Stop erasing disabled dancers and athletes

Someone asked me the other day about my least favourite disability trope, and honestly, it’s really hard to just pick one. There are so many, and I hate them all for so many reasons, but there’s one in particular that’s really been irking me lately: The erasure of disabled dancers (as well as disabled athletes and other disabled people who use their bodies in their work and love). There’s an attitude that physical impairments make it functionally impossible for people to do things like dancing, competing in sports, teaching yoga, what have you, or that people can ‘overcome adversity’ to cobble together a thin facsimile of the real thing, but everyone knows they’re not the real deal.

Here’s the thing: This is patently wrong. There are incredibly talented disabled dancers using wheelchairs, canes, and other mobility devices out there. They are engaging in a huge variety of styles of dance, performing in a range of venues. They perform types of dance that nondisabled dancers cannot—they have unique talents and skillsets and use their bodies in incredible ways, because they are dancers, and this is what dancers do. Dance is a beautiful art form that requires immense physical strength, flexibility, coordination, skill, grace, commitment. Don’t claim that disabled people can’t dance, because it’s an insult to those who do.

There are also tons of disabled athletes—you may have heard of the Paralympics, which you will be hearing a lot more about since next year is a Summer Olympics year and there will be some amazing athletes at the games. Disabled people aren’t going for the pity vote or faking it with adaptive sports: They’re working extremely hard with bodies at peak condition to push themselves to the limit and build a fantastic community of athletes and coaches. It’s insulting to say that disabled people don’t do sport, because they do.

And it’s not ‘inspiring’ that disabled people engage in physical art forms and sport. They’re just doing what they doing, and they do it because they love it, and there’s nothing particularly unique about doing it while disabled. I’m inspired by athletes and artists because I admire their work, and that inspiration is applied equally to all—I don’t find it any more or any less amazing when disabled people are doing these things, because they’re not performing for a crowd that needs to feel good about itself. They’re performing because they love to perform, and they want an audience to participate with them in a sensory shared experience.

But I see this trope coming up over and over again in two settings. One is in pop culture, where sporty characters or those who engage in dance, drama, improv comedy, and other physical art forms are injured and told that they’ll never [run/dance/act] again. Such injuries are very specifically inserted as plot lines to tragedise the character and up the stakes of the drama. Audiences should gasp and be horrified that the character’s career is over, or that she will no longer be able to do the thing she loves. The ballerina slips on stage and breaks her back. The athlete gets caught in a bombing and loses her leg. Tragedy! Woe! All is ruined!

The second is in the media, where people in the real world acquire disabilities as a result of accidents, terrorist attacks, illness, or other things, and the media falls all over itself to talk about the things these people can never do again. This tragedises a situation, underscoring the pity which media consumers are supposed to feel. As if it wasn’t bad enough, now she can’t walk again. He’s ‘bound to a wheelchair.’ She was blinded by an explosion, and thus clearly can’t compete in marathons anymore. These acts in the media are reminders that we are supposed to experience distress when we acquire disabilities, and they send a signal to society, too: Disability=game over.

People respond to and deal with disability differently. For many people—for most—there is an adjustment period to acquired physical impairments, especially in the case of people who are used to pushing their bodies in physical art forms or sport. It can feel weird and clunky and awkward to get used to a new body, especially with people hovering to tell you how awful your body is. And disability can, bluntly, sometimes really suck, even if you are feeling comfortable and starting to adjust to your new life.

One thing that’s almost never provided, however, is early intervention and connections with people who can push back on the myth that disability ends any hope of physical activity. Things would be so different if hospitals by default referred newly disabled patients to disabled artists and athletes, provided information about options, really stressed that disability changes  your body and the way it moves, but doesn’t completely negate the ability to move and use your body in new and exciting ways.  We’re not talking Pollyanna and an ‘everything will be great! cheer up!’ attitude, because that’s patently absurd, but we need to flip the narrative on how we talk about acquired impairments, and we need to stop erasing disabled people who do the very things society tells them they ‘can’t’ do, like dance, run, swim, ride horses, do yoga…

Have you seen wheelchair dance? Have you seen a powerful woman using ridiculously strong arms to manipulate herself and her chair as a single, flowing unit? Have you seen a blind runner completely a marathon?  Probably not if you’re not in the disability community, but these things are all very real and not uncommon life experiences, and if people saw them more frequently, maybe acquiring physical impairments wouldn’t be so terrifying.

Image: Thank You For The Eggs!, Stopgap Dance Company, Flickr