The summer my wife and I started dating, she competed in a Sprint Triathlon. The morning of the competition, we were both outside early. We biked to the course to set up Katie's transition stations. It was five or five thirty in the morning when we were biking through the downtown streets of Chicago on our way to the lakefront. The only other people up so early in the morning were other athletes, also on their way to the course. In a way, there was this sense of camaraderie with the other athletes. Every one who was out and about was there for the same reason. Yet, because I was not competing, I had this sense of loneliness, like I was left out of something.
I had a similar feeling of loneliness last Friday night, May 17. On May 15, Bodies of Work, an 11-Day Disability Arts and Culture Festival, kicked off in Chicago. As part of the festival, Access Living, where I work, hosted two performances of Counter Balance IV - dance, spoken word, and music that includes performers with and without disabilities. I planned to attend Friday night after my day of work. Not long before the performance started, my cousin sent me a text. He lives in Milwaukee but was in town for a conference. At the end of the day on Friday, he had to return to Wisconsin but he wanted to stop by my work and say hello. When he arrived at Access Living, I introduced him to a few people with whom I work, then took him up to Access Living's event space where Counter Balance was about to start. He didn't have time for the entire show. We wanted a chance to talk, so after the first two pieces, we went to a bar around the block and drank a beer. About an hour later, my cousin started the drive back to Wisconsin. I returned to Access Living. I got there at the start of the very last performance of the show. After the performers took a bow, and the lights came up, I hung around a little while. While I made my way through the crowd, I talked to many people who appeared to have been transformed during the hour that I left. It was as if multiple performances within Counter Balance IV had a transcendental affect of the audience, taking them to a place they had never before been. I more I saw the look of awe and wonder on the face of people in the audience, the more detached I felt. Just like the Triathlon, I was missing out on something of which everyone around me was a part.
I am lucky that Chicago is the host of a Disability Arts and Culture Festival. I am even more lucky that the building were a work hosted some performances within the festival. Beyond the pleasure and satisfaction that each performance brings, the festival does important work on a broader scale. The festival sends an important message that resonates beyond disability, into the general population. The festival is not about showing what people with disabilities can do in spite of their impairments. The festival is about giving voice to the art of people with disabilities, and it's about illuminating the disability experience. In a story from The Chicago Reader, Carrie Sandahl, the Director of Bodies of Work, said "She hopes the festival provides disabled and nondisabled people with a chance to mingle comfortably. 'Usually nondisabled people are told not to stare. It creates almost a
hypervisibility and an invisibility at the same time. What the festival
does is say, Hey, look at us — we have something to say that's not
what you think it is.'" I can't speak for the non-disabled people, but I assume, if they haven't heard the message of the festival, then they are not listening.