‘Disabled artists should be a priority for this industry. Many artists are already there creating work. They don’t need mentorships! They need money.’ Jessica Walton on the power of disability-led art
If you want to know how diverse, sexy, dark, fierce, vulnerable, subversive, insightful and wildly funny Australian disabled performers can be, you need only google “Quippings” and settle in for the night. Quippings is a Melbourne-based queer Deaf and disability performance troupe founded by Kath Duncan, Greg Axtens and Crusader Hillis in 2010, and many wonderful disabled performers have been a part of their shows over the last decade. Snippets of some Quippings shows are available online, and eventually I found my way to them.
That’s been a big part of my story for the last few years: seeking disability art, writing and culture online, then connecting with it offline whenever my pain will let me. I finally made it to a live Quippings performance last year at the Melbourne Writers Festival and sat in the audience listening to poetry and theatre and spoken word by disabled performers, weeping with happiness.
I acquired the first of my impairments at the age of nine, but I didn’t call myself disabled until many years after my leg was amputated. Disabled academic Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describes the way that both queer and disabled people are “sometimes fundamentally isolated from each other, existing often as aliens within their social units”.[i] I was queer and disabled and, while I had a happy childhood, there are no maps or instructions handed out to non-normative kids. We’re just expected to stumble along in the dark until we find someone or something that tells us we’re okay; more, that we’re awesome, and that there are others out there, just like us, who are awesome too.
In March 2016, Clementine Ford interviewed queer disabled activist and writer Jax Jacki Brown (who it turns out has been a performer and producer with the Quippings troupe) for her podcast The Misandry Hour. Jax talked about how hard it was for disabled young people to find role models and community, and briefly explained the social model of disability. After listening to this interview, I looked up work by other disabled writers and activists and started to call myself – and think of myself as – disabled. Who knew “disabled” was a good and powerful word, describing an identity with a long history and rights movement behind it? In my heart of hearts, I had thought that “disabled” meant deficiency or weakness, but I was wrong. I had internalised society’s ableism, its inability to comprehend disability pride and community. The word “disabled” and the people who claimed it were strong as fuck. They had been fighting for themselves, for each other and for me, for years. It was a turning point in my life.
Even though I claimed my disabled identity, it still felt hard to belong to the community that went with it. Missing out on connection to, and community with, other disabled people as a child had left me feeling like I didn’t fit in, like I didn’t know how to be around them. I started looking for ways to fix that.
As a child I had done ballet and tap dancing but gave them up when my leg was amputated, thinking I couldn’t dance properly any more. As an adult, I started looking up disabled dancers online. One dancer, American double leg amputee Lisa Bufano, moved me so much that I searched for where in the world I could see her perform live. I was devastated to find out that she had died, and that the videos I was watching online were all I had. Bufano saw her disability as an opportunity to use different prosthetics in her movement work, from mermaid fins to stilts made of table legs. In one piece choreographed for Bufano, Five Open Mouths, she starts off wearing prosthetic running legs, but takes them off as the show progresses until it’s just Bufano’s body, her true form, moving beautifully and powerfully across the floor. [ii] She changed the way I saw my body and my disability, and the way I felt about dance.
In 2016, I enrolled in a workshop for people with disabilities run by Weave Movement Theatre, an inclusive disability-led dance and physical theatre company that challenges audiences to think differently about disability. The workshop was facilitated by choreographer and Weave founder member Caroline Bowditch (who has also performed with Quippings performance troupe in the past and is now the CEO of Arts Access Victoria). I hadn’t danced for over 20 years, and I was terrified. What if they didn’t like me? What if I was a terrible dancer? I walked into the Northcote Town Hall and saw people with all kinds of bodies sitting in a circle on chairs, in wheelchairs or on the floor. Bowditch was talking to them about what she hoped would happen in the workshop, and after a few minutes of sitting in that circle and listening to her speak, my worries about not being able to dance fell away. There was no wrong way to move, to dance, to be. This was a safe space.
It was refreshing and liberating to take off my prosthetic leg and explore and move my body away from the non-disabled gaze, in the company of other disabled people. There was no judgement about the way I danced, only encouragement. We were smiling, reaching out to each other across space, working out the best ways to make our bodies move together. I felt a strong sense of going from isolation to community, and the first real stirrings of disability pride. At the end of the workshop my family came to pick me up, and I danced with my toddler with no heavy prosthetic leg attached to my body, feeling more myself than I had in years. We spun around in circles together, laughing.
I haven’t danced since that workshop, but I think about it often. It was another turning point in my life. Since then I’ve made some progress in getting to know other disabled people, mainly through Twitter. I have chronic pain as well as my amputated limb now, and the pain has kept me increasingly housebound over the last few years. I do still get to events sometimes, like the recent 2019 Perth Writers Week, part of the larger Perth Festival. While I was there, a disabled friend I had made through Twitter, writer and activist Carly Findlay (who has also performed with Quippings!) invited me to attend a show called The Nature of Why by the British Paraorchestra at the Heath Ledger Theatre in Perth.
I was told that the British Paraorchestra was the first professional orchestra for disabled musicians, and from my previous experiences of orchestral performances I was expecting to go along and sit in a row of seats with the orchestra performing on a stage in front of us. Instead, the audience was invited into a large space where musicians and dancers moved around and through us, sometimes even drawing us in to interact with them.
There were a lot of disabled people in the audience, but plenty of non-disabled people too. At first everyone seemed a little unsure, but as the show went on, more and more people started to move around the space and move with the performers and each other, so that the lines between audience and performer were blurred. I didn’t know it when I first walked in, but the choreographer and co-director of this show was Caroline Bowditch, the same woman who had led the dance workshop I attended three years earlier. I spotted her during the performance and realised that the person who had changed my life back then was a part of this joyful, magical, transformative experience too.
The review Alison Croggon wrote for Witness describes it well. She says, “All art ought to be like this: if not in form, in effect. All art ought to have this vitality, all art should generate this electric, generous, fluid sense of exchange.”
At one point a dancer held my hand and we moved together. They didn’t realise I had a prosthetic leg, but as they felt me struggle with my balance they adjusted; their movements became smaller, gentler, slower. That generosity Croggon describes, that fluid sense of exchange, made it possible for two strangers to come together in dance and find ways to move together. It was like a conversation between two bodies, and it was beautiful. When they let go of my hand and moved toward another person, I found myself still dancing, euphoric with joy and wonder.
I am so proud to be part of a community that can create glorious art like this. Disability art in Australia, especially disability led art, is underfunded and under-appreciated, and that needs to change so that more Australians can experience the joy of disabled dance, music, theatre, spoken word, writing, comedy, visual art, film and anything else the disabled community might imagine together. Disabled artists should be a priority for this industry. Many artists are already there creating work. They don’t need mentorships! They need money. They need to be acknowledged and celebrated, and given the platform and promotion their work deserves.
I like to imagine what things would be like if that happened. Perhaps, instead of stumbling along in the dark trying to work out who they are and where they belong, disabled young people would be surrounded by art and artists who could show them that there is nothing wrong with who they are, and that they are not alone. Maybe their road to disability pride and community wouldn’t be as long and lonely and difficult as mine was. Maybe they’d dance down that road together, euphoric with joy and wonder.
You can find out more about Weave Movement Theatre at their website
[i] Extraordinary Bodies by Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Columbia University Press, 2017, p. 15.