Enabled Arts

Feature in Issue 3-4 | Winter 1991

Brendan Stapleton discusses the impending political and social problems facing the integration of theatre skills within disabled arts.

In 1983 the United Nations inaugurated the international ‘Decade For The Disabled’, with projects and programming across the world spectrum. A different and new directive was the importance of theatre skills in the programming. This was discussed and expected to be implemented. Cohesive policy was never realised because the difficulties that arose, due to cultural differences, made the situation naive and untenable.

The role of theatre was viewed separately by individual countries. An independent body, external to the cultural system, was established. The initiative was doomed because of its reliance on second-hand commentary. This problem will almost certainly surface again with the integration of disabled organisations in Europe from 1992 onwards.

The roles and objective of disabled organisations differ from country to country and these invariably reflect each indigenous political climate, culture and society. The highly industrialised nations, having their own various institutionalised charities assumed that the rest of the world would follow their example and use them as a role model. Such a ‘parrot fashion’ initiative was faced with problems from its outset.

A large American organisation based in Washington is Very Special Arts. In the 70s & 90s, VSA set up various national arts and disability programmes (mainly for children and young people with a strong emphasis on theatre skills). In the late 1980s, programmes were started worldwide. The main problem with these projects was simply the recipient country received tuition from a culturally different organisation which originated from a culturally diverse nation with culturally different thinking. Although potentially constructive, the visiting organisation’s teaching reflected its societies prejudices and ignorance towards theatre and disability. In 1988 a special project week was setup in Britain with an American Professor to teach British dance teachers how to work with visual impairment. The original programmes had been American and were Contemporary Dance based. The course reflected this style, but, the organisation in the United States had assumed classical ballet traditions reflected the English dance education scene. And therefore seemed ignorant of the contemporary dance tradition present in the UK.

Hence the problem here lies with perceptions and research. Organisations inaugurating projects need more in-depth knowledge of disabilities, especially in a theatre education sense and its role in society. International private funding bodies or charities make the same mistakes in formulating projects involving theatre skills. Mime, which is overshadowed by other theatrical art forms, will remain largely underused because it will not occur to the funding bodies working in this country. So if mime is hidden it will be ignored and treated without respect by international organisations as being of no consequence, so any potential special innovations will be lost.

What are the disability arts organisations’ views on mime? In conversation with Josephine Wilson, SHAPE Arts Development Officer for Wandsworth, she expressed the point that it cannot really be expected for mime to have a high profile in SHAPE's education plans if mime's profile seemingly does not exist within theatre in education. There are no reference points for an organisation to focus on. With patchy investment in mime there can be only restricted development. Which in turn leads to restrained exploration.

Mime, because of its gestural nature, could have a specific educative role in relation to certain disabilities. For example people of hearing impairment have a very gestural mime element in coordinating sign language. There are various techniques: Sign Support English uses lip reading, British Sign Language (BSL) uses more bodily gestural expression, and one American Sign Language uses only a single hand. If people were aware of and exploited the mimetic elements used in sign language certain problems wouldn't arise.

Television, for example, occasionally uses small sections of the screen for signing, thus demonstrating its misunderstanding of the problem. Josephine Wilson points out, the area on the screen is too small to understand the hand signs with the body coordination. This understandably leads to accusation of tokenism with strong condemnations from a very strong and active deaf lobby.

There seems to be a general feeling amongst disabled people that the charities that exist to represent them do not consult them enough. The deaf lobby feel they have a good reason to be suspicious of authority. Sign language was banned in the UK for over a century in education (1870 onwards). It was thought signing would prove to be a handicap with children's integration into society, thus producing a threatening subculture,

In certain areas of disability there has been noted general concern over the objectives of the organisations that officially represent a particular disability. Disabled people do dislike the way they are represented in the media and in public – i.e. blind people feel degraded by the way money is collected for their cause with symbols and icons that represent begging in order to evoke sympathy or pity. Muscular Dystrophy sufferers have recently published literature referring to feeling unhappy about the technique of show business personalities (i.e. Richard Attenborough, the Chairman of Muscular Dystrophy UK) patronisingly asking for donations on their behalf.

The issue of mimes' relation to art and disability is thus manifold. From a bureaucratic point of view the plans currently being drafted by the European Commission for its member countries will face difficulties on policies and objectives; these plans in turn will fund the theatre companies that will deal with disabilities and understandably the higher the profile of mime the more it will be beneficial. For example the Jan Bronk Institute in Amsterdam has been working in collaboration with the healthcare system to treat people with disability left after suffering strokes. In this area of mime therapy it is a leader in its field within Europe, indeed it is set to expand its development.

The tragedy of this subject in this country is not only the contribution that mime could make to disability, but the contribution of disability towards mime. We are dealing with people that live with a different concept and different perception of the world. People who use movement differently and in many cases more eloquently than mimes do.

SHAPE is an arts development agency working with disabled people and others who we usually excluded from the arts. SHAPE acts regionally through its regional networks. For information on a network near you contact: SHAPE, 1 Thorpe Close, London. WIO SXL. Tel/minicom: 081 960 9245.

Referenced Artists

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Issue 3-4
p. 11