Features Published 21 October 2014

The Price of Positive Discrimination

In her latest column on disability and performance, Amelia Cavallo discusses people's need to perform 'good deeds' and the resilience of certain stereotypes.
Amelia Cavallo

I’ve recently looked back at my blogs for this site and realized that they are all infused with a bit of, well, anger… or at least antagonism. It’s all well founded as far as I’m concerned, but does paint a fairly negative, frustrated picture of my demeanor. I’m actually a very happy person.

With that in mind, I had every intention of writing a positive blog about good things happening in disability arts. I was going to mention the up and coming disability led festivals around the country, such as DADA fest which starts on November 8th. I was going to talk about Access All Areas a company working with a high profile drama school to provide professional performance training to adults with learning disabilities. I could even have done a shameless plug of my latest engagement, performing in Stratford East’s panto for the simple fact that this mainstream company is hiring disabled actors without a “scheme” or extra arts council funding. They just think we’re good at what we do. I was going to talk about all that and more.

And then this happened…

I’m American. While I have residency here, as a non-British citizen I do not have access to certain British resources. I can’t vote and until recently I haven’t had the ability to claim any benefits (which is fine as I would rather avoid that trap if possible). As a jobbing actor and part time student, I often face points of unemployment in the year. This last month has been no exception, so I have been working front of house at a reputable London theatre. Again in the name of positivity, let’s take a moment to celebrate the fact that this theatre hired a blind woman work behind a bar (I make a mean gin and tonic provided nobody swaps the tonic bottles with the tomato juices).

Anyway, on my way home from a double shift I got on the tube. Like most Londoners, got out my phone to listen to music and play on Facebook. There was a man sitting across from me which I didn’t think much about as he had as much right to be there as I did. Because I had music in my ears it took a moment to realize that he was trying to get my attention. I looked up and took my ear buds out to find this man in a VERY bright purple suit (I mean, I could see it for goodness sake) leaning toward me and holding out his hand. At first I didn’t understand what he wanted as he was not speaking, so I asked him. Our conversation went thusly:

Me: Hi sir. Can I help you?

Him: uh… Are you….? (Makes vague motion towards his face)

Me: Sorry?

Him: (Shakes his outstretched hand thus showing that he is holding a bunch of coins) Are you… disabled?

Me: ….yes.

Him: This is for you. (Shoves money at me)

At this point I told him fairly diplomatically that I did not need the money and that he should give it to someone homeless. (Yes, it has since occurred to me that maybe I should take free money, but like I said, I’ve chosen not to be on benefits.) I could not, and still cannot believe that someone would still associate blind/disabled with beggar. Without meaning to brag, I was on the tube with a new iPhone and was wearing fairly expensive looking clothing. Had I not had my cane, I probably would not have even registered on this guy’s radar. Moreover, having spoken to some of my disabled friends about this, most have said, “welcome to the club!”  Apparently, this is quite a common experience. One friend was waiting for someone at a train station with a fresh cup of coffee, and someone walked by and dropped a pound in it without even looking at her! And yes, her coffee cost more than a pound!

Here’s the issue. There is such thing as positive discrimination and this is a prime example. Like inspiration porn, positive discrimination comes across as kindness and compassion, but is often about making the non-disabled person feel better. These people see a disabled person and immediately assume they are better off. They don’t take the time to engage with the disabled person in question. Instead, they act on old stereotypes and give out money because this kind of “good” deed makes them feel better about themselves. To be clear, I give money or at least food to homeless people and have no problem with people who do this (judge me if you will), but only if they ask. Otherwise, making assumptions about people’s lives and assuming you are going to save their day by giving a few bits of change is insulting.

I’m not saying for a second that I don’t appreciate people’s desire to help and support others. As a blindy, I ask for directions at least once a day and usually am filled to the brim with the belief that the majority of the human race is full of good people. I know that the impetus for the purple suited man giving me money came from a desire to do good. Maybe what frustrates me is that, while judging me for being blind, he did not make a point of using his fully functioning eyes to properly look at me. Maybe it’s that even if he had, his understanding of disability is skewed by so many taboos and stigmas that it probably wouldn’t have changed his actions. What really gets me though is that no matter how hard we crips fight, we’re still seen as stereotypes and metaphors. I really don’t like coming across as angry, but I can’t help it when these kinds of moments are still so plentiful.

Onus of Responsibilty: Amelia Cavallo on the need to fight for Access to Work


Amelia Cavallo

Amelia Cavallo is a visually impaired, USA born actor, singer, musician, circus aerialist and aspiring academic. As a performer, Amelia has worked with various companies throughout the UK including Graeae Theatre, The Raven Theatre Company, Extant Theatre, Future Ruins and Natural Diversions. She also worked as a sway pole performer in the 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony, and conversely as a burlesque artist for Criptease Unlimited as part of the Southbank’s Unlimited festival. Amelia is currently a Phd candidate at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama researching the potential normative structures in acting processes via disability studies and crip theory.



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