Disability 101 – Our audience: who is listening?
October 18, 2009
We are finishing up our run of “Invisible Voices: New Perspectives on Disability,” a theater production by Ping Chong & Company at Theatreworks in Colorado Springs. Six cast members with disabilities, including myself, told our stories on stage in an oral history format in an effort to share our experience of what it means to be a person with a disability in our society.After every performance, we had a talkback and other opportunities to interact with our audiences. One of the questions many audience members have asked is how participating in this production has affected us. I have immersed myself in this question the past couple of days.I wanted to participate in this production because I remain convinced that the only way to make needed changes in this country to improve the lives of people with disabilities is if people with disabilities make their own voices heard. It’s not about family members and service providers speaking out about what people with disabilities need. It’s about people with disabilities making their own voices heard.So as I look back at our performances and try to judge how this production went, was this production successful, I’m not focused on how many times we sold out (a lot) or how many standing ovations we received (a bunch). Instead I am looking at the audience’s level of growth and understanding. Did they get it? Do they understand what we are trying to say?Upon reflection, I realize that there are three different groups in our audiences, and that these may be the same groups that are reading and reacting to my columns.One group in both audiences is people with disabilities. These are people who become empowered by our production. I had several people with disabilities approach me after performances who had never previously heard of monoskiing or handcycling. After hearing about these adaptive sports in Invisible Voices, they came to me with tears in their eyes asking “You mean, I can still be an athlete?” Oh, yes. Very much so. The second group I found in our audiences were people who don’t have any disabilities who listened and understood and now “get it.” I had many people who approached me saying “Thank you. I had no idea. I learned so much.” This group generally did not go into much detail. I felt a desire to follow them, to interact more, to ask “How have you changed? What do you get now that you never understood before?”The third group has left me twisted in despair. These are the folks who came to Invisible Voices but didn’t really listen to us. They came with their own agenda, their own expectations and missed most of what we said. They are the ones who are still looking to cure us of our tragic disabilities. Once again, our disabilities are not tragic and we are not looking for a cure. These are the ones who still proceed to provide us with instructions. Surely we need instructions. Once again, we are not in need of instructions. We are adults and are quite capable of deciding for ourselves how to manage our lives. These are also the ones who see us as heroes. Once again, we are not heroes. We are just average people going about our lives.Why is it there are always those who cannot hear, no matter how we try to communicate? I guess there will always be those whose minds are closed, but we must continue to try to communicate because the first two groups are listening. This is what will make the difference.