The Necessity of Diverse Voices in Theatre Regarding Disability and Difference

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Theatre could be defined as the study of what it is to be human. For millennia we have come to sit communally—a group of human beings watching another group of human beings pretending to be other human beings. We are endlessly fascinated with each other, yet a place purported to be about the range of human possibility has for too long been circumscribed and limited, especially towards almost a fifth of the population. Statistics vary, depending on definitions of “disability,” but the World Health Organization estimates 15 percent of the world population as being disabled, whilst a 2012 US Census Bureau estimate brought the figure in at just over 19 percent of the American population.

For thousands of years in the Western theatrical tradition, the atypical body has been used to scare, warn, explain, and explore human frailty, mortality, and the human condition. Disability has been a metaphor for the non-disabled to explore their fears and embedded societal values.

Since the Ancient Greeks disabled characters have appeared in plays, but seldom have the writers been disabled or written from that embodied or political perspective. The vast majority of disabled characters in the Western canon are tropes, and not only that, they reify notions of “normalcy” rather than broadening the lens and embracing all the possibilities of human variety. These misrepresentations are so prevalent in Western culture that negative representations of impairment and associations have become ingrained. Strange untruths have therefore been created and recycled in our dramas for stage and screen, and the rich, rewarding reality of disabled peoples’ lives has been replaced with problematic representations which work to keep us different, “special,” and apart. This “othering” of difference (which also includes sexual preference, cultural heritage, belief system, and so on) provides a “useful” slide rule against which notions of “being normal” and “fitting in” can be measured. These distorted ideas enshrined in our entertainment media legitimize the negative attitudes that can lead to discrimination and hate crime.

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