approach, rather using the power of intention and waiting for the right time for her ideas to emerge.

Submerged as we are in a glut of resilience noise online, posting across social media is where we see her ideas and artwork more consistently now compared with when we first met. 

Since the start of the pandemic, she’s been releasing light-hearted useless hints and tips for lockdown to this effect. “If you laugh at something, it loses it’s dark power.” Her output is hosted in a blog on the long-established Disability Arts Online website.

The arrival of Scamp the family dog has additionally provided a great way to connect differently with new audiences. We’ve always loved Dolly for her enduring love of all things sheep in her work and everyday; but upping her social media output with Scamp in tow, she has been approached by people using him as a conversation starter and first step to securing major commissions, though some of these, like many things, are now on hold. 

Dolly shared that she was feeling surprisingly calm and grounded in the face of the enormity of COVID-19 and the inevitable loss we are experiencing, and yet to experience. We spoke about how this may be informed by a life of surviving serious discrimination and changing mental health. Had that experience possibly made her more realistic, and grounded, in the face of extreme events?

A picture of a red plastic charity tin saying 'Help the Normals' and 2 boxes of Dignity pills that say "Dignity cannot be taken 4 times a day" The credit in the photo says Dolly' Sen's '"Dignity" is shown (Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection).
Dolly Sen’s “Dignity” features a prescription pill box that proclaims “Dignity cannot be taken 4 times a day”. (Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection)

For me, as co-creator of Sync, this illustrates how important our lived experiences of resilience in the light of disaster are. It also shines a light on the need for leadership as we emerge from the pandemic as a society and this is what these Sync think-pieces will tap into. For many of us, a lifetime of restrictive and radical events has required us to be grounded in the face of adversity. The question we have now is how best to place and position the strength of disabled leadership, whilst so many of us will be in lock down for longer.

a person in a wheelchair facing away with a poster on the back of the chair saying We Rise Together
A picture of legs in a paddling pool and a shadow of a person with a hat reflected in the pool.

Leadership comes in many shapes and forms. It no longer looks only like a single standing figure (usually tall, male and white) if it ever did.

Globally, we still need more diversity in who we see in our programmes, on our stages, on the walls of the galleries, around tables, in meetings, on the Zooms. Each country will have its own unique issues and its own unique barriers. Yet we all need more direct representation from disabled people within our arts sectors and ecologies, but we also know that’s not the only way to lead.

This pandemic has showed us other places where influence also lies. We know about the whisperers – both the formal and informal advisors; those who lead by sector expertise; those who can galvanise communities and amplify their demands; the power of demonstration, the power of social media and those who seem to influence simply because of who they know.

Disabled people, in the arts and other spaces, have been claiming territory across all these domains. Look at the way UK’s Lisette Auton reminds us that this new online world is not inclusive of all, Australia’s Caroline Bowditch reminds us just how resilient disabled people always have been, Singapore’s Lily Goh in has pivoted her YouTube channel to both ensure Deaf people have access to relevant information and also teach sign to others, and Canada’s Ophira Calof, Kaileigh Krysztofiak and Dawn Jani Birley present solution finding as the norm, to name but a few. In the UK, disabled artists and cultural leaders have come together under the hashtag #WeShallNotBeRemoved, forming an alliance to ensure the disabled voice is heard as the country plans for the ‘new normal’.

As experts by experience in adaptation, social restriction and on-line access – largely due to the inaccessibility of the world before – we have been able to use that knowledge and hard-earned wisdom to help others and challenge those that seek to make ‘the new now’ inaccessible too.

Is leadership different now? Is the door opening up more easily to us? Will it be different in the future? Will it stay open or do we need to wedge it now?

We have shown that there are many, many ways to lead. You do not need endless energy to lead. That you do not need to do so alone. That our unique ways of being in the world can be seen as advantages and not disadvantages, can provide new perspectives and allow new insights.

It will be interesting to see what sticks and what does not. Whilst we are in lockdown, I am more equal. My fatigue that is exacerbated by travel, is lessened at home and, with captions, I can attend and follow the Zooms and the Teams and the others and contribute. I can also go sit in my greenhouse and stick my feet in a paddling pool if they swell.

The equality of those spaces and the urgency of our times has made me bolder too, less cautious to say what I think. Perhaps too this comes from my lived experience?

Being on the shielding list in the UK means anticipating seismic changes in any work-based risk assessment – what happens if I get ill, or get really ill, or die? Facing up to, and planning for, these possibilities is horrendous in theory but I have found it strangely satisfying in practice, and ultimately confidence building. I believe it will make me imagine new riskier possibilities more readily in the future, be more prepared to imagine the unimaginable.

