Fresh from taking his debut short film to the Sydney Film Festival, dancer Duncan Armstrong achieved another of his goals this week when he performed with one of his idols at an awards ceremony to honour those making the arts accessible to everyone.

Wellingtonian Duncan Armstrong and Rodney Bell have performed together before but it's the first time they've been jointly acknowledged for their artistic achievements. Appearing at the Aotearoa Arts Access Awards, the two were recognised for their contributions to the arts and disability sectors.

Bell (Ngati Maniapoto) was awarded the Arts Access Artistic Achievement Award 2017, for his outstanding artistic achievements and contributions to Maori culture with judges saying his international career, leadership and advocacy as a disabled performing artist are exemplary.

Armstrong, a dancer, musician and now film-maker, received a highly commended certificate. He recently returned from Sydney where his first short film, Drumming is Like Thunder, screened as part of the festival's inaugural Screenability section.


Made with Touch Compass, the country's only professional inclusive dance company, it tells Armstrong' story with the tagline "You can take away Duncan Armstrong's drumkit, but you can't take away his desire to make music and perform".

"I feel very excited and proud of myself for both these things," says the 28-year-old, who has been drumming and dancing since he was a child.

Armstrong, who served for five years on the Wellington City Council's Youth Council, says he is proof that you shouldn't judge people before getting to know them. Born with trisomy 21 (Down syndrome), he recalls how he and his family had to battle to convince teachers that he could attend school.

"I sometimes feel excluded and that makes me very angry," he says. "I have friends who stick up for me and, when people get to know me, they find out how capable I am but they have to give me the opportunity first."

Bell, an internationally recognised contemporary dancer, was paralysed from the chest down in a motorcycle accident in 1991. After rehabilitation, he joined the New Zealand wheelchair basketball team before becoming a founding member of Touch Compass.
He says people are becoming more open-minded and accepting of the contribution differently abled people make to the arts as participants and consumers.

"I hope, looking to the future, this inspires other people who do things differently," says Bell. "This award is made possible because of a lot of people in my life."

He also knows about the impact poverty and homelessness can have on access to the arts. In 2012, after five years as one of the principals at the AXIS Dance Company, Bell found himself living on the streets of San Francisco when his contract ended. He lived on the streets for three years before returning to New Zealand in 2015.

He has since crafted the dance work Meremere, with choreographer Malia Johnston, which draws on his disability, his Maori heritage, life on the streets and passion for movement and connection.


While Bell plans to tour this nationally and internationally, including to prison, marae and schools; Armstrong would like to make another film.

Richard Benge, executive director of Arts Access Aotearoa, says one in four people in New Zealand - more than one million - live with a disability or impairment.

"That's a lot of people, who all have the right to enjoy the arts as artists, participants, audience members and gallery visitors."

Other winners at this year's Arts Access Awards were:
•Pablos Art Studios, Wellington, awarded the Arts Access Holdsworth Creative Space Award 2017
•Bedtime Stories programme, Wellington, awarded the Arts Access Corrections Community Award 2017, for its partnership with Arohata Women's Prison and Cleanslate Press
• Ennoble, Tape Art NZ and Nga Taonga Sound & Vision, Wellington, awarded the Arts Access CQ Hotels Wellington Community Partnership Award 2017, for a partnership that provided tape art workshops for Deaf and disabled participants during Disability Pride Week 2016.
•The Court Theatre, Christchurch, awarded the Arts Access Creative New Zealand Arts For All Award 2017, for its commitment to developing new audiences and making theatre accessible to diverse audiences.
•Christchurch Men's Prison, awarded the Arts Access Corrections Leadership Award 2017, for its commitment to arts education and artistic expression as a rehabilitation tool.

Highly commended certificates were also handed out to a number of individuals and organisations.