A group of local disabled artists dressed as sheep grazed through Stratford town centre this afternoon to mark International Day of Disabled People, accompanied by hooting car horns and passers-by taking photographs. The United Nations General Assembly declared 3 December to be International Day of Disabled People in 1992, to provide a focus for fostering better understanding of disability issues and respect for disabled people, and greater inclusion of disabled people in every aspect of society. This year’s theme is ‘Inclusion matters: access and empowerment of people of all abilities’.
The comic performance was a re-staging of a professional work by Natural Diversions, led by Mark Bishop and Amy. Natural Diversions are a branch of the Natural Theatre Company, who have been making people laugh in nearly 80 countries for over 40 years. Combining a unique style of visual comedy with an impeccable eye for detail, they produce a delightfully absurd kind of comic interactive street theatre. In 2014, Natural Diversions were a major hit when they performed in Stratford’s Cultural Quarter to mark the official launch of Disability History Month on 22 November. This August they returned to Newham to work with the locally based disabled artists who appeared today, including members of Act Up! Newham, Starpad DJs and Powerhouse Women. The result was a hysterically funny day that still had a serious message.
Natural Diversions were originally inspired to create ‘Sheep’ by the way in which disabled people in institutional settings are herded about by their support workers. This is a sight that is becoming rarer only because day services have largely been cut, while residential services have far fewer funds available to take their residents out and about. However, even this afternoon we grazed past one minibus reloading its occupants in the Cultural Quarter (in delightful defiance of the inexplicable loading ban, which in combination with the lack of Blue Badge parking unnecessarily restricts access to central Stratford). Meanwhile, with the growing independence of colleges from the public sector and its equalities policies, local disabled students complain of being physically separated from other students, as they are moved en masse between one segregated activity and another.
Today, we were also thinking about the way in which disabled people are grouped together by the government and media. Disabled people come from all backgrounds, and everyone experiences impairment differently, but all too often disabled people are portrayed as being no more distinguishable from each other than a herd of sheep. At the same time, there is a tendency for everyone to follow unthinkingly when stereotypes are created, such as the portrayal of disabled people as being either ‘benefit scroungers’ or ‘burdens’. In fact, a quarter of the community (one in five of the working-age population) are disabled, and apart from our shared experience of barriers like these, we are no different or more similar than anyone else. This, of course, is why we use the term ‘disabled people’ to describe ourselves – impairments are a normal part of the human condition, but being treated like sheep is not. Together, we can change our world – and have a good laugh in the process.
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