Lives Remembered

Chris Ledger: 'Wonder woman' was inspirational advocate for disabled and deaf artists

Chris Ledger

AS head of the University of Atypical, Chris Ledger was never likely to be someone who conformed to expectations.

The charity's chief function is to support disabled and deaf people's involvement across the arts in Northern Ireland.

But under Chris's leadership it was always much more than that.

She sought at every turn to empower artists of all backgrounds and impairments, bringing their work into the mainstream like never before.

Her vision saw a dedicated awards scheme put in place to access funding on an equal basis, while the groundbreaking Bounce Arts Festival was established to showcase work.

The powerful combination of innovation and persuasion she brought to all she did is credited with helping transform attitudes and lives for the better.

The University of Atypical - rebranded from the Arts and Disability Forum during Chris's tenure - is led by disabled and deaf people and Chris herself lived with severe arthritis for most of her adult years.

From Lancashire in the north west of England, her background was in film production, running a multi-media company before coming to live in Ireland.

She worked initially with the Tourist Board and Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure before becoming disability arts development officer at the Arts Council in 2004.

Chief executive Roisin McDonough said she was instrumental in raising the profile of the sector and highlighting its specific needs.

“Chris was a warm, compassionate, intelligent person with a vivacious sense of humour and a determination to make a difference, and she brought all these fine qualities to her work," she said.

"She was a passionate advocate of the rights of disabled and D/deaf people (both sign language users and those with English as their first language) to be fully represented in arts and culture, and through her commitment and her brand of leadership, which was infectious, she did make a very significant difference.

"With her passing, the disability arts sector has lost a true progressive, the arts community has lost one of its key players, and we have lost a very dear friend and colleague."

Chris Ledger with former Belfast mayor Deirdre Hargey

In 2009 Chris joined the Arts and Disability Forum, which became the University of Atypical two years ago.

Its chair, Sean Fitzsimons, said her contributions have resonated far beyond the confines of the physical walls of the organisation on Belfast's Royal Avenue.

"They are visible in the innumerable smiles on the faces of artists, their families and the public," he said.

"During Chris’s stewardship as chief executive officer, D/deaf and disabled arts and culture was mainstreamed to a degree never seen before on these shores or elsewhere.

"The general public and government here in Northern Ireland are now aware of the contributions of so many disabled people, thanks to Chris’s tireless championing."

Services provided by the charity today include gallery space, the Individual Disabled Artists grants scheme, advocacy work to encourage venues to become more accessible to disabled and deaf artists and audiences, as well as the internationally renowned Bounce Festival with its annual programme of music, theatre, dance and visual arts.

At the heart of all of this was Chris and her magnetic personality.

Chris was a passionate advocate for disabled and deaf artists

She was not afraid to be confrontational in her efforts to defend rights and effect change, but above all she had a remarkable ability to find solutions to problems and bring people on board.

People were drawn to her wherever she went, as reflected in the hundreds of tributes paid across Ireland and around the globe following news of her death.

"Chris was an amazon, a wonder woman and the queen of lipstick," Sean said.

"We will miss her humour, her energy, her cynicism, her passion and her friendship.

"All who knew her have been touched by her and she leaves behind many, many friends."

In recent years Chris had received treatment for cancer, something she approached with the same energy and determination as her work.

She had been planning to marry her partner Louise on July 30 in Bangor Castle but the ceremony had to be cancelled as her health deteriorated.

Instead the couple tied the knot in an emotional ceremony in the Ulster Hospital just a few days before Chris's death on August 1. She had recently turned 60.

Chris Ledger is survived and sadly missed by Louise, her family in England, colleagues across the arts community and her many friends.

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Lives Remembered