I am aware of more disabled people being invited to more meetings to talk about the future – although the disabled people are still the same ones and the meetings are often not the ones from which decisions are made. I’m also aware that the decision to reopen in many countries is being driven in the name of commerce, rather than science. I was bored waiting to be asked for an opinion, so I developed a manifesto of my own.

We have to come to the fore, it is our time. We have to band together to make our opinions known, our voices heard. We wait in our individual homes, in our multiple countries, in our single world to find out what happens next. But we can take action, not wait passively. We can fight, influence and do whatever we can to ensure, as the International Disability Alliance says so clearly, that we move forward leaving no-one behind.

Sofya Gollan

Sofya Gollan had so many credits and achievements to her name when she joined the Sync Aus programme in 2015; yet she felt she had hit a place and time in her life where she wasn’t progressing. Even if we have credits and accreditations, the subtle and not so subtle barriers in society continue to discriminate against our Deaf and disabled professional progression – and stop us in our tracks.

Sofya in a bright red jacket in the passenger seat of a car, giving direction to an actor in a hoodie behind the wheel.
Sofya Gollan – on set, directing her short film, Gimpsey (2016)

Sarah Pickthall talks with Sofya Gollan

I met with Sofya online in May to discuss the impact of Sync way back then in helping her shed her skin and think again. She is now holding a position of authority as Screen Investment Manager at Screen NSW. Sofya and I share a history of sorts – our involvement in inclusive television. For myself, this meant working for 10 years as part of the Art Attack Team in the UK with their ‘sister’ project ZZZap, which was designed to include deaf children along with mainstream programming for children in the UK. I wrote scripts for the show and my hands, now retired, were The Handymen. Sofya, quite early in her career, joined the presenter team at Play School in Australia and has been involved in the programme for over 30 years alongside a career in media.

Sofya on an orange sofa, presenting live on Play School, for ABC, Australia
Sofya Gollan presenting on Play School, for ABC, Australia

An award-winning director and writer of documentary and drama films, Sofya’s films have been screened in major international festivals over the decade. One of her most recent short films, GIMPSEY, which she wrote and directed, was nominated for an ACCTA Award in 2017 in the Social Shorts and is featured at the beginning of the film we made when we spoke together on Zoom.  

Loving a leadership metaphor, and that being a part of what we explore in a Sync programme, I asked her to recall the one she chose all those years ago. She was unable to recall it, which in itself was quite funny.  Yet choosing a leadership metaphor doesn’t mean you have to stick with it. 

A fluorescent green snake shedding the skin from it's head.

In fact we can choose different metaphors and analogies that reflect where we are at any one time in our professional careers. Our conversation continued with a focus on Sync being something that allowed her to shed her skin like a snake. 

Watch the video of our conversation – including short clips of Sofya’s film Chlorine Dreams (1998, 10mins.) A young girl finds a ghost-like boy living in her pool.

Sofya and Sarah talk over Zoom, May 2020
Audio Description of the Zoom conversation between Sofya Gollan and Sarah Pickthall

It’s not just the deafness but the intersectional experience of gender identity and being a person with a disability, she explained. The industry is still so biased in so many ways.  The blend of being deaf and a woman was hitting hard at the time, so how did Sync help? ‘Well, I think it was in our coaching that we explored the idea of saying yes to everything.’  I remembered the coaching conversation we’d had at the time. 

Sometimes adopting a different strategy for a while can bring an unforeseen opportunity. Putting herself ‘out there’ was not new to Sofya but in the face of rejection and doors slamming, choosing this with a lighter, less defeated strategy, of saying ‘yes, why not?,’ felt different. With Sofya well known to audiences in Australia, she already had the natural ability to put herself out there, but driving this in a different way. 

Shedding the skin of old tactics and bringing in the new paid off.  The first opportunity she said yes to, ‘can be directly attributed to getting me to where I am now’ she shared. It was that simple.  

In her role now, investing in other people, she is responsible for the end-to-end management of screen content that ranges from international co-productions to stand-alone short films. Not only that, as a creative, she still holds a passion for narrative development in VR and is making her own work shedding the skin of other people’s thinking with a focus on new lived experiences in compelling story lines. 

Sync allows you to rethink things, gives you the time, the space and the attention to refresh yourself and renew. So why not you? Whether you are part of Sync now or are thinking of applying to be so, our plans are to share insights and activity in the weeks and months ahead. That’ll be about taking a different tack, shedding your own skin, breaking through and seeing what emerges in these very taxing times.