Four years ago, a friend of mine asked me to help her on a documentary shoot. There was this group forming to create theatrical pieces about the "culture of disability." Since I had experience with the deaf and blind communities before, I thought this would be a cool project.
Wheelchairs rolled in; there was a support dog. The group mingled and a warm-up exercise started. After a bit, haiku poems were written and shared. Then they discussed some things that had happened to each of them around a particular topic, like going to church or trying to get into buildings.
By the end of the morning I realized what I did at the beginning. I saw wheelchairs and dogs, not people. Well, I saw the people, but I saw them second. I no longer make that mistake.
I now sit on the Advisory Board of The DisAbility Project and have created a Web site for them. I also helped them put together a study guide for their school performances.
I have a new vocabulary and a new insight on the "culture of disability." My perceptions have changed and I see how audiences are touched by their performances. I have watched them grow through the years to become a dynamic group of talented people, with a lot of guts and a whole lot of great ideas.
The DisAbility Project is not a support group. Well, at least that's not its main intention and that's not what it is to audiences.
The DisAbility project is a group of men and women with and without disabilities. They meet most Saturdays in rehearsals to discuss experiences they have had and to learn about different performance techniques. Many of the experiences shared in their rehearsals end up as one of their pieces about the culture of disability. Those pieces are then performed for audiences across Central and Eastern Missouri, as well as Western Illinois.
They will perform for just about anyone. Audiences range from school children to social workers, churches to health care workers, corporations to awards ceremonies.
Some of the participants want to be actors. Others joined the group to take part in educating people about the potential of people with disabilities. Some people come and go, just taking part in the group for a few weeks or months, soaking up the positive environment and adding their piece to the DisAbility Project mosaic. But there are also members who have been integral parts from the very beginning.
Like a neighborhood association meeting, these gatherings have a little business and a little socializing. The participants are a cross-section of St. Louis, ranging in economic status and vocation, education and age, coming from the City and the County. Artistic Director Joan Lipkin does not care if you have a disability or what kind it is. Are you a person with an open mind, a willingness to share, and a commitment to the group?
Working with Lipkin and other theatre professionals, the group transforms their stories into pieces about everyday life. Stuart Falk's many hospital and rehab stories were turned into a piece entitled "Club Med." But this "club" is nothing like a vacation. Mikel Fredholm worked for months to get a ramp installed at a neighborhood coffee shop. When it was finally completed, it took him through the back door! Now that story is told in the aptly named "Coffee Shop." This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Through five years of meeting, working, laughing and crying together, this little group has become part outreach group, part social group, part support group ... a little bridge between the community of "people with disabilities" and "people without disabilities".
The DisAbility Project explores "diversity" of "culture" by showing its many ranges. What is culture anyway? It's shared experiences, food, language, socializing, shopping, architecture, dancing. We all experience these things.
Did you ever think of a person in a wheelchair dancing? The DisAbility Project dances to Prince's "Kiss," and is working on other songs. Many audience members are caught thinking, "Wow, I never thought about that," after that piece. One more piece of the bridge closes the gap between the communities.
These are just people. They are very professional on stage, but in person, as a friend or an associate, you might be surprised the first time you hear a person using a wheelchair or a cane swear like a sailor. Another misperception our society has shaped.
What about sex? If a person uses a wheelchair they do not suddenly become abstinent, nor do they suddenly lose all hormones. They love, lose, cry, marry, and have children. Katie Rodriguez Banister's experience of love and sex was worked into "Go Figure." Adult audiences leave with new insights after watching that piece.
I caught myself being amazed when I saw one of the members get out of his wheelchair in a rehearsal, amble across the floor and do a somersault. I shouldn't have been surprised, but I, too, assumed the man could not "move" when not seated in that chair.
School children just love the performances. They are so open-minded. They are eager to finish a piece about a woman trying to get a job in a clothing store. Students are asked if they have any ideas for what job the woman can do. They jump up to tell the whole audience the woman can design clothes, wait on customers, even be a regional director and fire the rude store manager who won't hire the woman.
Despite individual charisma, there are no solos here, by Lipkin's design. Everyone supports everyone else. The Prince dance piece starts with Thea DeLuna on stage by herself, but the whole cast soon enters. The "a" is capitalized in their title for a reason. It's not the "dis" they focus on, it's the "Ability" they want to show us and teach us to see.
Able-bodied participants have had some of the most life-altering experiences of the group. After sharing, hearing other members' stories, and discussing the situations, they discover so much more about themselves. These insights can be seen in the way the group communicates during performances. They do not preach. They do not lecture. They simply share with us and demonstrate to us something we probably hadn't thought about before.
A group like this is going to have crises just like any other. Their crises, however, are often physical. They pitch in, calling each other to make sure they're OK, carpooling to rehearsal, sending e-greetings on their group e-mail list. They spend so much time together and have learned so much about each other, it's hard not to see each other away from the group, to call each other during the week, to have birthday parties after rehearsal.
Since one of the group's focuses is teaching acceptance and education, they also accept each other and learn about each other's various abilities. Like a support group, they have learned to share with each other, accept what is given, and help each other through thick and thin. They, too, make assumptions about each other, and have learned about members' limits and abilities.
One important lesson is also that people with disabilities have prejudices, too. Although Lipkin and the members of the Project do not hear it often, some people with disabilities don't want to have anything to do with them. Some people who have disabilities do not want to have anything to do with that idea or even that word. Labels can be very cruel and can be very limiting ... thus the DisAbility Project continues spreading their message.
The Project has gained recognition across the region and even from other countries. They have received awards and now get lots of requests for performances. They currently have a hard time fulfilling all their requests because they need more actors. They strive to reach as many audiences as possible, especially those that cannot always afford much. Lipkin strives to bring the culture of disability to as many other "cultures" as she can. More little pieces of the bridge.
Each performance ends with the whole group standing on stage proclaiming, "We are OF you. We are AMONG you. We ARE you. Do not be afraid."
After seeing one of their performances you will realize ...
"They" are "us." "Their" community is "our" community.
Jill Hampton is a freelance writer and Internet publicist who works out of her home in south St. Louis City.