Tag Archives: disability

Representation Matters: People with Disabilities Are Done Being Your Inspiration

 

 

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Photo of a version of the American flag with the stars configured to look like the symbol for disability. (Photo credit: money.cnn.com)

We need a long, hard examination of the way we’re representing people with disabilities on our stages and screens. We talk a lot about equity and inclusion, but almost always ignore people with disabilities in those discussions, leaving our industries far behind where they should be on this issue.

We’re still so far behind that casting PwDs as PwDs is controversial. Able-bodied people fight hard for their “right” to cast able-bodied actors to play us, then shut us out of every aspect of the process. Able-bodied people insist they’re doing “extensive research,” yet portrayals of PwDs are more often than not astoundingly inaccurate, more about how you see us than how we really are.

We’re still so far behind that casting PwDs has been called “exploitative,” as if our physical presence must always be measured by the gaze of able-bodied people. It reminds me of the way sexist writers claim women are “flaunting” their bodies by simply appearing in public. Our physical presence in the world as PwDs (or women, for that matter) is not about you. Our physical presence as PwDs is so deeply othered that any public performance is automatically suspect– it must mean something. Add to that the relentless infantilization of PwDs by able-bodied people, and our every appearance as actors results in a flurry of pearl-clutching about how we’re being “displayed,” “used,” or “exploited,” as if PwDs are children who need protecting instead of actors who need jobs.

It’s “exploitative” when we play ourselves, but ennobling when you play us.

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During preproduction for the film The Upside, released in January 2019, producers refused to consider actors with disabilities for the role of Dell Scott, a quadriplegic character, instead first casting able-bodied actor Colin Firth, and then replacing him with Bryan Cranston, drawing criticism from disability rights activists. (Photo by David Lee/The Weinstein Company depicts Cranston seated in a wheelchair on a busy city street, laughing as actor Kevin Hart stands on the wheelchair behind Cranston, leaning down and laughing.)

We’re still so far behind it’s considered a special kind of acting triumph when an able-bodied actor plays us because, like actors who gain weight or allow themselves to be made “ugly” for a role, they’re working hard at lowering themselves, appearing less glamorous, less desirable, less perfect. The actor is ennobled by their humility, by the sacrifice it took to present themselves pretending to be what we are every day of our lives. 

We’re still so far behind that the types of stories we tell about PwDs all center around our difference: inspiration porn, tragedies, the Manic Pixie Sick Girl (and as she’s lowered into her grave, he realizes he has finally learned how to live), and the DEI Sidekick (Hi. I’m here to make the producers look inclusive and the protagonist look sympathetic oops time to die to provide motivation for the protagonist). There are more (so many more) but you get the idea.

Please note that all of these are almost always played by conventionally beautiful, thin, able-bodied white people, and that these issues are intersectional. While this piece focuses on PwDs, bear in mind that people of color with disabilities are facing two major hurdles; female-identified and genderqueer people of color with disabilities are facing three, etc. Women of color are in fact the vanguard of disability rights activism.

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Writer and activist Imani Barbarin, who runs the blog Crutches and Spice, is the force behind #DisTheOscars, an advocacy campaign around disability representation in the media. (Photo by Madasyn Andrews depicts Barbarin, a Black woman with long, thin dreads, smiling in a garden setting, wearing a blue flowered dress and a black jacket, with one of her crutches visible on her arm.)

In the United States, between 13 and 19% of the population are PwDs. That’s a sizable population, yet we are aggressively shut out of every aspect of visual narrative, our stories stolen from us and told by able-bodied people, for able-bodied people.

This begs the question, “What are our stories?” It’s an important question, because the answer is: ALL OF THEM, KATIE. We’re a massively diverse population occupying every race, gender, sexuality, age, belief, and socioeconomic status. The vast majority of our stories are not “disability stories.” We are people with disabilities– people first– and the majority of our lives are spent wrapped up in the same issues everyone else has. Yet nearly every film, play, or show that hires an actor with a disability is doing so specifically to tell a “disability story”; when that narrative is over, the actor is released. We’re rarely allowed to tell any other kinds of stories. Disability is only represented when the story is about disability in some way.

