Bodies of Work Program (IL UCEDD/LEND) Featured in the Chicago Tribune

May 31, 2013

Website Link

Lyrical dance pieces incorporating performers in wheelchairs, a one-man show promising "funny stories about cancer" and the Lookingglass Theatre's world premiere adaptation of "Still Alice," a New York Times best-selling novel about a college professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's, are included in the rich pool of offerings in "Bodies of Work," an 11-day festival of disability arts and culture.

The festival's robust lineup features film screenings, poetry and book readings, contemporary art shows, workshops and panel discussions, all highlighting the work of professional artists with disabilities.

The idea behind the festival, says Bodies of Work director Carrie Sandahl, an associate professor in the Department of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who also heads the university's Program on Disability Art, Culture, and Humanities, is to "illuminate disability experience in new and unexpected ways."

Sandahl says popular culture typically portrays characters who are disabled or ill "as an inspiration, or a villain, or a charity case," and that the roles they play are "largely symbolic ... to teach nondisabled people lessons about themselves."

Instead of seeing disability as a flaw, advocates like Sandahl argue that we should instead consider it "part of natural human variation." Through art, says Sandahl, an artist with a theater background who was born with sacral agenesis, a condition that requires her to walk with crutches or use a wheelchair, "we are expressing our perspectives on the world gained by having a unique body, a unique mind, sensory differences, mental health differences. We don't see these as obstacles to overcome, but as experiences to be explored."

She adds that people in the disability arts movement aren't trying to be "separatist," nor are the artists trying to blend into the mainstream: "It's more about expanding the stories and the images (of disabled people) and ... what people understand to be a disability experience."

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.'"

When it comes to inclusivity, says Sandahl, "dance is ahead" of the other arts, although she admits that may seem counter-intuitive.

"(If) you use a wheelchair or you're an amputee or you're blind, typically, you would be excluded from traditional dance training," she explains, because ballet and modern dance were created with "very specific kinds of nondisabled bodies" in mind. People with disabilities began to create and choreograph dances based on the unique ways in which their own bodies moved. Now, a number of dance companies across the country are "physically integrated," meaning they're comprised of dancers with and without physical disabilities.

After dancer Ginger Lane incurred a spinal cord injury almost 30 years ago and could no longer walk, she assumed that meant she'd never dance again. "When I acquired my disability," Lane says, "I had to start rethinking dance, and whether I was still going to be a part of that world."

Lane eventually met other dancers with disabilities who were using their wheelchairs and prosthetic devices to move in entirely new ways. It inspired her to relearn dance, this time by "making arcs and circles and sweeping movements, and spins, and trying to move on one wheel," all by way of her chair.

She says she sees her wheelchair as a part of her body. "It's not in addition to your body; it is your body. That's why so many of us don't like when people put their feet on our chair or lean on it."

Read the full article here.