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'Shifting Identities: Otherwise Unchanged’ panel discussion at the Southbank Centre on 6 September / 14 September 2014

photo of Michelle Ryan standing with her arms crossed and an expression of concentration on her face as Vincent Crowley holds her, supporting her right arm with his left hand

Michelle Ryan and Vincent Crowley from Torque Show, in 'Intimacy'

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By Emmeline Burdett

Skillfully chaired by Tony Heaton, the chief executive of Shape, various disabled artists took part as panellists in the discussion: performance artist Sue Austin, dancers Marc Brew and Michelle Ryan, and the poet Owen Lowery.

Introducing the debate Tony mentioned that Shape Arts had been founded by a dancer who had met a young disabled person and had been determined to refute the claim that his impairment made it impossible for him to be a dancer.

All of the panellists have acquired impairments, and it became clear during the discussion that, in different ways, they had challenged others’ expectations of how this would affect their lives.

For example, Sue Austin described how her own artistic practice had developed due to the dissonance between her own view of her situation, and that of others. She described how being given a powerchair after a long period of being housebound gave her an enormous sense of freedom, which she has never lost, and how this contrasted sharply with others’ views that using a wheelchair was a tragedy.

Tony remarked that visibly impaired people are often thrust into the role of ‘unintended performer’, meaning that we are expected to ‘manage’ others’ reactions to our presence, as though such reactions were ‘natural’ and thus did not constitute behaviour.

Owen gave an example of this from his own recent experience. Owen and his wife were unobtrusively enjoying a meal whilst on holiday, when Owen became the object of unwelcome attention from diners at a nearby table. The diners began by whispering to each other about what Owen and his wife were having to eat – a self-evidently fascinating subject. When Owen’s wife kissed him, the diners asked each other “Is he [Owen] MARRIED?”

Marc Brew grew up in a small country town in Australia, and already felt like something of an outsider due to his desire to be a dancer. After being involved in a car accident in South Africa, his previous experience of ‘otherness’ perhaps made him more open to finding new ways of working and doing things.

Michelle Ryan had quite a different experience: she recalled that, after being diagnosed with MS at the age of thirty, she hid in an airport toilet to avoid a group of her fellow dancers.

There is obviously quite a gulf between hiding in an airport toilet and appearing at a Disability Arts festival. After a traumatic period of not acknowledging her own worth, she began to get back into dancing.

Similarly Sue Austin recalled how her impetus to perform such works as ‘Underwater Wheelchair’ grew when someone told her that his mother, who needed a wheelchair, was limiting her life by refusing to use one. This was, in some ways, a metaphor for the whole discussion. Simply dismissing all the feelings and experiences that disability brings is to limit one’s understanding of life as a whole.

Keywords: disabling attitudes,tragedy model,unlimited