Because we are hired far less frequently than able-bodied people, even with similar training and experience, we’re seldom in the room when these stories are developed, and if we are in the room, we’re one voice– often brought in late in the process as a low-ranking temporary hire (“disability consultant”). It’s no wonder that stories about PwDs are so often about the impact the PwD has on an able-bodied person.

Lack of representation is a vicious circle. Because we are so seldom represented as anything but life support for able-bodied inspiration, PwDs are almost never considered for “straight” roles. It never occurs to producers and directors to cast an actor with a disability in a story not specifically about disability, because they, like the rest of us, live in a world where PwDs are dramatically under-represented throughout all of our media and have come to see that under-representation as “normal.”

Our industries create fantastic, imaginary worlds, but we can’t imagine a Juliet with a mobility device? Our imaginations can comprehend time travel, dragons, talking animals, alien cultures, telekinesis, and 500 different kinds of afterlife, but a disabled Hedda Gabler is incomprehensible? You think that if you cast a PwD, the narrative becomes about the disability because those are the only stories we allow PwDs to tell. 

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Marilee Talkington, a brilliantly talented actor, has a long career of playing both blind and sighted characters. Talkington has played blind characters on several TV shows recently, drawing praise from the National Federation of the Blind and their #letusplayus campaign. (Photo by Cheshire Isaacs depicts Talkington from the shoulders up: a white woman with curly red hair, blue eyes, and coral lipstick, wearing a wine-colored sleeveless top.)

Allow people with disabilities to tell all kinds of stories, including our own. The right to portray someone different than you is not the exclusive province of the able-bodied. Able-bodied people defend their right to play us with “It’s called ‘acting'” without ever once considering that we can do it too.

Hire people with disabilities at every level, from conceptualization to casting to audience management, not just in temporary positions meant to shield you from controversy. When you talk about “inclusion,” remember: we’re here, and we are not going away.

 

 

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The “Outrage Machine” and Calls for “Calm”

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Connie Lim (aka MILCK) photographed by Rachael Lee Stroud.  Source: milckmusic.com

A few days ago, I read an excellent article in Very Smart Brothas by editor-in-chief Damon Young entitled “Polite White People Are Useless.” Being a polite white person myself, my first reaction at seeing the title was that slight rise of defensiveness in the pit of my stomach– you know what I’m talking about, white people. That feeling of “BUT BUT BUT.” “But I don’t do this” “But I don’t mean it like that” “But I’m not racist” “But #notallwhitepeople” The feeling that immediately informs me: HERE LIES YOUR COMPLICITY IN WHITE SUPREMACY. Pursue this. Sit in your discomfort. Listen and learn.

Sometimes that feeling means it’s something I’m doing myself. Sometimes it means it’s something I’m letting pass unchallenged. So I used my discomfort as intuition and clicked on the article. In the article, Damon Young defines “polite white people” as “white people who call for decorum instead of disruption when attempting to battle and defeat bias and hate.” I let that slide at least half the time I see it on social media. “It’s just Facebook” is something I personally disagree with vehemently. Ideas put into the world do not wait for a particular venue to have their impact. Yet here I was, using “it’s just Facebook” as an excuse to avoid uncomfortable conversations. Ugh. Here lies your complicity in white supremacy.

While I was processing this, I encountered the inevitable calls for “calm” and calls against “constant outrage” in my various feeds, all from cishet white people with Christian heritage. I began to think deeply about this in the context of the VSB article. What do these people actually mean when they ask us to tone down the “outrage machine” or when they tell us an issue is “just a distraction?”

What are these issues about which we should be “calm”?

We’re battling literal Nazis. (“But they’re such a small group.”)

The Department of Homeland Security released a report in 2009 demonstrating that white supremacists were infiltrating law enforcement as a deliberate strategy and nothing was done about it due to conservative backlash. (“That doesn’t sound right.”)

And now several metropolitan police forces are quietly dismissing hundreds of thousands of cases (900,000 in New York alone), and paying out millions in settlement dollars due to police officers planting evidence (repeatedly in Baltimore) and arresting innocent people of color to meet quotas (“But they were caught, so, good, right?”)

The Trump Administration attempts to block police reform and coddles white supremacists. (“You can’t fight every little thing.”)

