Tag Archives: disability

Creativity and Disability – Will You Listen?

Pick your label:

Downs Syndrome.

Asperger’s Syndrome.

Autism.

Cerebral palsy.

Bipolar.

Schizophrenia.

Paraplegia.

Quadriplegia.

Blind.

Deaf.

All of the above.

Any I may have missed?

When used in relation to people with a disability we use distinctions and nomenclature to quantify who someone is, something other than “normal.”

To pacify our guilt and discomfort at a person’s lack of physical or intellectual ability we offer art and music as a remedial activity. It is put forward as a pastime to keep someone occupied, a way of staving off boredom.

Why do we relegate arts and creativity as a remedial activity; as something to amuse or fill in time?

To do so is to mute the voice of those who have none and to disempower the individual. 

When a person with a physical, mental or intellectual disability is given the opportunity to speak in another voice, they are empowered.

Creativity (art, music, literature) is a voice for those who do not have one.

Don’t dis my ability. Not disabled.

Differently abled.

We disempower them because we refuse to listen to their voice; we believe they have nothing of value to say. We are sanctimonious and privileged in our opinion that a person with a disability cannot be creative.

I believe in the power of creativity to tell your story, using your own voice, your own expression, your own understanding and your own perception of the world.

When we relegate creativity to a remedial activity, a pastime to occupy and amuse, we diminish the role of the creative arts and silence the voice of the individual.

Creativity is a voice with which to speak. Voices with unique timbre and quality, even if the words are not easy to understand.

Hear my voice regardless of how I speak. Don’t view me as disabled or look at me through my disability; listen to what I have to say. 

Yet sometimes, art and creativity is the only voice with which someone has to speak.

We ostracise the artistic rather than balancing it against the academic and logical, the scientific and practical. Even in these areas there is great creativity.

Can we help tell their story? Give them the skills and techniques to create their own works of art? I believe in the dignity of the humanity of each person and it should be respected. 

Allow each person to find their voice. Give each person permission to speak.

We must move beyond treating people with a physical, intellectual or mental disability as incapable of having a voice.

The ad promoting the London Paralympics Games in 2012 gives me goose bumps every time because it is a powerful statement of voice. You can watch it here.

Art, like sport, is transcendent of language. The coded symbolism is independent of the alpha-numeric symbolism of codified spoken and written language. Culture and knowledge informs the construction of the work of art; we may not speak English or French or Spanish or Mandarin or Afrikaans but we understand the message coded in the art.

When we speak with and through art, we use a commonality of language that gives voice. When I look at and appreciate a piece of art, I do not need to know the background of the artist, their ability or disability. I hear their voice in their work. Knowledge of their background enhances and brings clarity of understanding to their message, but it is not essential.

There are many great organizations giving voice to people with disabilities. One of them is Studio ARTES  (They are also on Facebook) – a facility for people with a range of physical and intellectual disabilities, for life skills training, art training and socialization. It has been something I’ve encountered for many years because my mother was one of the founding members. She was working as an occupational therapist at a school for students with specific needs and her creative partner, Wendy, was the art teacher. Their vision was to extend the opportunities for people with specific needs post school.

I have seen the power of art when people are given a voice to express themselves. Lars was a young man with an intellectual disability who gained a remarkable voice through the nurturing of his artistic talent. His art was bought by members of parliament and hung in the foyers of well-known companies. He had a droll, dry wit and was a remarkable talent. 

On the occasion of his passing, Member of Parliament, Judy Hopwood, had this to say. Hansart Transcript 

You can see retrospective collection of some of his works on Facebook

Besides painting at Studio ARTES, many are involved in the practice of Saori weaving (‘sa’ = difference; ‘ori’ = weaving), a Japanese art form that has come to represent the ability of all to be creative without preconceived notions of correctness.

The beginnings of Saori start with Misao Jo who wove a cloth but because of a missing warp thread it was perceived as flawed. Undeterred, she wove more cloths with ‘flaws’ and ‘faults’ and produced beautiful cloths, praised by a high-end cloth merchant. Read about the philosophy of Saori here.

When teaching her students, Misao taught them the basics of weaving and left them to do as they pleased; an opportunity to discover their true self. My mother has had the pleasure of meeting Misao Jo on occasions when she has visited Japan.

Hence the application for people with disabilities is inexhaustible because there are no preconceived rules and boundaries; it is the individual who creates. Carmel, a client of Studio ARTES, is deaf and blind and spends hours at the loom using the texture of wools, twigs, feathers, ribbons etc to create beautiful works of art.

