Open Process: Disability Awareness in the Arts
As artists and curators, we do our best to be at the forefront of every conversation regarding inclusivity within our fields. When the burgeoning conversations about identity and space-making are happening, I often find myself searching for the right language to engage in these issues.
This Open Process conversation on disability between artists Julia Blauvelt, Sarah Storm, and Crystal Skillman introduced us to the multifaceted needs of the disabled community and the ways creatives can work together to bring about better representation for disabled bodies. In this talk they discuss authentic representation on stage, which is not limited to just casting disabled bodies, but also creating worlds where disability is not a defining characteristic of a person. The artists made me think critically about the ways in which I have thought about accommodations and accessibility in all aspects of my life. As an able-bodied person, I am not thinking about accessibility needs in the same way as someone who is disabled. What I continue to learn is that our listening never ends. We must always reexamine our traditional methods of work, and critique ourselves at every step of the process.
Realizing that we work within a dramatic form, how can we incorporate and authentically represent characters with disabilities? The artists explore this important question, discussing that our work begins in the writing stages. Disabled artists can enter the conversation once the stories we create are welcoming to them. This can start as early in the casting process. Writers and casting directors can think more critically about how disabed bodies can be represented on stage and add to their stories. In order to invite disabled artists into collaboration, we must begin by generating disabled characters who are authentically rendered. Disable artists want to create in a world where their accommodations are met and normalized.
What type of representation matters? Does someone have the right to write about a disability, or include it in their story without having lived experience? Julia shares that she is constantly trying to find the balance of making a story authentic to the experiences of people with OCD, while still remaining tied to the narrative structure of her work. Beginning to create stories that center disabled experiences is the first step to introducing audiences to ideas of accommodations and accessibility needs.
In this conversation, the artists discuss that on the one hand, it is important to create stories that authentically represent the life of disabled people. Sarah remarks, “there is such a dearth of stories about people who are disabled.” On the other hand, it is important to acclimate audiences to worlds where disabled people are everywhere. Disabled artists want to see a world where their accommodations are not a barrier but rather contribute to the vibrancy of the story. Tweaking the ways we tell a story can go a long way in providing representation for disabled bodies and introducing audiences to worlds where disability can be accommodated for and normalized.
Not all stories about disabled bodies must be autobiographical. There should be room in storytelling for people to create characters with disabilities, but not use their disability for the thrust of the plot. Crystal asks, “How can able bodied writers do a better job of listening and making space for stories about disabled bodies?” It’s an important question for writers to consider if they would like to see more stories that center disabled lives. Able-bodied writers want to be in conversation with disabled artists to talk about questions of authenticity and representation.
Are writers being thoughtful about inclusivity when crafting their character descriptions? Is it enough to note that disabled people should be cast? Sarah urges us to think more provocatively about the ways we craft narratives, think about casting and the responsibilities writers must create in a world where disabled bodies can be celebrated.
This conversation gives us a deeper idea about how the disability community continues to struggle with authentic representation in stories. Part of this problem comes from a lack of stories about disabled people—and understanding that this community, like many others, is not monolithic. The responsibility of creating worlds where disabled characters can occupy does not only fall on disabled writers. Able-bodied writers can contribute to better representation, so long as they are listening to the community they are writing about and are actively pushing themselves to interrogate questions of authenticity and representation.