One of the worst natural disasters of our lifetimes has devastated Texas, causing an urgent humanitarian crisis. Thirty-one people have died and tens of thousands have lost everything and are living in packed shelters, yet now is the time Evangelical Christians (who make up a full quarter of our nation’s population) saw fit to release a document condemning all LGBTQ people and all Christians who support the human rights of LGBTQ people. By current estimates, there are about a million LGBTQ Texans, and LGBTQ people of color make up 55% of that. (“Evangelicals always hate LGBTQ people, so what does it matter?”)

I am barely scratching the surface.

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On July 19, these young women participated in Jolt’s “Quinceañera at the Capitol,” a protest against Texas’ anti-immigration bill SB4 that celebrated Latinx culture while protesting racism. Jolt is a Latinx-run nonprofit focusing on issues of importance to the Latinx community in Texas. More at jolttx.org. Photo: @blurandgrain on Instagram

 

Calls for “calm” and posts denouncing the “outrage machine” are difficult to hear when it’s your family on the line. White Christians overwhelmingly voted for a man who ran on hate and support him as he governs from a place of hate. Hate of journalists; hate of women; hate of Mexicans; hate of Black people; hate of the disabled; hate of Muslims. He has a long history of racism and of courting white supremacists. While bigotry and racism are not new in this nation by a long shot, what we are seeing is a cultural moment where it’s become fashionable among a certain group of people to express these views openly. Now racism is an open badge of honor for some, a winking disingenuous pretense for even more. From the right it’s “I’m not racist; I just think the Confederate flag and Confederate statues are our heritage”; from the left it’s “Identity politics are holding us back; economic justice will solve racism, so we don’t need to work on it directly unless it’s obvious racism. And of course by that I mean racism that is obvious to me as a white man.”

This upswing in white willingness to be either openly and actively racist or to cast an abdication of responsibility for white supremacy as a greater good has already resulted in violence. Violent racists are emboldened by everything from outright encouragement to a lack of resistance. This new willingness to either openly express active bigotry or support it winkingly while pretending to oppose it extends to sexism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, ableism, transphobia, homophobia– everything people mean when they decry “identity politics.”

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Pennsylvania nurse Ieshia Evans embodies grace and power as she faces riot police in Baton Rouge at a July 2016 protest against the police murder of Alton Sterling. Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

With all that in mind, what does it mean when people with privilege call for “calm” or an end to “constant outrage”? What does it mean when people with privilege scold others for responding to “distractions”— a label used almost exclusively for issues of concern to marginalized populations? What does it mean when people with privilege tell others to stop reacting to bigotry? Specifically what are they asking for?

What could they be asking for but silence? Less vocal insistence that the human rights of targeted populations be achieved and protected? A respite from open resistance?

When you ask targeted populations “aren’t you tired of the constant outrage?” it’s like asking someone getting beaten in an alley if they’re tired of getting hit. OF COURSE we’re tired of constant outrage. But what choice do we have? And if you have the cultural privilege that gives you a choice, it means something specific when you choose “stop reacting to distractions” or “I’m sick of the outrage machine.”

Decrying “distractions” and “the outrage machine” is just another aspect of privilege fragility. “I cannot take the discomfort that comes with your struggle for human rights, and I want to be the gatekeeper who decides what’s important enough to fight and what we should let pass.” When people with privilege set themselves up as the gatekeepers who decide what merits outrage and what does not, we are actively preserving that privilege. Gatekeeping is a major function of cultural privilege.

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Image by Cheshire Isaacs created from the iconic Getty photo of Reno, CA resident Peter Cvjetanovic, among others, at the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, VA in August. For more, see cheshiredave.com

Now more than ever we need to take breaks for self-care during the chaotic Trumpian news cycle. We each cannot personally react to every new horror that occurs, especially as tribalism has replaced patriotism, frustratingly making the usual tactic of raising awareness through education far less effective. On the right, tribalism takes the form of continuing to support a president who defends people marching under Nazi, KKK, and white supremacist banners as “very fine people” who just happened to show up to a march advertised with images of Confederate flags, Nazi eagles, and the names of several of the nation’s most prominent white supremacists. On the left, it takes the form of supporting people who claim that “identity politics” are destroying us, as if issues of concern to the liberal base– women and people of color– are a detour from “real” issues (i.e., the issues important to white men). This constant barrage of nonsense is exhausting. But taking a break for your own self-care is a world apart from telling others they should shut up (“stop reacting to distractions”; “stop feeding the outrage machine”).

