Main image shows intersecting circles of various colours.
As a disabled performer, and indeed as a disabled person, I think it’s fair to say that I deal with a fair amount of oppression and discrimination. Often it is masked by things like pity, or what people would deem a positive attitude. For example, I have had people say, “You can cross the street by yourself? Good for you!” I know that comments like that come from a well meaning place, and that often they are said after some kind of normative expectation hasn’t been met.
In this case that expectation might be something like, “blind people can’t function independently…. Oh wait, here is a blind person functioning independently. Isn’t that amazing?” And there is something powerful in that, because it means the person in question has had to shift their understanding of how society can function. This does not, however, excuse ignorant behavior, especially when these kinds of attitudes also elicit people to do things like invade my personal space by, say, grabbing my arm without saying a word to me and hauling me across a street, or to a bus stop, or away from stairs (despite the fact that I might want to go down those stairs), all in the name of being helpful and positive.
These interactions happen daily and can be a source of huge frustration, and of course, it happens in performance as well. I cannot count how many parts I have not gotten because I either didn’t look blind (helpless) enough, or I looked too blind to fit the role. I’ve also had jobs where I’ve been asked to act blinder, and other jobs where I have been asked to pass as sighted. Discrimination of disability, in my experience, is a battle to own ones identity outside of normative social constructs, and it is constant.
All of this being said, I think it’s also important to note that I have been lucky enough to lead a fairly comfortable and successful life and career. Indeed, many of the amazing things I have been able to do in my career have been at least in part because of the fact that I am disabled, something of which I am extremely proud. In light of this, I don’t tend to consciously think about other ways that I might face discrimination in life and on stage. Or at least I hadn’t until recently.
A few weeks ago, I attended a talk by a queer theorist named Jasbir Puar who is about to publish a book that is focused on issues around various queer and crip identities. One of the major things she discussed in this talk was intersectionality: a concept that intertwines with queer theory, crip theory, feminist theory, gender studies and many other studies. Intersectionality is, as far as I understand it, the study of how different identities intersect. For example, I can say that I am blind, a woman, American, an actor, a younger sister, and so on. All of these statements identify what makes me who I am. Each of these statements are fluid. They shift and change depending on things like who I am talking to, what setting I’m in and how I am feeling within myself at the time. I can also rephrase them to denote slightly different things. For example, instead of saying I am American, I could say I am foreign. Both are true, but tend to have slightly different connotations.
The important thing about intersectionality is not just the fact that it states that a person is made up of more than one identity, but that people often face discrimination for these multiple identifiers, and that the discrimination they face is intertwined. This means that I could and probably do get discriminated against for being a blind, foreign woman, for example. Or a blind, woman, actor. (“You’re an actor? Where do you wait tables? Oh wait, you can’t wait tables because you can’t see…” I’ve had that conversation before) Puar was also quick to point out that queer (in particular transgender) people of color are more often victims of violence, and are less likely to be represented in the media at all, much less in a positive and empowering way. I can imagine that it is similar for disabled people of color, and/or disabled people who also identify as queer, and/or disabled people of color who identify as queer…
After attending this talk, I thought about who I have interacted with in my career, and came up with a lot of people who mostly identify as white and heterosexual. Yes, I know a blind, black, gay, drag queen, but he is one out of many, and I have to question if he feels that he is well represented in society, particularly in his chosen profession of theatre. Even in pieces that really fight to present truly diverse identities on stage, it is a struggle. In The Threepenny Opera, the tour of which I’ve just finished, we did pretty well. The cast was female dominant, and we had three foreign crips on stage, two of whom are black, and all of whom had major roles in the piece. This was, however, out of a cast of 20 predominantly white actors.
Let me be clear here, I am not stating this to judge the casting process of the play, particularly as I know the companies in charge, Graeae in particular, have been fighting for years to represent true diversity on stage when relating to race, gender and sexuality as well as disability. I also don’t think for a second that the people in this cast were undeserving. They are all lovely, open-minded, hard-working and talented people who deserve the work they get. I am stating this to bring up a bigger set of questions. Do I get more chances than others because I am white, heterosexual and middle class? If so, why? What happens to all of the talented, lovely, hard-working people who have truly intersectional identities that aren’t represented on stage and in society? How do we truly integrate while celebrating otherness? If I had the answers to that, I’d be a rich woman.