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Jo Caird: Why Society Needs to Put Disability in the Spotlight

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There are plenty of reasons to champion disability theatre and the inclusion of deaf and disabled artists in mainstream theatre practice. From the importance of equality of access to artistic professions; to the benefits that involvement in the arts can bring to deaf and disabled people; to the fact that wider audiences are currently missing out on the wealth of talent within the UK's disability arts community because so little of this work and so few of these artists ever break into the mainstream: as far as I'm concerned, it's a no-brainer.

Recent events, however, have thrown up another reason why we should all be paying more heed to disability theatre – one that has ramifications far beyond the theatre world.

Last week, the comedian Ricky Gervais found himself at the centre of a media storm following his use of the word 'mong' on Twitter. When people called him on it, having found the word offensive because of its history as a demeaning term for people with Down's Syndrome, Gervais claimed that 'mong' now means 'idiot' and nothing more and refused to apologise or stop using the word. Eventually, after a conversation with disability campaigner Nicola Clark (whose blog post on the subject you can read here), in which she described how her disabled daughters have had the word 'mong' directed at them as an insult and how hurtful it is when it happens, Gervais apologised and admitted he'd be naïve. Not, however, before thousands of people on Twitter spent several days throwing offensive, disablist language around the internet, supposedly in Gervais's defence. It was not a pretty sight.

The most troubling aspect of the whole episode is that it reveals how discriminatory attitudes to disabled people are simmering beneath the surface of our supposedly fair and open society. This won't be news to many disabled people, I imagine, some of whom report encountering abuse on a depressingly frequent basis, but it's an unpleasant wake-up call for those of us who naively assume that generally, people are decent to one another and that hate of this kind is rare.

Which is where disability theatre comes in. Discriminatory attitudes persist because a lack of visibility for the discriminated against group fosters a scenario where misunderstanding prospers and hateful views remain unchallenged. Some commentators suggest that the government's current rhetoric and policies around disability and the benefits system is actually making things worse, implicitly condoning disablist attitudes by painting disabled people as scroungers.

Whether or not this is the case – and the blog I link to above raised plenty of debate on the matter – we're in an undeniably sorry state in terms of media and artistic representation of disabled people, with eight million people living with disabilities in the UK whose stories are largely ignored by mainstream drama. Disability theatre – and its natural legacy, the opening up of the world of television to disabled actors who've been able to access top class training opportunities and professional experience via the UK's leading disabled and disabled-led theatre companies – has a crucial role to play in increasing the visibility of disabled people in British society.

Changing long-held views is not an easy course, and progress is painfully slow, but I firmly believe that every time a disabled-led company receives good notices in the national press – as with Graeae's Reasons to be Cheerful last year – or a deaf or disabled actor appears in a mainstream show – a recent example being Nabil Shaban's assured performance as Constantius in Emperor and Galilean at the National Theatre this summer – a few more people's eyes are opened to the idiocy of discrimination and society gradually benefits. And in the meantime, of course, audiences are treated to fantastic theatre.


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