How Disability Is Represented in Theater

Although I had never considered myself an activist, my work in my American Sign Language class inspired me to learn more about the world of disabilities.
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Emma MacLean, Wesleyan University '14, is a theater major elected to Phi Beta Kappa. A Massachusetts native, she'll return to the Boston area this summer to work at a camp for children with autism. Her plans for the fall are not set, but she intends to use her theater skills to work with kids.

At the end of my junior year I began doing work with a group on campus called Wesleyan Students for Disability Rights (WSDR). Although I had never considered myself an activist, my work in my American Sign Language class inspired me to learn more about the world of disabilities. What does it mean to be disabled?

It turns out that is a very difficult question to answer. While many people believe that they could "spot" a disabled person, this is often not the case. "Disabled" in an identity and not necessarily linked with the physiological state of an individual. For example, there are people who are hard of hearing who consider themselves part of the Deaf community. Additionally, there are people with almost no residual hearing who do not consider themselves to be culturally Deaf. Rather than see it as disabled/able bodied polarity, I found it more useful to consider disability on a spectrum. This idea came out of the work that I was doing on the medical versus social model of disability.

The medical model of disability positions the disabled subject as someone "broken" or "wrong" who needs to get "fixed." Often the impairment is viewed as the sole burden of the individual and alienates him or her from others. The social model of disability seeks to explore the ways in which one's environment is disabling. For example, if all buildings had ramps, then using a wheelchair would not disable a person from entering. Alternatively, if these buildings' stairs were suitable for people with nine-foot long legs, then the majority of the current able-bodied population would be disabled from entering such edifices. Disability status can change with environment.

For me, theatre is the ultimate medium to explore the creation of new environments. Theatre has the opportunity to create worlds that could not exist off-stage because audiences suspend their disbelief when viewing performances. With theatre as my experimental landscape, I decided to try to answer the question: what does the disabled body look like? This visual medium would be my entry way into this large and difficult question. If disability is in part socially constructed, then it would be possible to create theatrical worlds where impairments do not lead to disability. But would this hypothetical possibility be realized in any existing productions?

In writing my thesis I looked at plays as far back as Shakespeare's Richard III and as recent as John Belluso's The Rules of Charity which was written in the early 2000s. Throughout most of my research I found that the medical model dominated theatrical disability narratives. Almost every play with a disabled character involved a doctor character who acted as intermediary, and often the disabled character was isolated and marginalized. Additionally by the end of the play the character had to be cured of their impairment or died. There were only a few plays that integrated disability into the life of the character. In general, these were plays written by disabled people who understood that being disabled was a facet of life -- not a death sentence and not the only characteristic of an individual.

I also noted that the prevalence of the medical model narratives leads to the exclusion of disabled actors. When a character who uses a wheelchair needs to get up at the end of the play and walks, this prohibits actors who use wheelchairs from playing that role. While able-bodied audiences may be more accustomed and comfortable seeing an able-bodied actor in a disabled role, this does not mean it is the best choice. Disabled actors are at a disadvantage because so many disabled characters are written to have moments of able-bodiedness. Additionally directors may be hesitant to cast a disabled actor against type; a history of disability being a metaphor rather than a reflection of a real life condition means that audiences might read significance into that casting which wasn't mean to be there. This means that disabled actors are barred from playing disabled roles and prohibited from playing able-bodied ones as well.

I believe that personal narratives are created out of the prevalent cultural narratives; the stories that we tell through theatre then affect our individual life stories. If the only existing theatre pieces show quadriplegic individuals as discontent with their lives this has real world effects. And it is not only disabled individuals who are short-changed. Able-bodied audience members may leave the theatre believing that all quadriplegic people are discontent and only dream of being able to walk. This incorrect assumption affects how people interact with each other. Looking forward there are many ways in which the theatrical climate could improve when it comes to disability. I hope to see a wider variety of narratives that are being told and a wider range of actors who are encouraged to act onstage.

--Emma MacLean

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