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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

RESPONSE TO ARTSLINK (article first published : 2002-02-14)

Robert Greig's recent suggestion (in an article on artslink.co.za) that the disabled are somehow "non-artists" incapable of contributing to "the country's cultural health" is subtle but nevertheless potentially dangerous. As one of the “ducks” (he is so quick to brand), my own experience of working in (dis)ability dance, with young artists in KwaZulu-Natal, over the past seven years is that “they” - that is people with disabilities - like many black South Africans have welcomed the learning process and interaction that working with professional dancers/choreographers can provide.

The impact of racial and institutional isolation on performance dance expressions by people with disabilities is still being felt in 2002. Hence, the quagmire of inequities experienced by the disabled must form the context in which to trace (dis)ability dance and "integrated wheelchair dancing" in South Africa.

One of the founder members of British based CandoCo (1), Adam Benjamin's challenge of the stereotype for people with disabilities is one that I would readily support. He argues that, "There is no reason why one of the great choreographers of the future should not be someone with a severe physical disability, as long as they are given the opportunity to study and experiment and as long as the educational establishments take their wish to study seriously"(1993).

Greig's presumption that the "ambulatorily impaired" (another euphemism to which I hope to return in a future letter) have no aspiration to be artists in their own right, I find short-sighted and offensive. Indeed, why our tax-paying rands should not be funding all artistic communities - including the disabled - to express, critique, caution or celebrate their lives, is to me the real question. Greig's interviews (or lack thereof) with Malcolm Black and/or Mokgotso Sompane - two self-proclaimed wheelchair dancers - will surely attest to the enthusiasm for dance as an artistic expression that extends beyond its social/therapeutic value but is a conscious reflection of these young artists' personal journey which they share with the world.

It is indisputable that the arts has already revealed its power as social commentator, political agitator and lobbyist for societal transformation e.g. Woza Albert (Ngema), Boesman and Lena (Fugard), and more recently At the Edge (R Govender), Behind Closed Doors (Klotz), Out of Bounds (Gopie). to name but a few. Perhaps, Greig's current disillusionment with the arts as such a tool needs his own deeper, self-examining.

Surely our mental faculties could be appropriately applied to finding novel ways in which to include the disabled at every strata of our multicultural society rather than resort to than name-calling for those artists (and ministries/depts.) who genuinely desire to enter into inter-cultural dialogues with the disabled?

The need to be a watchdog on the affairs of the Department of Arts and Culture is admirable but let's not cloud the issue of an absent comprehensive policy for the disabled in the arts with the cumbersome language of DACST's reports and/or any new "linguistic atrocities" that may or may not arise from the possible inclusion of people with disabilities into the arts' fabric of our country.

In my view, this richer tapestry for all its complexities will allow many South Africans to process the complex issue that is disablement. A person in a wheelchair is physically impaired (yes) but more importantly, in my view, is disabled by a society that fails to provide not only physical access to its theatres but the support/ infra-structures that would allow him (sic) to create and express his own soul and vision. These include exposure to various art forms, skilling techniques and performance platforms that perhaps the young dancer/artist with disabilities has been (hither to) unable to access.

South Africa still has many of its children with disabilities locked away in backrooms unseen and unaccounted for - as if 'they' are non-family members/citizens or as Greig would have us believe "non-artists". Such myths need to be dispelled by any and all means at our disposal - with funding from all departments not just the Dept. of Health.

Finally, the emergence of “(dis)ability arts” in theatres across South Africa is still a novel experience for many. The barriers for the disabled to access the performing arts is more than physical. That is to say it is not just a lack of public transportation infrastructure or wheelchair ramps, it extends to education and training of the arts, funding for artistic exploration, adequate peer and media review and the recognition of the disabled's final artistic product or work.

Unbelievably, some artists are not well-meaning opportunists, fumbling with "cat's cradle(s)" we are simply amplifying the already hoarse voices of disabled for inclusion.

Gerard Samuel: Independent dance teacher working with young artists with disabilities (Durban). January 25, 2001

(1) CandoCo is a professional full-time contemporary dance company consisting of both disabled and able-bodied dancers based in London who seek to redefine dance language through their collective histories, different- and same-ness as performers. This experimental dance company which began in 1991 include founding members Celeste Dandeker and Adam Benjamin.




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