When someone is reacting to bigotry, especially if it’s bigotry you do not personally experience, especially if that reaction makes you uncomfortable, stop and listen. Think: why is this important to this person? What experiences have they had to make this issue crucial to them? What do they need to see from me as a person with privilege? Is my voice even needed in this discussion?

Nothing positive is contributed to the discussion– or to the world–by calling for “calm” in the face of bigotry, by scoffing at the “outrage machine” when people speak out against hate, by calling bigotry “a distraction,” or by denouncing “identity politics” when people are fighting for their basic human rights. I’ve been in conversations where people have been called out for this and responded so beautifully it moved me to tears. And I’ve been in conversations where the exact opposite happened.

Discomfort sucks. Believe me, I know. But the discomfort that comes from confronting your own privilege and your complicity in systems of oppression is nothing compared to experiencing that oppression. Most of us have an intersectional identity that encompasses some of both, so let’s use that to draw on when we see others speaking out about issues important to them rather than tell them their issues are “a distraction” or “just part of the outrage machine.”

 

 

 

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The “Playwright’s Intent” and the Dangers of the “Purist”

It’s always exasperating to see people scolding directors for “desecrating” a canonical play or a canonical playwright’s “intent” because they cast actors of color, cast a disabled actor, or removed something racist (or sexist, antisemitic, ableist, etc) from the work. It’s exasperating because it’s the smallest and least artistically viable point of view to have about modern stagings of canonical work.*
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Our “canon” has deliberately shut out women and people of color for a great many generations. Until fairly recently in western history, it was very difficult for women and people of color to become playwrights (lack of access to education being a significant bar), and for those who were playwrights, it was very difficult to get produced outside of certain theatres. Even if produced, the work of women and people of color was rarely considered “important” or “universal” enough to be included in the kinds of awards, articles, books, and university courses that created what we consider to be the “canon.” Plays that were considered “universal” reflected specifically white and male points of view; plays that differed from that were considered specific to a cultural subgroup rather than “universal” in the vast majority of cases. Even today, most works in a traditional survey course are written by white men while “Black theatre” is its own category, often represented by a single play. In my undergrad education, that play was the short piece “Dutchman” by Amiri Baraka– we didn’t even read a full-length play. “Asian Theatre,” “Chicano Theatre,” and “Feminist Theatre” are still often brief mentions as classes move directly to more important, “mainstream” writers such as Sam Shepard and David Mamet, with Caryl Churchill the lone female voice in an otherwise very male reading list.

Scholars and theatremakers have begun the process of interrogating the formation of the canon, as well as reframing the works we consider “canonical” within their specific sociohistorical context rather than continuing to pretend these works are “universal.” This is vital work.

You only get answers to the questions you ask. Scholars and theatremakers are asking new questions about “canonical” works and the formation of the “canon.”

When we stage canonical work, we have two choices. The first is what is mistakenly referred to as the “purist” approach. This approach holds that works should be preserved untouched, performed precisely as they were first performed. There’s some educational value in performing work in historically accurate ways– at least as far as we can reconstruct that level of accuracy. Those who advocate for this approach believe they are defending the “playwright’s intent,” which means they somehow believe that their interpretation of the “playwright’s intent” is the only accurate one. These people are, in my experience, overwhelmingly white and male, and, as such, have been taught from birth that their experience of the world is universal, and their interpretation of the world and its processes and symbols is “correct,” so it’s not entirely surprising that they believe they are the only ones who understand the “playwright’s intent” and can therefore separate what is a reasonable interpretation of a work from page to stage from what is a “desecration.”

