Visibility for Disability

Words by Luigi Quesada

A theater company founded in North Hollywood in 1991, closed its rendition of Spring Awakening on Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theater in 2017. While this show is no stranger to The Great White Way, one catch makes it unique in the likes of any version seen onstage—some of its cast members were disabled. Featuring both hearing and non-hearing actors, the performance of Deaf West’s Spring Awakening bagged three Tony nominations including that of Best Revival of a Musical. The New York Times called it “a first-rate production of a transporting musical,” while The Associated Press commented that it was “a sheer triumph.”

Truly a triumph for both the theater community as well as for persons with disability, the efforts of giving notice to those that are physically impaired have become more and more visible in the artistic field. With the rise of “colorblind casting” in shows such as Tony Award-Winning Hamilton, we see that “minorities” are finally making an impact on and off thestage—even the disabled.

‘The origins of art for the disabled begin with the definition of the oh-so-broad “culture.” The term culture has been generally linked to the idea of societal norms and the likeness of thinking of a certain group of people.

Through art, philosophy, traditions and the related, a people’s culture is what continually differentiates one  community from the next. With this in mind, able people are then defined as the “norm” in almost all cases.

‘The normal way to play sports is with all four limbs, the normal way to perform is with a voice, the normal way to sing is if you can hear the songs.

Standing on unknown ground, the disabled people were therefore labeled as the minority. An uprising in Great Britain in the 1970s began the revolution wherein people with disabilities fought for more inclusivity in the art aspect of culture. Linked closely to the concept of politics and culture, the fight for equality in treatment eventually became the disabled people’s movement, which eventually conquered almost all art forms.

On the other hand, the United States of America too fought for rights of the disabled to perform in the artistic field. Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith stated the importance of accessibility of arts and arts education to all citizens, not only the able-bodied. With this, the development in the United States then factored in disabled people in society as well. Groups such as Bodies of Work: Network of Disability Arts and Culture, Creative Growth, and the aforementioned Deaf West embrace those with physical, mental, and developmental impairments and urge them to go against the grain of what everyone knew to be normal.

With that being said, the representation of people in all aspects of art has grown more and more throughout the years. Artists like Beethoven, Sarah Bernhardt, and Django Reinhardt all serve as inspiration to the disabled. More and more representation is seen in the performing arts as well. From character representation to the lives of real people, disability gains attention both on the stage and in film.

Characters of a story serve as the life and breath to the whole picture. From fiction to nonfiction, people with impairments have become central to various plots. In Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, for example, Doctor Emma Brookner, a doctor who researches on HIV and AIDS in 1980’s New York City, is a polio survivor that is bound to a wheelchair. Nina Raine’s Tribes, on the other hand, focuses on the progression of a child named Billy and his interactions with those around him. With writers like Kramer and Raine writing characters of disabilities into their storylines, the representation reaches a larger audience.

The importance of portrayal of real-life icons are not snubbed either. The ever-famous deaf and mute Helen Keller too makes her appearance onstage. One of the most successful handicapped women in society is also represented in William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker. Hitting closer to home, various versions of the story of Apolinario Mabini have been staged in all corners of the metro. Tiongson and Balsamo’s Mabining Mandirigma features one of our national heroes and his infamous wheelchair-bound state due to polio.

It is significant to note that the arts has not only represented disability, but it has opened it to discussion and integration as well. With the topic gaining more limelight, talks about disabilities have turned from taboo into one topic we so freely discuss.

Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark tackles a blind Susy Hendrix. Jason Robert Brown’s 13 mentions a young boy with muscular dystrophy leaving him in crutches. While the discussion continues to roll on through representation such as these, abled actors, more often than not, still play these roles. In this image of disability, audiences are informed rather than immersed in the light of those who actually suffer from the above.