We Need To Talk About The Exclusion of Disability in the Arts

By Sarah Houbolt
Illustration by Matt Huynh

Working as a professional circus performer in Auckland, sparks would fly from my crotch as the angle grinder attacked my nethers in my show. Tumbling down aerial tissue in gold glitter sequined leotards, my very attractive colleagues gently pulled me aside to tell me two vital pieces of advice.

The first: “Sarah, know your contribution; just do your job and know your place in this production”.

The second: “Give in. Stop fighting it. The moment you stop fighting stereotypes and live up to them, everything will fall into place”.

My involvement was a creative contribution, but as with all people living with disability, enforced restrictions became apparent. Even in a place historically known to embrace the ‘freak’, my circus peers silently created limitations around my difference.

Daily experiences in my arts practice consisted of continually developing creative and gracious responses to “why would you take acting classes if you are not going to get any work anyway”, along with navigating the subtle beliefs and behaviours that formed the sharp, nasty edges of the parameters I worked within.

Stepping away intermittently from circus burlesque, physical theatre and experimental practice, I thought I would find solace in integrated arts and disability work, thinking that I would be completely supported and understood. Yet, as a core company member of an inclusive, integrated dance company, it turned out I was not visibly disabled enough, and they could not invest in what it took to keep me safe or foster my professional development.

An inclusive, integrated setting was in fact the most disabling. Breeding an epidemic of helping for the sake of seeming inclusive (or for obvious self-promotion) and a pattern of colonisation of disability culture, an ‘integrated’ group perceived inclusion as to completely ignore the creative exploration needs of an artist with disability and turn a blind eye to accountability. The premise of inclusive and integration fed into the notion that artists with disability were excluded to begin with, rather than a premise that we are of innate creative value for equal collaboration.

I found myself socialised to ask to be included, rather than wanting to be involved.

I felt excluded from everything, classes, high end productions and corporate work. Until there was nothing left but the moment when the exclusion made me strong enough to see the false dichotomy of inclusion/exclusion itself. Through a return to the fringes, by fortune I watched Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), which was the beginning of my de-colonisation process. The first stage was the experience of reclamation. Now, I openly call for the shattering of the colonisation of arts and disability by the culturally non-disabled.

Tod Browning’s film Freaks was banned for thirty years for being too horrific.

The film featured performers with disability in lead and speaking roles, at a time of the Ugly Laws, anti-marriage laws, compulsory sterilisation and asylum living. Today we think of freak shows as exploitative, but all of the recent academic research shows that actually they were the safest place for them to be, and one of the only choices for economic reward. Exclusion became exclusive, and beneficial. Watching the film for the first time gave me a legacy to follow, a cultural heritage uncovered, and a need to ensure that our history is fully known, and told by us.

I call on every arts company doing anything related to arts and disability to know our art history, and draw from it, under a disability-led approach. The importance of history is why I made the full length show, KooKoo the Birdgirl.

Without knowing and understanding our past, we colonise our present.

We ignore potential re-frames, reference points, style guides, hints of a new aesthetic and most importantly, leaders and role models of possibility. If you take away inclusion/exclusion for a moment, you will see with some investigation that our collective history is full of artists with disability, contributing and pursuing their creative roles. Yes, it may not be as many as we would like, past and present, but our stages and screens will be richer with diversity if we name and explain our past diversity. The difference, in our contemporary times, is that our processes and conditions for making work must be better than in the past. Unconventional artists must be given artistic control and leadership, with peers viewing their contribution as equal. Part of benchmarking diversity on screen is identifying products that have already gone before us, as examples.

Through delving into the freak show, and being wonderfully supported by contemporary side show performers who intellectually and experientially know the value of the natural born freak, I found my stereotype for sustainability, and the space to explore new ways of arts practice according to the strength of my senses. Through gaining value of my performative body within the fringe, I wait comfortably within exclusion, for the beautiful changes that are happening within the global arts sector.

Sarah Houbolt is an accomplished international circus and physical theatre performer, trained in aerials, acrobatics and hula hoop. By day she works at Accessible Arts in Sydney, and by night she is KooKoo the Birdgirl. Her show reel consists of everything from Cirque du Soleil to corporate aerials to starring as Hairy Maclary in children’s theatre.

Sarah Houbolt will be speaking at the Sydney Opera House as part of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas on the 3–4 September. She will be delivering a solo talk,“Freaks Like Me” for more information go to: fodi.sydneyoperahouse.com