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Features Opinion Published 8 March 2016

Column: You Can’t Make This Shit Up

On Stevie Wonder at the Grammys and what it means to interact with and react to disability politics and identity.

Amelia Cavallo

This year at the Grammys, we saw Stevie Wonder present the nominees for “Song of the Year” by reading a Braille card and making a strong statement about how the world needs to be accessible for everyone with a disability. I was particularly pleased with the taunt he used as he opened the envelope, “You can’t read it, you can’t read Braille! nah nah nah nah nah nah!” This moment elicited nervous laughs and cheers from the audience who did not seem to know the “right” way to act. (Should I laugh? Does that mean I’m laughing at a disabled man?) This is normal for those who do not interact with disabled people regularly. I also thought this childlike expression of rebellion was lovely because Stevie Wonder exposed how disabling something as simple as reading a cue card can be, and demanded a change. In my view, this political act was quickly destabilized by the confused and/or patronizing smiles and applause that he received after reading the winner. I could talk at length about this alone, but feel it has already been done exceedingly well in “Ain’t I An Activist?: On Stevie Wonder and the Violence of Inaccessibility” by Neve Masique. What does interest me here is the immediate sense of intersectional identity (black blind man) and the oppression that is embedded in reactions to identity – whether or not people on both sides are aware of them.

Stevie Wonder reads the winner of the 2016 Grammy for "Song of the Year" in braille

Every disabled person I know has at least one story to tell where interacting with the non-disabled public creates a situation that seems ridiculous, and most of the time, these stories mix with other aspects of said person’s identity. These stories are often too weird to be made up, and they range from hilarious to frightening to infuriating. Some of the most memorable from my own experiences come from a long term relationships I had with blind man who we can call Spike. (He’ll appreciate the Buffy reference) Whenever we went out in public, we were a spectacle. This is something I find with disability in general. One visibly disabled person in the world is an anomaly, more than one is an event. This seemed particularly true being in a crip romantic couple. Spike and I would often get asked questions about our sex lives from strangers who thought it perfectly acceptable to ask us intrusive questions but saw no need to ask us our names. We also had occasions where people would pray for us to be “healed,” again a more common crip experience than one might think. One of these instances involved a well meaning woman in Brixton who we humored because we were genuinely curious about what she thought she could do. She waved her hands over us and talked a lot about the blood of Christ. Three years on, we’re both still blind and slightly suspicious that she might have tried to steal our wallets.

One particularly memorable experience found Spike and me on our way home after a late night out in central London. We were on a tube platform awaiting the last train of the night. It was Saturday so there were quite a few drunk, raucous people around. We were approached by a Finnish man who was dressed in his finest punk gear. He approached us by asking if we were “really” blind. (A more common question than you might think.) When we said yes, he paused for a moment in seeming confusion and then said, “but…. But you’re so… Hot.” To which Spike and I could only think to say “thank you.” The man then repeatedly asked us questions that centered around how in the world two blind people could be so attractive. I’m pretty sure the conversation ended with him making some kind of comment about how we would have beautiful children, but that we shouldn’t because our kids would be blind and that would be sad. Granted, this man was very inebriated so I am doubtful that he remembers any of the conversation at all. The thing that struck me about this and similar interactions Spike and I had throughout our relationship was how incredible it seemed that two blind people could otherwise carry on what appeared to be a normative (heterosexual, monogamous) relationship – especially while being so attractive.

Disabled bodies and our lives inside these bodies, which will obviously include questions around sex and sexuality, are interesting to people who have not been exposed to disability identity. The stereotype is that we are incapable of doing pretty much anything. This includes sex – with the addendum that many also feel we “shouldn’t” have sex. How we respond as a crip community will vary from person to person and experience to experience. I particularly like a story that comedian Liz Carr tells in one of her stand-up routines. She describes an interaction where someone asked her what she does when she is “not being disabled,” to which she promptly responded, “being a lesbian.”

Intersectional identity is inherent in all of these interactions. I recently was approached by a man who attempted to get my attention by making clicking sounds at me as though I was a horse. When I ignored him, he took my arm quite forcefully to “help” me down some stairs and proceeded to tell me how well I was doing (whatever that means) and how beautiful I am. On paper, this may not seem particularly threatening, but as a single woman walking home at night, it felt very intrusive. He would not let go of my arm or leave me alone until he had given me this “compliment”. I doubt he would have felt he had the need or right to have this interaction if I was a man. Being sexualized, normalized, stigmatized is such a constant part of disabled daily life that it often goes unnoticed, especially in seemingly ridiculous situations such as the ones described above.

A disabled playwright and performer named Lynn Manning who was a friend of mine (he passed away recently) described this intersectional dilemma in his show Weights by presenting the dichotomy of being a black, blind black man. He describes himself as a

“Quick-change artist extraordinaire,
I whip out my folded cane
and change from black man to blind man
with a flick of my wrist.
It is a profound metamorphosis–
From God gifted wizard of roundball
dominating backboards across America,
To God-gifted idiot savant
pounding out chart-busters on a cockeyed whim;
From sociopathic gangbanger with death for eyes
to all-seeing soul with saintly spirit;
From rape driven misogynist
to poor motherless child;
From welfare-rich pimp
to disability-rich gimp;
And from ‘white man’s burden’
to every man’s burden.
It is always a profound metamorphosis.
Whether from cursed by man to cursed by God;
or from scripture condemned to God ordained,
My final form is never of my choosing;
I only wield the wand;
You are the magicians.”

I mention all of this so that we all remember what it means to interact with and react to disability politics and identity as it relates to society and as it relates to other aspects of identity. The awkwardness that defused Stevie Wonder’s political statement can create humor, fear, frustration or enlightenment in other situations. All speak to modes of oppressing and oppression, and the more we identify them and identify with them the better we’ll be at sharing the humor, learning from awkwardness and alleviating the fear and frustration on both sides.

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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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