It removes the pretence of ‘correct’ and gives power to speak.

When will we let go of the idea that people with disabilities have no need to be creative? To let go of the notion that they cannot be creative? That art and music is only remedial and a pastime to stave off boredom? When will we allow them to speak with their own voice instead of presuming we know how to speak for them?

We must stop treating creative arts as a sidelined respite and return it to the centre of our cultural heritage alongside mathematics, science and the humanities. Creativity inhabits the spectrum of cognitive disciplines; it is not the domain of one and nor is it limited to those considered “normal.”

If you are without a voice, borrow someone else’s until you find your own.

I want to spend some more time amongst the people of Studio ARTES, to hear their stories, to be their hands to write when they cannot and project their story when and where I can. There is a beautiful lack of inhibition in many of the people who attend the studio, and a great deal of candor; they will tell you how they feel, direct and to the point. It’s a voice I want to hear more of.

I know that we won’t truly learn to love our neighbour as ourselves if we do not hear their story. Not for the sake of pity or sympathy, but for the dignity of the individual.

I have written before that everyone needs a creative manifesto, a reason why they create. I have also spoken about creating from a place of pain (and it has relevance to people with mental illness like depression or anxiety or bipolar) and I believe it is appropriate for a person with a physical or intellectual disability to have the same belief in their creativity.

I had a couple of responses when I put the idea of creativity and disability out there on Facebook one day.

Writer Marc Nash (@21stCscribe), put forward this point, “The people who can’t speak for themselves or can’t be heard, are unlikely to be able to read the words of those who want to help amplify them. That is an inherently political act of writing, which is how I regard my own approach, but it still is one based on certain privileges: – literacy, education, technology (e-readers) and the free time to write. These I find are paradoxes as much as inspirations.”

It is a paradox and a dichotomy but I want to stand for those who are marginalised and to help speak for them.

Two others commented:

“I had never given it a thought until a heard an interview on Radio National a fortnight ago with a burlesque teacher who was given the privilege of teaching a young woman with Down syndrome. At first I thought it sounded exploitative, but it gave the young woman so much joy and made her feel like a regular woman.” 

“A friend of ours has a son with Down Syndrome who has been a regular at our local Uniting Care. They have really done wonderful things with him (and others apparently), introducing him to art (painting, sculpture etc) and music. He has since taken to painting like a duck to water (even selling some of them through his parents business) and has recently taken up music lessons. Uniting Care need to be commended for both developing a sense of worth for this boy but also for their commitment to more than just paint-by-numbers in their approach.”

Tangential Question: what other avenues do the disempowered and marginalised have for speaking? Rap? Hip hop? Graffiti? Heavy metal? Poetry? Painting? Sculpture? Photography?

Are we listening to the marginalised and disempowered?

 

Let me hear your voice without words.

Let me hear your voice through the images you paint.

Let me hear your voice through the music you play.

Let me hear your voice through your hands, your heart, your mind.

Speak, and I will listen.

 

 

Give Me Your Hands

Checking her watch in the dim light of the community theatre, Louise approximated the ending of the performance and gauged she would miss seeing her favourite band. At best, she could catch the last couple of songs of the set. Looking back down to her notepad with the programme folded inside the back cover, she skimmed over her notes.

In the shadows of the stage, a solitary actor moved towards a cardboard boulder. Sitting down, the stage lights focused on him and Louise watched his thick tongue protrude slightly from his mouth and move from side to side as he scrunched his eyes. His face took on a look of concentration, trying to recall information. He looked at his hands and then off stage, the pause lengthening causing the audience to shuffle in their seats, as he failed to remember the final lines.

A quiet prompt whispered from the side of the stage caused a wide smile to appear. Short hands and stubby fingers repositioned the ivy wreath crowning his broad and listing forehead and began.

If we shadows have offended,


Think but this, and all is mended,


Louise stopped scrawling notes for The Hopetoun Chronicle’s entertainment blog.  She had come along to the opening night at the invitation of the director, in order to spruik the performance. Shuffling back in her seat, Louise replayed the earlier mental conversation with herself.  Work was work and some things needed to be done to move up the journalistic ladder.  Amateur theatre was a rung above school theatre and musicals.  She had scorned the black skivvy and beret brigade at college, concluding that it would be ironic to not use a silencer should you need to kill a mime. 

That you have but slumber’d here


While these visions did appear.

