Disability and Empowerment through performance
by Lucy Orr
Those dealing with disability or chronic illness on a day to day basis might never get used to the personal prognoses delivered by doctors and healthcare professionals. I have psoriasis, and even the struggle of explaining how a non-life threatening chronic skin disorder can have such a negative impact on my quality of life to GPs and specialists can often feel insurmountable as I itch and scratch my way around waiting rooms and hospitals. It’s common to also come across faceless bureaucracies, the red-tape threatening to grind down those already in vulnerable positions. The systems meant to help people often lack common sense and compassion as they are overstretched by the financial restrictions imposed by an impossibly cruel austerity budget. A recent United Nations’ report on disability concluded that the UK government’s austerity policies “systematically violated” the rights of disabled people across the board.
I, Daniel Blake (the Palme d'Or winning film by acclaimed director Ken Loach) detailed with documentary clarity and precision how those of us who aren’t fit and healthy enough to earn a living wage bear these indignities and frustrations. Hours spent waiting on the phone. Being subjected to medical assessments carried out by people who have no clue what they are talking about. People who are told by their GPs that returning to work would be bad for their health, or possibly even fatal, are being forced under threat of benefit sanctions to look for a job because they are a point short on an ATOS score sheet. In Edinburgh, Laurence Clark’s show, Laurence Clark: Independence, looked at the meaning of what it is to live an independent life with cerebral palsy. His performance highlights that almost no one is truly independent, and points out the dark irony in the mandatory, often humiliating tests he is subjected to in order to justify the amount of support he requires to live as independently as he can.
I, Daniel Blake is a tragic portrait of modern day England’s systemic healthcare crisis. At its core, it is a film about the people vs. the state. By exposing this national raw nerve Ken Loach has highlighted an urgent discourse around how those with disabilities can fall through the gaps of an uncaring and target focused benefits system which is continually and consistently subject to ruthless cuts by an austerity driven conservative government. In direct response to this hardline ministerial misanthropy the London festival has commissioned Austerity Cu ts, which will dissect the Work Capability Assessment, questioning how society might work if disability was seen as positive rather than a burden. The autonomy or empowerment of people in Clark’s position may be at risk, as within the last month it has been revealed that 37 NHS clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) in England are introducing rules that would see people with disabilities being forced inappropriately into care homes if they lack the financial means to pay for homecare. Disabled People Against Cuts believe this is legitimizing institutionalization, and a clear case of “warehousing”, the mass storing of people with care needs in one place as a way to decrease the costs of providing them with the support they need.
The performances highlighted by TSOTF in Edinburgh and now London, draw attention to various issues surrounding the understandably emotive discourse of exploring disability through performance, dissecting the numerous social barriers faced by those living with disabilities. For those living in poverty without funds for the internet in their home or a mobile phone, finding suitable job postings and contacting employers can be almost impossibly mentally and physically exhausting. Imagine how scary and distressing this can be if you are also disabled. This fear is acutely magnified in the youngest members of society, with recent research by the disability charity Scope into the experiences of disabled young people, finding that millennials are increasingly likely to experience barriers to living independently. All too often the disabled person is told what’s best for them, what they need, what’s going to happen to them. They are disenfranchised by the system that is supposed to be there to help them.
The diagnosis of performances dealing with disability at Edinburgh was a prominent platform for engaging audiences and performers in debates around social and bio-ethical issues. As The Doug Anthony All Stars (DAAS) Live On Stage! sought to remind us, it’s unacceptable for those who have a different body to be allowed to become invisible in society. It reflects the increasing urgency for a progressive discourse surrounding the idea that people matter above their physical condition. Being more that your physical presence was also visited in Chains On Sink Plugs by David Nicol, who has cerebral palsy and explores how even with his disability was brought up by his parents to think of himself as no different. The performance explores how it might be possible to get society to act in the same way.
Workshops like the upcoming London festival’s Tickets to my Trauma are essential in embracing the rigorous discourse surrounding how artists making work addressing their health, illness and disability can be marketed and supported and provide a community safe space for sharing ideas, strategies and conversations around these past and upcoming performances. As Romina Puma suggest in her show Cook It How You Like, It’s Still a Potato. It is long past time to reclaim the establishments’ outdated language that has historically devalued disabled people and use it instead to celebrate, enrich and empower their lives.
Last month Google celebrated the work of life long disability activist Ed Roberts by giving him his own Google Doodle. It was a reminder that it is essential that we try to force the government to examine ways to invest appropriate money and time in tackling disabled people’s real barriers to work, rather than punishing them for not “getting better”. The penny-pinching agenda of successive governments has proven this doesn’t work. It only aggravates and intensifies illness and disability through the weight of stress put upon those already vulnerable, and can result in sometimes fatal conclusions.