Sunday, October 18, 2009


Dame Evelyn Glennie is a world renowned percussionist. She's toured the world, composed hundreds of pieces, and performed with scores of musicians from Sting and Bjork to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Last week, she performed in Chicago at the Harris Theater with the Sao Paulo Orchestra. The following evening, she visited Access Living, where I work, for a screening of Touch the Sound, a 90 film about her music, her influences and her collaboration with Fred Frith, another musician. After the film, she answered questions from the audience. The event was sponsored by Access Living's Arts and Culture Initiative, a project designed to give voice to disability culture and give voice to artists with disabilities. Obviously, Dame Glennie, who is Deaf, has already has found her voice, but it was fabulous that she scheduled time for the Access Living event.

Prior to her visit, I read two pretty interesting essays written by Glennie, one on disability and one on Deafness. Both essays resonated with me, in particular the piece on disability. In it, she talked about categories. She argues that species are dependent upon categories. We have this overwhelming need to group other things and each other into categories. With human beings, scores of sub-categories evolve, but, Glennie writes, "the survival of most (individuals) now depends on our understanding of the categories and their labels." These categories and sub-categories set up a "framework" of understanding. Although the categories continually change, sometimes for better (dropping traditional stereotypes once linked to the categories), they still create problems. From my reading, Glennie maintains that no matter how much a category evolves, it aways carries a set of assumptions and expectations that are applied to the individual assigned to the category. For her, this causes problems because two categories into which she is often placed are "musician" and "hard of hearing." Because of traditional expectations, those categories are mutually exclusive. As a result, she spends a lot of time answering questions like, "how can you play the drums if you are Deaf?" And, according to Glennie, no matter what answer she delivers, 90% of the time, people misunderstand the answer, most likely because of pre-determined expectations around the categories. Glennie urges us to look beyond categories to the individual. Because if we fail to allow the individual to progress according to his or her abilities, strengths and desires, he or she will be limited by categories.

This line of thinking can be applied to recent conversations and controversies around the so-called "Midget Cup" in Australia. Last week, Australian Horse Racing Officials held the "midget" race as a gag, during a break between other, more traditional horse races. The event was kind of like the sausage race between innings of Milwaukee Brewer home baseball games. The event involved three people of short stature dressed as jockeys who raced, rather than on top of horses, on top of three average size people. Anger over the event has come from Australia's racing minister, Rob Hull, who called the stunt an "embarassment," and from the Premiere of Victoria, who implied the event was "hurtful to people."

Comment boards are full of individuals defending the event, most often accusing detractors of overt political correctness and asking, 'if it was offensive, why did dwarfs participate?' Speaking of dwarfs, one of the race participants entered the debate, writing a direct response to Hull, the Racing Minister. He wrote "I would never let anybody laugh at me or degrade me . . . That I have dwarfism is secondary."

The argument he makes, that dwarfism is secondary, is significant. First of all, the jockey is wrong. If dwarfism was secondary it would have had a name that didn't include the stature of the jockeys. The event was called the "Midget" Cup. Stature took center stage. Whenever dwarfism takes center stage, it doesn't matter if the participants are doctors, lawyers, teachers, parents, sons, brothers, sisters or actors. At that point, dwarfism as a "category," what Glennie wrote about, takes over. Positive awareness around dwarfism has grown exponentially in the past few decades, helping the category of dwarfism evolve, as a category. But most often, the positive awareness comes as a result of learning about individuals who happen to have dwarfism. The audience is asked to identify with the person as an individual, one aspect of who happens to be dwarfism. Dwarfism as a category has progressed because people have gone beyond the category to the individual. In the case of the Australian event, the audience was asked to fall back upon the category. They were asked to relate to participants as 'midgets,' not individuals. As a result, the event was reflective of assumptions and judgements traditionally linked to the category of dwarfism. What's worse, the event was designed as a gag, again reflective of antinquated roles when little people will considered entertainment simply because of their stature. If, in the future, the jockeys of the 'midget cup' want to participate in a race in which dwarfism is indeed secondary, they should sign up for the Belmont Stakes.

No comments:

Post a Comment