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Animated Edition - Spring 2002
To integrate or disintegrate
Does integration have to mean assimilation into or replication of dominant cultural norms? Should we fight labelling and categorisation? Can anybody dance and get employed to do it ask Nick Owen and Mandy Redvers Rowe. Here they reflect on some the issues
Integration of disabled people into the performing arts industry is a hot topic resemblant of a badge of courage we might have won at school, something our mothers proudly stitched onto our jackets, wearing it over our hearts to show not only our humanity but our professional credentials too.

In one sense, we might ask integration into what? Integration into a dance industry which damages young bodies in the pursuit of some highly contorted and physically stressful dance practice - ballet for example? Integration into a music industry whose dependence on drug and alcohol abuse is almost an occupational hazard? Or integration into an acting industry whose employees are out of work 85 per cent of the time and who are consequently prone to periods of depression, nervous exhaustion or psychological neurosis?

In some sense, training in the contemporary performing arts industry is a training towards disability and impairment as opposed to the expressive and creative experiences it might be.

This was one of the important issues we faced when we designed Solid Foundations a unique course in the performing arts: unique because it has been designed with disabled artists, for disabled people. It is the result of a long standing and valuable partnership between Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA) and North West Disability Arts Forum (NWDAF).

The design of the course was informed by a social model of disability perspective, as opposed to the medical model of disability, which directly leads to the phenomena of disabled people as being described as 'tragic but brave'; as having suffered with a particular physical or mental impairment; and as people to be either pitied, patronised or demonised.

We have detected three consequences of the medical model on the training of disabled people in the performing arts. Firstly, it generates a culture of dependency in which relations between disabled and non-disabled people are often seen as a master - servant relationship in which the masters - non-disabled people - may sometimes masquerade as servants and vice versa: in short, relationships which are not only defined by an imbalance of power and control but where the locus of power is neither easily identifiable nor controllable.

Secondly, the medical model generates the notion of a hierarchy of disability. In this hierarchy, disabled people with hidden impairments such as dyslexia may be disinclined to either see themselves as disabled or, more dramatically, see themselves higher up a scale of social value due to their perceived lower degree of impairment.

A third consequence will be that if an audience sees a performance by disabled people in the absence of a context or frame around which to view the production, it will inevitably reach for its tried and tested (and totally unreliable) means of assessing that performance: namely its reliance on the medical model of disability. 'There but for the grace of God' may, for example, be one potential unspoken audience response, which might reflect a sense that there is a lot more emotionally at stake in a performance by disabled performers as opposed to by non disabled performers.

Consequently, the design and implementation of a Higher Education (HE) course, which was driven by a social model ethos, was going to run into a number of issues involving student aspirations, staff expectations and institutional agendas.

These issues were then addressed in the design of the course by identifying specific aims and objectives.

Programme aims
1. To provide a comprehensive and challenging Level One programme of study for the student
2. To introduce students to performing arts skills in order to enable them to pursue training or education in Higher Education or employment opportunities with other agencies.

Course objectives
a. To provide HE training in performing, management and facilitation skills
b. To challenge assumptions of disabled people's abilities
c. To provide inclusive education,training and student support
d. To identify positive role models forstudents
e. To acknowledge the presence of access equipment in the creative process
f. To locate disability and deaf arts cultures within wider theoretical contexts
g. To develop student's skills, knowledge and understanding through their integrated teaching with Level One students and the teaching of course specific modules.

Clearly, integration is a critical objective of the course and has been the subject for much discussion within the academic community. We have particularly focused on the question, how can we tell that integration has been achieved? We suggest that there are a number of signs to look for:

Focus
Where are we being asked to look? Who are we being asked to look at? Who are we being asked to listen to? How are we being asked to look and are we being asked to look at everyone through the same conventions? Or are some conventions being allowed for some performers but not others?

Power
Who are the protagonists in the piece? Who drives the action, who tells the story? To whom does the story happen or who are the recipients of the story? Who could be almost passive observers watching the action pass them by?

The puppet question
Who in the performance could be replaced by puppets? We would suggest that any performer:

  • who we are being asked to look away from
  • whose presence we are not being asked to consider
  • who is not a protagonist
  • who does not initiate or tell the story or a significant active agent in that story
  • who is not in control or
  • who could be replaced by a puppet is not part of an integrated performance but an assimilated performance, which is addressing agendas of funding or social conscience, and not the agendas of establishing the cultural presence of disabled people? Sometimes in our aim to integrate disabled people and establish a cultural presence, we can inadvertently reinforce the cultural absence of disabled people and this is something we need to be careful about.

In practice then, integration is often masking a process of assimilation. That is, a process, which encourages students to accept the values of the dominant culture, a process which is disinclined to challenge the values of that culture; and as a result minimizes the voice and presence of the disabled artist in the creative and production process.

