It's Easy For You To Say: Rowan James and the emergence of 'impairment-laden' work by disabled artists
I recently caught an ITV news item celebrating the “ordinary heroes of Britain.” An eight-year-old disabled child was put on the spot for being ‘inspirational’ for completing a triathlon. It was notable because the lad was much too sharp to be fooled by media patronising bollocks: “I don’t even know why I’ve won an award. Anyone could do it.” His response caused immediate embarrassment to the news presenter and to the boy's father and he was promptly put in his place. [He was true Laurence Clark in the making.]
It seems that the tragic but brave stereotype just won’t go away. Meanwhile for many of us – especially those of us with invisible impairments – the need to shape up and prove our disability status is growing.
At the end of August I saw Rowan James's excellent spoken word piece ‘Easy For You To Say’. An antidote to the plethora of confessional-style, impairment-fixated work in Edinburgh; it is a raging comment on what a short distance we’ve travelled in our attempts to be a more inclusive society. It begins as a meditation on normality: “What do you need to be ‘normal’, a 3-piece suite, a subscription to Netflix, a body that’s perfect…”
With a combination of beatbox and rap the performance rises to a crescendo, ranting on the exigencies of labeling. Rowan’s generation have grown up with the tick-box system. It’s refrain is clearly anathema – an excuse for bureaucracies to dodge any real, effective inclusion of disabled people (or for that matter women, people from black or minority ethnic racial backgrounds, or gay people) by replacing the needs of individuals with the self-satisfaction of meaningless statistics – certainly within the education system.
But then with poor statistics for inclusion in every sector, you wonder what’s going on? It can seem as if the point of equality forms is to advertise a failure of society to do anything but marginalise people with ‘protected characteristics’: even the Equality Act (2010) term reeks of kindergarten.
The essential piece of equipment – the ‘necessary evil’ – in the game of tick-box is the ‘Equality Monitoring Form’. Rowan asks his audience to respond to the categories before going on to self-define: what labels would we choose for ourselves and for each other?
There’s a level of basic dignity and respect that is tested as soon as you are asked to identify as one thing or another. The caveat ‘prefer not to say’, seems to say everything about the context of what the form really means.
The question is where do we draw the lines? How do we build a context for meaningful inclusion: “where’s the line and whose line is it anyway?”
In her recent blog Sophie Partridge raised the question of why disabled artists seem more impelled to “'spill the beans' about impairment?” Even a decade ago, entering into ‘Medical Model’ territory, was actively discouraged by the sector. There is so much prodding and poking and the question of ownership of one’s body and the right to say ‘fuck off’ to non-disabled people who assume they’ve a right to a piece of you, is an issue.
But equally, if you present as a non-disabled person, and there are edges, then you will be judged and will be the object of discrimination. Unless that is, you go through the obstacle course of explaining your impairment issues. And so perhaps a reason for artists like Jess Thom to hand out medical details is to counteract the ill-advised, if not downright ignorant assumptions about what it means to have a particular impairment or illness.
And lastly there have been a lot of advances in technology, which has meant that for many, the medical model has presented the possibility of adaptation, rather than the mantra of ‘cure at all costs’, which was the stance a decade ago. It seems as if research into assistive technologies is broadening the scope to make music, perform, write, drive, achieve a host of functions, which would have been impossible even a decade ago.
The problem with the Medical Model approach has always been to do with the distribution of power… our lives in the hands of ‘professionals’ whose understanding is based on their prejudices rather than our needs. But the question is, has the Medical Model changed in the last ten years of emphasis on facilitating adaptation, rather than working to effect ‘cure’?
In order to get the access (to education, to work, to transport, to health etc. etc.) we need, we have to explain ourselves… and there is still the risk that what we say will be judged negatively; that our attempts to explain will still be patronised. From my own experience I know that making work about mental health issues always elicits responses of fear and loathing. It seems to go with the territory, no matter that the context for expression is a challenge to the taboos, it seems inevitable that it will be misunderstood.
There isn’t a conclusion, except to say it is more understandable for artists to talk about impairment in the current climate where key obstacles are less about the oppression of being subject to cure, and more how to survive.
Rowan James ended his piece on a note of hope and restitution. Equality is subject to cynicism, but equally, it’s an ideal worth holding on to. “Our quirks make us real… our commonality, solidarity… We steer our own lives through good times and bad nights… all people are equal. It may not be easy for us to say, we are the same.”
Logging on to Dao’s FB group can be a reminder that we are living in a regressive period where Disability Politics is concerned. It can often feel as though the Social Model understanding of our lives as disabled people has taken several steps backwards.
The Dao FB group has grown to nearly 3,700 members, increasingly attracting individuals from every corner of the globe. It’s an open forum with an increasing number of posts, linking to journals and blogs that present a dilemma in advocating stories of ‘overcoming’ disability or ‘normalising’ disability.
Two recent examples, Beyond Disability and The Department of Ability represent some of the flotsam attracted to the group to promote stories about ‘triumphing over tragedy’ and being a ‘super-crip’ who just likes to have fun.
These people are well-meaning with good intentions. They are often non-disabled people who have a close relationship to disabled people. Personally I am fed up to the back teeth of being moulded in the image of someone who has triumphed over adversity. Is the expectation that you can be ‘more than’, any less oppressive than the expectation that you are ‘less than’?
Both extremes (pathetic victim/ supercrip) are all pervasive disability stereotypes that deserve, and need to be challenged. In his thesis ‘Does anybody like being disabled?’ Dr Colin Cameron quotes Charles Riley (2005): “the sadcrip/supercrip are two sides of the same coin, signifying impairment as a tragedy that needs to be overcome.”
Cameron goes on to say that “While the narratives of pathetic victim and plucky struggler appear superficially to be doing different things they are part of a single discourse identifying impairment as tragedy.”
The point is that impairment is ordinary, not special. Dealing with the difficulties that having an impairment brings is enough without having to negotiate a world which shuts you out by judging against definitions of what is ‘normal’.
I loved the work for DaDaFest exhibition, Niet Normaal that Andrew Tunney made with Laurence Clark a few years back. Super-Crip lampoons the image of the disabled hero confronting the ridiculousness of being so special with his power to switch impairment at will, playing on the stereotype that the loss of one sense, means the heightening of other senses.