I am disabled and politically so. Part of this is because I have been working with Graeae from a young age and Graeae is a political movement, born out of disability rights. I have gone on a journey of accepting who I am and how I experience the world. The social model of disability was a revelation. Through my freelance work I am constantly trying to bring that into other organisations so that disability liberation is not solely left to companies who have that as their main aim. It is something everyone should be doing.
However, not everyone has this experience. There is a lot of internalised self-loathing to unpack in everyone who lacks any kind of societal privilege, though disability is a bit different in that even the most conservative believers of meritocracy believe that disabled people are at a disadvantage. Their beliefs realign in that they believe that no more needs to be done and that short of repairing impairment, disability needs to be dealt with by the disabled person and it just isn’t possible to change society in any way because the status quo works so very well.
I have privileges within the disabled community; I am ambulant and verbal which opens many more channels for me than many of my peers. I am also, non-disabled passing, my impairment only visible if you see me trying to do something. I carry a cane partly to make people more patient with me and partly to stand in solidarity with my friends who do not have the choice whether to be visible as well as transcend strangers’ expectations of what a visually impaired person might look like.
It makes me deeply uncomfortable that people do not want to be “out” about disability. This is partly because it was only through being vocal about disability that I found my needs met as a human being and I view it as a privilege not to have to do that. My parents are educated but were never informed what to do with me. I had to find it all out myself and work out that I wasn’t odd or crap at my jobs or stupid; I was disabled and people needed to understand that and give me what I needed; things everyone else already had. It also brings back stigma for me that I have spent years trying to unlearn. A man once asked me why I told him I was visually impaired on the first date (I mean, you can probably work out for yourselves why that might be a good thing to communicate) and I was subjected to Phil Young’s Crystal Clear as recently as last year in the guise of an access consultation that wasn’t listened to, portraying blind people as sexless and dependent. I get around this by joking that I self-identify as “smoking hot” but I am shy in relationships and that has never really gone away. I wish I could help people assuage their fears but when people who know me express them, I can’t help but take it a bit personally. What is it about me that they fear being labelled as? Have I made a fuss about nothing by putting so much onus on my identity? Have I taken things away from people who are genuinely experiencing what I am just imagining? These thoughts exist in even the most vocal disability campaigners and I would respond to “not everyone’s like you” with “I’m not like me either. I have become this because things need to change.” Perhaps it’s easier for me starting from the bottom like this. I have never had anything to lose.
Whether disabled people (or however they identify) wish to incorporate it as a political identity is their choice; just like women are not obliged to be feminists. I identify as bisexual and am not massively active in the Queer community as I am not fully comfortable with it. I hate my discomfort and I know there’s a lot to unpack. At the end of the day, we don’t need to know details of anyone’s impairment but when a show features disability, we do need to know that we are represented. To deny us this erases the history we have of being appropriated and misrepresented; and it isn’t just history; it is literally happening right now. Come As You Are came out with the same old crap about “research” and “sensitive portrayals” as they made a movie where three non-disabled actors portray disabled characters struggling to have a sex life, possibly influenced by a certain Channel 4 series. It is not unreasonable to assume that unless a production makes it clear that it is disabled-led (not just “consulted on”- I’ve had “consultant” experiences from companies just looking for a rubber stamp before they do whatever they want and ignoring me when I don’t give them that) it is doing what that majority of productions that feature disability are doing. To name some recently(ish) acclaimed shows that spring to mind: Sweat at the Donmar featured a character acquiring a brain injury after being beaten up, his new physical state depicted by a non-disabled actor as a dark twist before the lights go down. Shivered features three disabled roles, all designed to be played by non-disabled actors and Mercury Fur features a blind character who (in the first production at least) was played by a sighted actor. (I went the night of the audience Q and A, in which someone asked, “How did she make her eye go funny?”) A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and Crystal Clear were both revived last year (using disabled actors but that doesn’t change the inherent ableism of both texts), The Braille Legacy was given one star by Lyn Gardner for “spectacular cripping up” and All In A Row caused a stir they didn’t seem to be expecting when they used a puppet to play the autistic character in a show about how hard it is for a disabled person’s parents. (The majority of shows featuring disability tend to focus on this but that is another article.)
“We are all on different journeys and existing outside societal expectation is easier for some than others. While there is privilege involved in not having to state access needs, there is also privilege involved in having the confidence to state them, though to my mind, this is harder won.”– Amy Bethan Evans
Obviously, none of this is the fault of people who want to make disability-centred work and don’t want to talk about being disabled themselves. However, art is political, and we need to understand the social landscape we are releasing it into. I have no experience of being outed; in fact, I have been constantly told I am visually impaired and had to believe people because I don’t know any different. (As I walk into things and hold books awfully close, I’m starting to believe they might be right.) Another way of looking at is that I had to be outed to myself. We are all on different journeys and existing outside societal expectation is easier for some than others. While there is privilege involved in not having to state access needs, there is also privilege involved in having the confidence to state them, though to my mind, this is harder won. At the end of the day, we are all disabled, or whatever word we choose to use instead, if any. We should not be sniping at each other when the oppressors are still very much at large; that is exactly what they want. What we need is some common ground so that we can talk about improving attitudes and access. As a proud disabled person, that’s quite a hard thing to come to terms with but we all have different experiences and those experiences are rooted in societal oppression. We have more in common than not and while we shouldn’t put our disabled identities (or lack thereof) aside, we should keep in mind who the oppressors are, as our politics are ultimately about resisting them.
Amy Bethan Evans also writes for Disability Arts Online
Amy is a playwright, dramaturg and disability activist originally from Bristol. She is currently on commission to the Royal Court, on attachment at the National Theatre Studio and writing her first screenplay with BBC Writersroom. She is also a member of Soho Writers’ Alumni Group and Graeae’s Write to Play alumni and has mentored for Extant and Mainspring Arts. She is currently studying directing on Extant’s Pathways programme and runs her own company called Scripped Up with Stephen Bailey, with which she made the Access Platforms at Vault 2019 and her full-length play Tinted in 2020.