There are many problems with the purist approach. First of all, no one knows the playwright’s intent if the playwright, as is the case with most canonical plays, is dead. Even if the playwright wrote a 47-paragraph screed entitled “Here Is My Intent: Waver Not Lest Ye Be Tormented By My Restless Spirit,” no one knows what the playwright’s intent would be if he had knowledge of the cultural changes that occurred after he died. The audience for whom he wrote the play– the culture that understood the references, the jokes, the unspoken inferences; the culture that understood the underlying messages and themes; the culture to whom the playwright wished to speak– is gone, and modern audiences will interpret the play according to their own cultural context. Slang terms change meaning in months; using a 400-year old punchline that uses a slang term 90% of the audience has never heard seems closer to vandalizing the playwright’s intent than preserving it. Would Tennessee Williams or William Shakespeare, masters of dialogue, insist that a line using a racial slur now considered horrific still works the way he intended? Still builds the character the way he intended? It seems dubious at best, yet this is the purist’s logic. The playwright’s intent on the day the play was written, the logic goes, could not ever possibly change.

It’s important to continue to study these works unchanged. We must not forget or attempt to rehabilitate our past. But to claim that lines written decades or even centuries in the past can still work the way the playwright originally intended is absurd.

We have begun to understand that the “canon” and its almost exclusively white male point of view is not “universal,” but is a depiction of the cultural dominance of a certain type of person and a certain way of thought. We have begun to re-evaluate those works and the “canon” as a whole as part of a larger historical narrative. This is why it is of great artistic interest to stage “canonical” work in conversation with the current cultural context.

When staging, for example, The Glass Menagerie in 2017, one must consider the current moment, the current audience. We can choose to present the work precisely as it was presented in 1944 as a way to experience a bygone era, or we can present the work in conversation with its canonical status, in conversation with our own time, in conversation with the distance between its era and our own, in conversation with the distance between the playwright’s intent and the impossibility of achieving that intent with a modern audience, simply due to the fact that too much time has passed for the original symbols, context, and themes to work the same way they once did.

What does The Glass Menagerie— or any canonical work– mean to an audience in 2017? What can it mean? What secrets can be unlocked in the work by allowing it to be interpreted and viewed from diverse perspectives? What can we learn about the work? About the canon? About the writer? About ourselves?

The meaning of any piece of art is not static. Whether the piece of art is a sculpture created in 423 BCE or a play written yesterday, the meaning of any piece of art is created in the mind of the person beholding it in the moment of beholding. The meaning of each piece changes with each viewing, just as the meaning of what we say is created in large part by the person to whom we’re saying it, which is why we can say “Meet me by the thing where we went that time” to your best friend but need to say “Meet me at the statue across from the red building on the 800 block of Dunstan” to an acquaintance. To insist that there is one “correct” meaning– always as determined by a white male– is to deny the entire purpose and function of art. You cannot create a “purist” interpretation without the play’s original audience in attendance. The closest you can come is a historical staging a modern audience views as if through a window, wondering how historical audiences might have reacted, or marveling at the words and situations historical audiences found shocking– or did not. How many audiences in 2017 understand Taming of the Shrew as a parodic response to the popularity of shrew-taming pieces? Shakespeare’s audience is gone and the cultural moment to which he was responding is gone, so the possibility of a “purist” staging is also gone.

This is 2017. Our audiences live in 2017. It’s insulting to them to present a play written generations in the past as if nothing about our culture has changed since then, as if a work of genius gave up every secret it had to give with the original staging, as if art has nothing whatsoever to do with the audience viewing it. 

We know better. Art lives in our hearts and minds, whether those hearts and minds are white and male or not.

*Of course I am only referring to interpretations that have received permission from the writer or estate, or stagings of work in the public domain. This is not– at all– an argument in favor of running roughshod over someone else’s IP.
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Disability, Expectations, and Disruption in The Glass Menagerie

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Phoebe Fico as Laura and Karen Aldridge as Amanda in Cal Shakes’ The Glass Menagerie. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

It was an honor to be invited to view a rehearsal of California Shakespeare Theater’s upcoming production of The Glass Menagerie and write a piece for their blog. An excerpt:

“Lisa Portes’ tight, muscular staging of Glass Menagerie at Cal Shakes creates yet another layer of disruption…by using all actors of color. The actor playing Laura (Phoebe Fico) is a young woman of color with a visible mobility disability. The physical presence of the actor’s disabled body onstage as Laura disrupts the other characters’ strenuous and relentless efforts to create a ‘Laura’ that is acceptable, both to themselves and to others, paralleling our culture’s relentless efforts to contain and define women, people with disabilities, and people of color.”

Read more here.

Tickets for The Glass Menagerie, playing July 5 – 30, available here.

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