THE warnings had been coming for months. Further cuts to arts funding in Scotland were inevitable, we were told. There would be serious damage to music, theatre, dance and other parts of the sector. One critic said there would be cultural carnage. And then the Scottish budget came along and, instead of the cuts, there was a significant rise in financial support for Creative Scotland. It looked like the damage had been averted.

However, as usual with big funding announcements from government, it pays to wait for the details to emerge and, as they have, concerns have grown that serious damage could be done to a particular part of the culture sector: theatre companies for disabled people. More than £1million in funding has been stripped from key companies who work with or for the disabled, including Birds of Paradise, the only disabled-led theatre organisation in Scotland, which has lost £450,000.

Now, in response to the cuts, more than 50 disability rights activists have signed an open letter to Creative Scotland’s CEO Janet Archer demanding that the funding decisions be urgently reviewed. Pam Duncan-Glancy, of the campaign group One in Five, which organised the letter, says the cuts are a direct threat to efforts to secure equality and representation for disabled people in the arts industry.

The need to work towards that equality and greater representation is beyond doubt. One of the signatories to the letter is the actress Amy Conachan, who is in a wheelchair and worked her way through Scottish theatre. She now has a part on the soap opera Hollyoaks, which is a hugely positive development in television. However, it is still rare to see disabled people in leading roles on TV or on the stage and when they do make it, they are often cast as the villain or in roles that conform to the stereotypes of old.

Sadly, there is no doubt that the stereotypes – particularly that a disabled life is a tragic and unhappy one – run deep, but the success of the Paralympics movement has shown that, with support, funding and promotion, public perceptions of disabled people or people with learning disabilities can be dramatically turned around. There was a time when the Paralympics was a little-noticed sideline to the main event, but now its stars are mainstream heroes, thanks in a large part to the way they have been portrayed on television – as equals.

The same can happen on the Scottish arts scene but the Creative Scotland cuts are a serious threat to that. One of the aims of the arts companies that work with the disabled in Scotland is to promote inclusion and diversity, but it goes way beyond that too. It is about providing roles for actors and others that might not otherwise exist, it is about putting stories on stage and screen that might not otherwise be seen, and it is about promoting equal access to the arts. There is still a very long way to go in achieving those goals, but the funding cutbacks have now put the progress that has been made under threat.

There may be some who think that one small part of funding that is already a tiny 0.5 per cent of the Scottish Government’s overall spend is a peripheral issue; they might also point to some of the big flagship investments that are going ahead, such as the revamp of the Burrell collection.

But arts funding that neglects small and medium-size cultural groups – especially those with big ambitions – is arts funding that is not working well. Funding for arts groups that work for and with the disabled is a sign that we value arts and culture in general, but it is also a sign that we recognise its potential to have a wider impact and change wider society for the better. All of which begs the question that the actress Amy Conachan has asked: shouldn’t we be moving forward on inclusion and diversity, not backwards?