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Unlimited 2014 - disability arts online
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'Happy to be Me': panel discussion at the Southbank Centre on 6 September / 14 September 2014

photo of performer Claire Cunningham under a red light surrounded by religious imagery

Claire Cunningham explores religious attitudes towards disability in her latest touring production Guide Gods

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By Emmeline Burdett

‘Happy to be Me’ was chaired by Jude Kelly, featuring the disabled artists Liz Carr, Alex Bulmer, Claire Cunningham and Katherine Araniello. The subject under discussion was the ways in which disabled artists use art to get across ideas about impairment and disability which often differ markedly from those to be found in mainstream discourse.

To this end, the session opened with a performance of the opening number from Liz Carr and Alex Bulmer’s work-in-progress production, Assisted Suicide: The Musical.

The song, entitled ‘It’s a Great Day to Die!’ featured Alex Bulmer sitting in a hoist and wearing a hospital gown, whilst the song’s lyrics satirized the over-simplification of the assisted suicide debate, urging anyone whose life was changed by an acquired impairment to ‘Do the right thing –hurry now – before  it is too late!’

This acknowledgment that the acquisition of an impairment is often viewed by the mainstream as a kind of death (for which the only remedy is physical death) strongly linked ‘Happy to be Me’ to the previous panel discussion, ‘Shifting Identities: Otherwise Unchanged’.

In the discussion following the performance, Liz Carr and Alex Bulmer, the show’s co-creators, underlined their determination that the show should contribute to the debate by showing an alternative to what were usually very one-sided debates.

For example, Liz Carr remarked how all art tends to assume that support for assisted suicide is a given, and this very much echoes a recent Dao blog post by Colin Hambrook in which he wrote about his experience of attending a symposium (at a non-accessible theatre) on the subject of ‘Art and the End of Life’

The panel discussion also encompassed discussion of Claire Cunningham’s work Guide Gods, and Katherine Araniello’s The Dinner Party Revisited.

Cunningham explained how the work had grown partly out of her conversation with a former Buddhist monk that she met in Cambodia, who told her that an impaired person could not be a monk, and who attributed his impairment to karma.

This set her on a path to discovering what attitudes various religions took towards disability and impairment, and along the way she discovered that faith-based organisations can sometimes be fairly fatalistic about their lack of disabled worshippers, as the fact that they have never had to address access issues means that they have never really thought seriously about the problem. At the same time Cunningham found that her research led her to question her own preconceived ideas about religion.

Katherine Araniello also spoke about the ways in which her own work challenged expectations – not in the sense of having Araniello jumping out of her wheelchair, but by such things as producing work in which disability is removed from its usual medicalised context. In the case of The Dinner Party Revisited, questions such as that of who controls who were raised in an anarchic and original way.

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