The forgotten discussion

11 April 2017

We should be doing a lot more to provide access for those with disabilities, says Helen Morley


I love a discussion, and NSDF discussions are some of my favourites. The thrill of so many different established and aspiring artists coming together to discuss some of the most prominent and urgent questions today is an invigorating and humbling experience. Sunday’s discussion surrounding gender-blind and representational casting was especially crucial, enlightening and emboldening. As always, we can only touch the surface, but I was disappointed that we didn’t have the opportunity to discuss the representation of (dis)ability.

At NSDF the representation of visible (dis)abled artists, writers, companies, festgoers and narratives is disappointing. We aim to represent the best of national student theatre, but a considerable proportion of the people that create this theatre are absent. And this is partially a result of the general inaccessibility of the festival. What is the provision for D/deaf participants in workshops, or socialising in the noisy bar? Where are the audio-described shows, captioned shows, relaxed shows and signed shows that we should be pioneering? It’s only by taking these steps to increase the accessibility of the festival – and our theatres – that we can begin to address this imbalance. 

We need to be constantly assessing and reassessing how we can make theatre as inclusive as possible. We need to be the seismic shift that facilitates the dramatic increase in accessibility awareness theatre urgently requires. And when we make those shifts, we need to share our knowledge and experience, to help those shifts grow, develop and keep growing.

Blackbird is an interesting example of where opening up this discussion is crucial in ensuring that we don’t perpetuate damaging narratives that surround (dis)ability. The play centres around Henry and Lily’s loss of their right and left hand respectively, and thus essentially both characters could identify as (dis)abled. Problematically, the language that surrounded this loss of limbs reinforced the subordination and belittlement of (dis)ability present in many political dialogues, as Lily is regularly referred to as “useless”. This language is primarily used by the play’s antagonists and therefore arguably is challenged to an extent. Yet, it is never asserted that Henry or Lily can operate independently and thus the general narrative of (dis)ability = ineptitude remained.

The solution proposed is that Henry and Lily unite and work together to survive. On the surface, this offers a positive moral of co-operation and mutual support, but this simultaneously undermines any sense of either character’s capacity to operate independently. This lack of independence is furthered by all the characters, most notably Henry’s, fixation with looking after Lily. This unchallenged narrative reiterates the perception of a (dis)abled person as a passive dependent, not an active independent.

While I am sure the company had no intention whatsoever of reinforcing these misconceptions, this highlights the importance of interrogating and justifying our use of language and our narratives. It is possible – and I highly suspect this is the case – that the company had not considered the characters as (dis)abled and thus had not interrogated their narrative and language from this perspective. But, this highlights exactly why this conversation is so crucial to address and keep addressing.

We need to be self-aware, and crucially well-considered, in our representation of (dis)ability onstage. This isn’t easy, as the discussion on Sunday critically (and liberatingly) revealed, but starting that discussion is vital if we are going to facilitate change.


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Photo credit: Giulia Delprato