In Search of Authenticity: Including Disability in Theatre


In an interview with the San Francisco Observer in 2005, playwright John Belluso eloquently explained why he chose to write about disability in his body of work:

It is an experience that shapes my life and view of the world, and a topic that I find endlessly fascinating because there is that universal element… It is the one minority class in which anyone can become a member of at any time.

As a wheelchair user, Belluso, who died in 2006, wrote complex and richly nuanced plays that defied the dominant disability narrative of “extraordinary-individual-who-overcomes-personal-tragedy.” Instead, he provided a critical examination of how American society treats individuals with disabilities. Resisting the commercial desire for these stories to be inspirational, Belluso’s work challenges audiences to view disability as an experience shaped by socially constructed notions.

Known as the “social model of disability,” this concept identifies the biological condition as the impairment, but points out that it is society that creates the physical and attitudinal barriers that lead to the label. Seen from this angle, disability is actually the result of social conditions that will, at some point, affect every person’s life—whether through aging, an accident, or the experiences of loved ones and friends. The comprehensiveness of this view and the specificity of the voices of disabled playwrights such as Belluso, who speak from their own experience, create compelling and authentic stories.

Theatre has the power to help us recognize the social forces that we have created as a society and allows us to envision how we can change them. To incite positive social change and critically alter the way society views differences, voices from the disability community must be included in what we present onstage. When individuals from the represented community write from their own experiences, the work challenges established attitudes, myths, and stereotypes that those people confront daily and shows the complexity of the disabled identity. These stories are desperately needed in this day and age, but many people are still unfamiliar with this work, which is often marginalized and infrequently presented.

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