What about a little cultural equality?

I always thought going to see a West End musical on a Saturday night would be intolerable. Turns out it simply exposed the intolerance of other people.

I recently took my 21-year-old sister, who happens to have a learning disability, to see the sort of shiny dance-a-thon that I’ve always avoided because of the incumbent hen groups and coach parties (intolerant? Me?). But it was her birthday and I was game, especially as her idol, ex-Hear’Say singer Noel Sullivan, was in the lead role.

The evening got off to a great start. We had a drink in a Soho bar, an old haunt that I’d never thought I’d be able to take her to, thanks to her dislike of noisy crowds. But we got there before it was busy, she leafed through her show programme, happy and excited.

En route to the theatre, I could feel my sister’s excitement mounting (something about how she shot through Piccadilly, wielding her rolled up programme like a crowd-dispersal baton, muttering “out the way!” to anyone in her path).

Her happiness was infectious. We took our seats a couple of rows from the stage. The lights went down. The curtain came up. Our problems began.

Her gentle thigh slapping became more enthusiastic, as did the clapping, whooping, jiving and singing (pitch and word-perfect, by the way) through each of the 20 musical numbers. The culmination involved vigorous hip wiggling to the “Greased Lightning” medley; legs akimbo, arms outstretched, index finger sweeping the stage horizon, left to right.

There she was – my wonderfully ecstatic sister, wearing her Grease t-shirt and an expression of unbridled joy.

There I was, squirming uncomfortably somewhere between the rock of seeing my sister so happy and the hard place of being with someone so outrageously flouting the Unwritten Rules of Acceptable Behaviour.

Where are the coach loads and fancy-dressed brides-to-be when you need them? Other than clapping, not one other blasted person stood up to show they were even having a mildly good time.

I suggested “just bopping” while sitting down. Bopping? The repression I felt physically was so intense, it had even sent my vocabulary hurtling back to Enid Blyton’s England! I suggested “not dancing” – a ludicrous option, met with an astonished “why?”. The stage was full of dancers and singers, music boomed out across the auditorium, why shouldn’t she show she was enjoying herself?

As the performance continued, we suffered much staring, several irritated glances and a handful of few tuts until finally a miserable-faced mother and daughter duo in front of us turned round and exhaled a violent “SHHHHHHHH!”, motioning angrily for my sister to sit down.

“What exactly would you like me to do?” I hissed through clenched teeth.

By the time the woman sitting next to me put her hand on mine, I was ready to recite the universal declaration of human rights; instead she restored my faith in humanity.

“She’s special, let her be,” she whispered. Unable to reply thanks to the lump that had suddenly taken up residence in my throat, I heard her say she had a granddaughter with Aspergers and, anyway, most people probably wanted to do what my sister was doing but were too uptight.

While I was fuming at the reactions of what was ultimately a tiny minority, the wise soul next to me made me accept that the “situation” was not in fact a “situation” but simply a bloody good night out for my sister.

So what to do?

One well-meaning friend who I talked to afterwards suggested a designated area in the auditorium for people with special needs “so they can enjoy the show and no one else will be disturbed”. Hey! Great idea! Why hasn’t someone else thought of segregation? Hang on – they did, what was it called now..oh yes – apartheid!

What we need is cultural equality, as promoted by organisations such as Arts and Disability Ireland which advocate the engagement of people with disabilities as audience members. There’s some good work around promoting disability access at outdoor events and several organisations lobby on such issues but there seems less around the actual inclusion of people with disabilities into mainstream audiences.

Anyone know of any schemes along these lines?

By the way, to the miserable mother and daughter combo, should I ever have the misfortune to clap eyes on either of you sorry people again, I’d (a) perform a citizens arrest for crimes against happiness and (b) present you with two complimentary tickets to a special musical that I reckon you’d love. Want me to arrange for you to meet the cast?

10 thoughts on “What about a little cultural equality?”

  1. Very amusing and interesting article Saba. I work with Movers Theatre Company, an ensemble of adults with Learning Disabilities, and have often experienced the social discomfort you describe in this situation.

    As you rightly point out, singing and dancing in the aisles is not an uncommon phenomenon in mainstream musical theatre, particularly if a hen (or possibly stag) party are in, and I’m sure most people would accept this, after all haven’t you paid to have a good time? So why the frowns and negative attitude towards your sister? Is this merely a case of discomfort at one person’s behaviour going against the norm, would your sister have encountered the same reaction had she been in attendance with a larger group of singing and dancing theatre goers?

    Theatre and the arts in general are still a long way off true accessibility at the moment, and this is not just an issue in the auditorium, but also behind the scenes. I beleive awareness of the capabilities, and inputs to society that Learning Disabled people can have are being slowly noticed, but there is still a long way to go in terms of people’s understanding and acceptance. Maybe this is only something that will happen once Learning Disabled Actors truly become a part of the mainstream, and are celebrated for their unique creative qualities, rather than held back by their disabilities.

    I have to say that personally, once I got over the anxiety of such situations, I now take great joy in openly embracing these social foibles, I mean who cares if you’re dancing in the street or having a loud conversation in a quiet cafe, why shouldn’t we be ourselves and react in an honest and open way?

    1. Thanks for your comment Bob, one person’s “social foible” is another’s natural expression of joy! Really interesting what you say about how this issue is also one found behind the scenes, hadn’t considered that as was so focussed on actors and audience who are learning disabled. Inclusive employment in the arts industry, be good to look at that in a future post.

      1. wish id been there id would have boogied all night with her. stuff the intolerant pompous twits, i have 2 sons age 28 amd 32 with a learning difficulty, i have long since given up worrying what other people think, they are the ones who have the problem, i take my sons all over the place if people stare i stare back. soon shuts em up.

  2. I am a support worker for people who have a learning disability and this was one of the hardest parts of the job for me to get used to, breaking every social rule in the book! I’ve gone from being red faced and apologising profusely for others behaviour to realising that the problem is these social rules and the people who take them as gospel, not the person. I thank the people I support so much for making me more confident, loosening me up more than I could have ever imagined and showing me that it doesn’t matter what other people think, let them stare, we just smile back and carry on enjoying ourselves!

    http://www.candoco.co.uk/ is a great company, specialising in the integration of disabled and non disabled dancers and frequently tour the uk with some brilliant productions

    1. Kaylee thanks for your comment, and congratulations for embracing the breaking of the social rule book – “let them stare – just smile back” is a great motto.

      It’s quite something that the hardest part of a support workers’ job isn’t always about meeting the often complex needs of the person they’re supporting, but dealing with and batting away unwanted attention from those who don’t approve of Public Displays of Enjoyment (henceforth known as PDE). Just as those you support have helped you throw off the social shackles imposed by others, my sister’s taught me a huge amount. Perhaps we should begin a PDE thread here with a prize for the most brazen demonstration of joy in the face of social repression?

      I hadn’t come across the work of Candoco, thanks for suggesting the link, because the more that the public gets to see performances by arts organisations that integrate able-bodied and disabled artists, the more audiences will accept “different people” in the auditorium.

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