We might go onto to say that in the process of assimilation, the disabled student is being encouraged to participate in a curriculum which has, in the past, been responsible for denying access to that student in the first place: and consequently, assimilation is a process in which the oppressed continue to collude in their own oppression.

Another way of looking at this is to consider the attempts to widen access to Higher Education in South Africa. In this context, the curriculum has necessarily been infected by an apartheid regime and legislation. Consequently, that curriculum has played its part in excluding a black presence in HE and so, arguably, cannot now he expected to do anything other than continue that exclusion. In this context, a significant black presence in HE is only going to be achieved by a radical restructuring of the curriculum: not merely by tampering with the mechanisms, which are used to allegedly enhance a black presence, ie. access mechanisms.

In one sense then, the notion of access can be regarded as the friendly face of assimilation, masking a darker tendency to maintain the cultural status quo.

So, if we are to develop an integrated process within performing arts education, it is essential that the voice and presence of the disabled artist in the creative and production process is heard loud and clear. And to do this, students need to develop a specific set of skills and knowledge, which relate to what it is to he a disabled performer, which are discussed below.

Technique
It is important to identify the essential elements of performance technique and aim to develop these and not assess on specific tasks such as demonstrating perfect pitch or to be able to execute a pirouette.

Elements such as focus, concentration, commitment and energy are generic and we expect the same level of achievement from all students. However, specific physical skills or executant technical skills such as breathing, voice, movement or instrumental skills are more individually assessed.

We measure these by looking at how much a student develops and improves in such areas, how willing they are to take risks and on how open they are to new ideas or new ways of working.

Blocking using impairments
One thing that we watch for are students' tendencies to 'block'. This is a term that describes someone who finds ways to resist the performance options, process or direction on offer. 'Blocking' can manifest itself in all kinds of ways and disabled students may use their impairment as a reason not to try something.

In such situations, it is important to clarify the difference between something that is going to be difficult but achievable with some effort, and something that is impossible and consequently inaccessible.

The wannabe actor syndrome
Many disabled people have developed their interest and skills in the arts by experiencing community based work. The focus of such work is often one of empowerment - which aims to ensure that those who take part use their chosen art form to express themselves, to find their own voice, to gain a sense of control in their lives, which are often controlled by others. The purpose of such projects is not to be critical of the individual's artistic abilities or to work on improving executant technical skills.

However, once one is accepted onto an HE programme they put themselves into a position where they will be assessed on their achievements in relation to the commercial and industrial agendas which that HE programme endeavours to satisfy. This may mean that the disabled student who believes their strengths lie in one area as a result of their previous community based activity may have their view of themselves substantially challenged.

This will be uncomfortable for the student but must not be avoided as by failing to address such an issue you inevitably fail your student in the long term.

Switch off your head and trust your body
This is difficult enough for most performing arts students. Many people automatically think first and act second. In performance, thinking about what you are going to do rather than simply responding to a situation, often leads to a stilted, unnatural performance. It is also true that sometimes thinking about something prevents a student from trying out an idea, making them feel self conscious. 'Thinking' therefore seems to block performers, closing them down and rendering them incapable of performing. We encourage people to allow their bodies to respond, to 'act' rather than 'think'.

The impact of Solid Foundations and LIPA's future
Whilst we spent two years working with North West Disability Arts Forum and other disabled people's organizations and individuals, it was not until a significant group of disabled students arrived to pioneer the course, that it became clear where changes had to be made. As a result, we are re visiting our teaching practices, assessment protocols, internal communications procedures, staffing structure, learning resources and information technology practices and training. And because it is still early days, it is too soon to say whether the choices we made in designing the course were the right ones or not. We too, may find our intentions being washed away in the rain of commercial and industrial pragmatics and practicalities. Whether they are dissolved or not will depend, I think, on how we address the following questions:

  • Does integration have to mean assimilation into or replication of dominant cultural norms?
  • Should we fight labelling and categorisation?
  • Can anybody sing and get employed to do it?
  • Do you fight your body or do you embrace it?
  • Or do you allow your body to become the puppet in some one else's side show?

The fact that the bigger issues are being voiced by students, staff and other commentators outside the institution is encouraging: and makes us feel that we are moving closer to a world where disabled performers are more tightly woven into the warp and weft of contemporary performing arts practice than has been the case in the past.

Nick Owen, director, Aspire EIC Action Zone and Mandy Redvers Rowe, course tutor, Disability Arts. Contact Nick Owen on +44 (0)151 639 9231 or contact Mandy Redvers Rowe on +44 (0)151 3303240.

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Animated: Spring 2002