Disability Culture, Queer and Not So

by Philip Patston


The inaugural Giant Leap International Disability Arts Festival unfolded in February 2005 as part of the Auckland Festival. Featuring performances by five international professional disabled artists, it is the first time New Zealand has embraced the burgeoning global disability arts movement. Gay disabled comedian Philip Patston was its Creative Director. He explains how festivals like Giant Leap not only continue to promote the global disability culture movement, but also reflect the development of arts and culture in the queer community.

A few of Great Leap's performers are pictured below—queer and not so.


The International Disability Culture Movement

Throughout the 20th century the development of art, performance, and culture in marginalised communities has reflected an increase in those groups' self-determination. We have seen this exemplified by the emergence of women's literature, indigenous music, and queer arts, for example. For disabled people, the process is the same. We are reaching a breakthrough point in the development of disability arts and culture worldwide.





Rodney, from Touch Compass Dance Company
(Photo by Caglar Kimyoncu for Giant Leap International Disability Arts Festival)


Art and performance are magic and creative forces. Mix them with the experience of disability and they become a miraculous expression of the illusion of limitation and proof of the existence of infinite human potential.

Tony Doyle, the former Director of Arts in Action, Adelaide writes: "Disability culture has been around a long as people with a disability have been. Until recently the culture has been one of apology, of institutionalisation and of absence from wider cultural affairs. The emergence of a contemporary disability culture movement is given legitimacy by its basis in the arts."

Disability arts festivals are now an established concept throughout the world. My inspiration for what is now the Giant Leap International Disability Arts Festival came after I had performed at the inaugural kickstART! International Celebration of Disability Arts & Culture, held in Vancouver BC, Canada in 2001. EQUATA (Equality and Access Training in the Arts) in the UK, "a new resource designed specifically to help arts organisations develop good practice", held a similar event to kickstART! in 2003 to celebrate the Year of Disabled People. And there are more established disability arts festivals like High Beam, held biennially in Adelaide Australia since 1998.




Julie McNamara
(Photo by Caglar Kimyoncu for Giant Leap International Disability Arts Festival)


Taking four years to achieve, Giant Leap was a long, slow haul and it ran on the smell of an oily rag, but it was great to see it come to fruition at last, particularly as part of the Auckland Festival. Most disability festivals are standalone events so, as far as we know, this was a global first. We were thrilled to be able to pioneer in New Zealand the inclusion of a distinct and unique presence of disability arts in a mainstream arts event.

Overall the event was a huge success and received overwhelmingly positive feedback. Over and above the planned events and performances the organizing team were able to create an environment that truly encompassed and promoted diversity, inclusion and creativity.

Disability Arts and Culture

The recognition of a developing international disability arts movement is significant because it brings into recognition the importance and uniqueness of disability culture. The paradigm of disability as a culture is new but internationally supported. The impact of arts and performance is crucial to the development and expression of any culture, including disability. Equata (Equality and Access Training in the Arts) in the UK defines disability arts as a reflection of the experience of oppressed members of society coming together and finding new strength in the realisation that significant issues are shared with others. "Conversely the term arts and disability applies to arts controlled by non-disabled people who lead projects and events for disabled people usually with the aims of inclusion or integration." As disability arts develops, this distinction needs to be recognised, as do the time, space and resources needed to allow the emerging culture of disability to establish itself.

A Matter of Queers Leading the Crips

I believe that, for disabled as well as queer people, the impact of creative expression on the psyche of the individual and on the well-being of marginalised communities is crucial and needs to be realised to its fullest potential. It is useful to compare queer and crip cultures because they resemble each other in many ways—we are misunderstood through fear and ignorance, isolated in our families, regarded as unnatural and abnormal, among other things.

They may be stereotypes, but artistic poofs, musical dykes and flamboyant transsexual performers are abundant in our communities. Name a major city in the world that doesn't have an annual Mardi Gras, Gay Pride or similar festival. Some philosophies espouse that our sole purpose as humans is to create. As queers we seem naturally oriented to expressing ourselves as creative beings. Perhaps because we have been historically shunned from attaining status in many mainstream roles, we have been more effective in using creativity to express true, unmediated representations of who we are.







Mat Fraser
(Photo matfraser.com)


I know that, for me, performing—and its many spin-offs— has changed my life in many ways. It has improved my relationship with myself, my interactions with others, and the manner in which I approach the work I do. It has allowed me to learn to trust my instincts and respond to the ebbs and flows of natural cycles in my life. I have worked creatively with others—disabled and non-disabled, queer and not—in both collegial and facilitative roles and witnessed similar changes in them.

In a world that constantly controls people by reminding us that we are not normal enough, not valuable enough, not good enough, creative expression is crucial to individual and collective empowerment, development and identity. Disabled people are stifled more in our creative endeavours than any other marginalised group—our creative potential is universally underestimated. We are still therapised, stigmatised, infantilised, and disenfranchised in a way that would be unacceptable for other minority cultures in today's enlightened times. Disablement is the last bastion of social reform and, because it is an issue that potentially affects every individual in the human race, it could take another generation or two before we really come to terms with our fears about limitation enough to confront it properly.



Philip Patston as Philly Delphia
(Photo by Caglar Kimyoncu for Giant Leap International Disability Arts Festival)



Through the emergence of disability arts and culture crips, like queers, are slowly but surely creating a cultural movement that celebrates our unique creative expression. We must continue to forge ahead with the development of this movement, following the successes of queer cultural development so that, more and more, the experiences of disability and impairment are framed not as deficit and despair, but as a natural representation of our diversity and distinction.

And maybe as queer crips, we can take a lead in that journey.

Giant Leap featured professional performers from London, Vancouver, San Francisco and Singapore, as well as local artists. They included: American David Roche, who performed his acclaimed, award-winning one-man show "The Church of 80% Sincerity," inspired by his experience living with congenital facial disfigurement. Julie McNamara, an outspoken survivor of the UK Mental Health System, and an award-winning singer, songwriter and playwright, performed "Pig Tales." "Sealboy:Freak" is UK actor and writer Mat Fraser's look at the connection between today's disabled performers and the freak show entertainers of the past. Singapore's Ramesh Meyyappan is a multi-faceted and deaf practitioner who performed his show, "This Side Up," and ran a deaf theatre masterclass. NZ's Touch Compass is dedicated to producing performances and providing training for performers of mixed abilities. Giant Leap's website is www.giantleap.org.nz.

©2005 Philip Patston


Philip Patston,
born in 1967, is a full four minutes older than his twin brother. After a career in social services and human rights advocacy he began a parallel career as a comedian and, in 1999, won the Billy T. James Award for contribution and commitment to New Zealand comedy. Philip has produced and performed in three one-man comedy shows for the TV2 International LAUGH! Festival and appeared for six years running in the popular standup comedy television series, "Pulp Comedy." He has performed at disability arts festivals in Australia, the UK and in Canada. For more about Philip, go to www.diversityworks.co.nz.


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BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/July 2005