Titania was a vision, entering the stage in a wheelchair, festooned like a Mardi Gras float. She pushed by a retinue of fairies and elves with the disjointed gait of legs like insects, or a pudgy waddle or felt their way across the stage with the aid of a long white cane. There was a party in the carriage of the Fairy Queen accented by costume and streaks of glitter reflecting the stage lights.

And this weak and idle theme,


No more yielding but a dream,


She scanned the list of actors’ profiles and found the actor playing Puck.  Andrew Davison.  His first performance, the program stated.  The glossy black and white photo showed a rounded, slightly pudgy face characterised with an expansive smile that creased the corners of his eyes and somehow captured the essence of life and innocence.

Gentles, do not reprehend:


if you pardon, we will mend:

Scanning back through the list of actors Louise noted the different abilities: Downs Syndrome, cerebral palsy, deaf, blind, spina bifida. Puck continued his delivery with the slightly slurred and mumbled delivery of a person with Downs Syndrome. Yet the cadence and metre of the Bard’s words shaped itself to the timbre of Puck’s delivery like water rolling over stones on the creek bed creating its own music.

And, as I am an honest Puck,

If we have unearned luck


Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,

We will make amends ere long;

Louise scanned the audience and saw the attentive faces of fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters.  She saw in their faces a distinct pride, a connection with the actor on stage that Louise did not share. The faces in the program had family in the audience, all who had come to watch a play. They did not see physical impediment or intellectual disability.

Else the Puck a liar call;

It pricked at Louise.  Here in the forest, they were kings and queens and mischievous sprites. This was a world in which she had no connection.

So, good night unto you all.

When the lights would be turned up and costumes packed away, Louise surmised the actors would return to this world, existing as the forgotten ones; the shadows around the periphery of community, held at arm’s length as lower castes.

Give me your hands, if we be friends,

And Robin shall restore amends.

The audience erupted in applause as Puck walked to the front of the stage and bowed stiffly from the waist, his right arm across his stomach and his left behind his back. Here was life and love and acceptance. 

Louise realised her hands had retreated, firmly pushed into metaphorical pockets. Even the openness of the simple act of a handshake refused. She found herself applauding, not as Puck requested, but in the words she scrawled into her notebook.

Author’s Note: Last week I wrote a post, Speaking for the Voiceless, in which I outlined a little of my thinking regarding the focus of my writing. It reminded me of a story I wrote about 2 years ago for the now defunct [fiction]Friday. I dragged it out and gave it a little polish to present here. Still not perfect, but it captures the essence of last week’s post.

Give Me Your Hands If We Be Friends

[Fiction] Friday Challenge #152 for April 23rd, 2010

A segregated audience at a school play leads to a town revelation.

The stage lights focused on the solitary actor positioned just off centre, seated on a cardboard boulder.  The actor’s face strained, trying to remember his lines, his thick tongue protruding slightly.  A quiet prompt caused a wide smile to appear.  Short hands and stubby fingers repositioned the ivy wreath on his broad forehead and began.

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.

Louise stopped scrawling notes for The Hopetoun Chronicle’s entertainment blog.  She had come along to the opening night at the invitation of the director, in order to spruik the performance.  She scanned the list of players’ profiles and found the actor playing Puck.  Andrew Davison.  His first performance the program stated.  The glossy black and white photo showed a smile that somehow captured the essence of life and innocence.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:

Shuffling back in her seat, Louise replayed the earlier mental conversation with herself.  Attending the play would probably mean she would miss seeing her favourite band; at best, catching the last few songs of the set.  But it was work and some things were needed to be done to move up the journalistic ladder.  Amateur theatre.  Louise had scorned the black skivvy and beret brigade at college, concluding that it would be appropriate to use a silencer should you need to kill a mime.  School theatre was a rung below that.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;

Puck continued his delivery with the slightly slurred delivery of a person with Down Syndrome, yet its timbre did not clash with the metre of the Bard.  Louise scanned the audience and saw the attentive faces of fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters.  She saw in their faces a distinct pride, a connection with the actor on stage that Louise did not share.   The faces in the program all had family in the audience, all who had come to watch a play.  They did not see physical impediment or intellectual disability.

Else the Puck a liar call;

It pricked at Louise.  This was a world that she had avoided.


So, good night unto you all.

They were the forgotten ones; the shadows around the periphery of community, held at arm’s length like the lower castes.


Give me your hands, if we be friends,

Yet, here was life and love and acceptance.  Louise realised that it was her hands that retreated, firmly pushed into metaphorical pockets.  Now they were applauding, not as Puck requested, but because Louise was busy writing notes to show the town one more barrier to overcome.


And Robin shall restore amends.