The PUSH festival held an interesting conversation on Friday, Jan. 25th, 2019. The event was an expansive panel of discussion about arts, theatre and where accessibility and the disability community fit in. Does the experience of art performers have to be separate from diversity and inclusion?
The issue of "I feel sorry for you"
The first panel judge - Dawn Jani Birley spoke from her own experience as a third generation of deaf family. Her life motto is "Anything is possible in life". She felt contented with her life as she was in a rich culture and tightly-knit community.
However, there were struggles in life that still hindered the talented art performer. Birley traced these issues to the lack of governmental support for deaf communities and the lack of support for deaf people in performance art department.
It was also the attitude of pitying on deaf people that challenged Burley's life journey. People would often think it is unfortunate for deaf people to live their own way.
"My life is wonderful but your attitude is the struggle that we deal with", she said.
Birley accepted deafness as part of her identity and her own way of life, although different from the social norm, had always been positive and exciting. The performer believed that arts were platforms for working towards understanding.
Creativity knows no bounds
Next, came the turn for Ravi Jain - Creative director
The director started with his background and past work, which was theatre. It was a place for creativity. Jain believed that creativity can be inclusive, regardless of race and gender, which led to the concept of a culturally diverse theatre.
Jain was grateful for his past work with many actors with different backgrounds, who brought about a multi-colored lens of opinion.
On inclusion and diversity, the creative director believed that the more inclusive it was, the better the art.
Adding to Jain's point, art performer Birley told her own example to explain that better support meant improved art performance. When she was working in Finland, Birley had a 24/7 interpreter provided by the Finish government. The constant flowing communication between Birley and the art director she was collaborating with facilitated strong team work ethic and final product improvements.
Pity is petty
Resonating on the Birley's experience as a deaf person, Denise Read, owner of ASLSQ Entertainment, emphasized the discrimination against deaf people is alarming.
Read first experienced this when people told her pursuing art was not compatible to her personal background.
This didn't stop her from pursuing the dream. Read believed that the theater was just a way to express oneself and that it could always be inclusive.
The belief that being a deaf person meant they were worthless was problematic, Read said. The governments's reporting deaf people as "hearing impaired" meant they were something less than an able-bodied person. In fact, she much prefer the word "deaf" used to describe herself. Read claimed proudly that the deaf community is rich in both language and culture.
She also believed that being deaf doesn't mean disabled. It means diverse ability to her. She would like to see a play, where a main character is cast by deaf and blind actors. The inclusion of deaf people in art performances doesn't decrease the quality of it. In fact, it enhances it.
On ASL and sign languages, Read stressed that they play an important part in her life. In the past, she had heard peculiar questions from people around her, such as "Can you read lips?". A deaf person doesn't always know how to read lips in order to communicate, they use ASL instead. For satire, Read just replied: "can you read my hands?"
Delivering her last point, Read wants to see more collaboration with allies of minority communities and the immersion of deaf culture and language in mainstream society.
Working towards the goal of inclusion and arts, Read founded her own art company called ASLSQ entertainment as she believes art and theater are impactful and expressive in their nature, which would greatly enhances the lives of many people, regardless of race, gender or abilities.
The fourth speaker was JD Derbyshire, who is an ally. She started her speech with the vision of a Utopian, where human expressions is unhindered and diversity flourishes.
Next, Derbyshire proposed a method to move forward towards her vision: education and role models. Although it takes time and money, education would greatly improve society's knowledge and sympathy towards minority groups. She added that there should be more involved process to accommodate deaf people.
The current challenge, according to Derbyshire, is the visibility of art and accessibility and the lack of support system to make her vision come true.
Intersectionality - the new diversity?
Back to Dawn Jani Birley, the performer challenged the meaning of "diversity" and what it includes. For the most part, race and sexuality is often mentioned on the media, but not the deaf community.
Instead, Birley would prefer the idea of "intersectionality". The concept would identify and include various minority groups and the support systems that match them, such as sign interpreters for deaf people. Although this seems like a more ideal concept, true inclusion is an ongoing work.
Despite her critiques of diversity, Birley believes in it and the community she had built. She enjoys her work and the joy of leaning new language and culture.
After the half of panel discussion, the audience could ask questions of their own for the panel. The first question probed the issue of able-bodied actors portraying people of disability and the opinion of the panel.
Dawn Jani Birley responded that it is unethical for such instance. She equated it to the issue of black face, where white actors portray black characters in untrue ways.
Birley said that she would know who is not deaf, based on their performance and mediocre sign language.
She also relates this issue to the erasure of minority groups on popular media. Deaf community is rarely seen on TV. For deaf kids, they lack a role model to inspire them. And even with the current coverage of deaf community on mainstream media, Birley said that it didn't match with what she experienced in her life.
"[...] deaf people are not tragedies", emphasized Birley.
Representation is key. It is crucial that deaf people are viewed as celebrating role model for the future generations, according to Birley.
How to be better allies?
This begs the next question: "How can we do better as allies?"
Read and Birley encouraged the audience in the room to challenge the assumptions. Allies should be willing to bear being wrong and they should be self aware. They should also check in and try to understand the community they're supporting.
Instead of saying "I understand you", because the statement would ignore the struggles of minority groups, they should ask questions such as: "I want to support you in a suitable way. How can I help you?"
As society is recognizing the problems and issues of visibility and diversity, we are working towards a better future, one step at a time. Birley and Read recalls one of the beautiful moments when their audience tried to learn sign language. They appreciate the audience's effort to understand the language and communicate with them.