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Its time to break barriers

OUR VIEW • Casting, play did a disservice to the disabled
by: ©2008 OWEN CAREY, While a recent Third Rail Repertory play, “Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” took on the subject of disabilities, many disabled people say it relied on tired clichés and stereotypes.

By Curtis Walker, Cheryl Green, Carole Zoom, Erik Ferguson, Kathy Coleman, Jane Gravel and Yulia Arakelyan


Eric Bartels' theater review of Third Rail Repertory's production of 'Nobody Here But Us Chickens' (May 2) promised 'subversively original thinking about our assumptions regarding human frailty.'

A good farce challenges assumptions; 'Chickens' reinforced inaccurate, outdated myths and stereotypes. Third Rail excluded disabled people from the stage and made misguided decisions that exemplify the mind-set inherent in the systemic oppression of the disabled.

We are forcibly segregated in public and private by inaccessibility, poverty, fear and institutionalization. In 'Chickens' (written by Peter Barnes), the realities of institutionalization, shock treatment, forced medication, torture and death were fodder for brief jokes, or just completely ignored.

Bartels described one character as 'isolated - institutionalized, in fact - and doesn't seem to mind.' This is a perfect example of the erroneous thinking all throughout 'Chickens;' disabled people do mind that we are isolated, institutionalized, overlooked, spoken for and misrepresented.

Another skit inaccurately portrayed blind people as incapable of dressing themselves properly and inept at finding their way around their own bedroom.

'Chickens' suggests it is absurd that disabled people want to take a martial arts class and ridiculous for two disabled men to dance together. This infuriates us because in Portland today we fight hard for opportunities to train and perform in ways non- disabled people take for granted.

Most dance training happens in the Pythian Building, with stairs blocking disabled dancers from entering. Most stages are inaccessible.

Just this month, we were refused Pilates classes and told we are a liability. Others were excluded from City Repair bike workshops. We are barred from training by inaccessible spaces, outdated policies and/or flat-out refusals to teach us.

Called on their mistake, City Repair issued a public apology and will discuss including accessibility projects next year. When asked why he did not cast disabled actors, 'Chickens'' director S. Scott Yarbrough said he felt the script would be too rigorous for disabled people.

However, it takes much less effort for someone with cerebral palsy to move naturally than for nondisabled performers to writhe inaccurately. This paternalistic decision to not cast people with disabilities was made by nondisabled people, not disabled artists.

The production was based on harmful, humiliating appropriation: a blond, white woman faking what we assume was meant to be a Japanese accent; men completely misrepresenting a collection of disabilities that don't even occur together; and characters magically turning off disabilities instantaneously because they were told to.

Initially, the director of 'Chickens' invited people with disabilities to sing cheerful songs between pieces, rather than play ourselves.

This invitation to be a sideshow, segregating people with disabilities from the 'real' actors, was tokenizing and insulting.

Audience members were turned away because only one space was set aside for wheelchair users. How can Third Rail call this 'a celebration of community?'

There are beautifully funny and real aspects to being a disabled person. We are not asking to have our lives portrayed only in a serious light. Nor do we want Portland theaters to avoid plays dealing with disability.

We demand accessible theaters and to have our lives accurately portrayed by us, not nondisabled people who refuse to learn about who we are.

We want Portland's city officials, funders and the arts community to support us in accessing equitable training and funding so we can tell our own stories our way and participate in community life on our own terms.

Why produce demeaning productions when local disabled artists are creating cutting-edge visual and performing arts?

Check out Impetus Arts (www.impetusarts.org), the Disability Art and Culture Project (www.dacphome.org) and Carole Zoom Visual Arts (www.carolezoom.com).

Curtis Walker is an actor with cerebral palsy; Cheryl Green is a theatre educator and dancer; Carole Zoom is a printmaker and community organizer; Erik Ferguson is a performance artist and teacher; Kathy Coleman is a dancer and disability cultural activist; Jane Gravel is a grant writer and advocate; Yulia Arakelyan is a performer, dancer and teacher.