Body politics: 'Decolonising' disability through performance art

South Africa's education in theatre and performance can be used as a medium of activism for assessing how we go about representing ourselves outside of the hegemonic able-bodied perceptions of what an artist/performer should be.


According to dance and performance studies lecturer and founder of the Flatfoot Dance Company, Lliane Loots, the nature of the "persecution" of people living with disabilities has not been grasped as yet and as a result, individuals living with disabilities often have minimal access to resources due to the classification of their disabilities.

Integration and inclusive practices


Although this cause itself is traceable to the colonial design and institution of regal knowledge, we as society need to start rethinking ways in which to include people living with disabilities.


With that being said, the aim is to critically reflect and engage with the colonial rendezvous and its interrelation with disability as an attempt to underline the importance of decolonisation through integration and inclusive practices needed in South Africa's educational system.

Universal narrative on disability


First and foremost, in order to comprehend "disability", we have to alter it and understand the universal narrative.


Shaun Gretch puts forth in his essay "Decolonising Eurocentric Disability Studies" that "disability existed and was constructed, imagined and lived in the colonial".


Thus colonialism cannot be disregarded as it is one of the common occurrences in diverse fractured spaces. 


This notion is further explained as Gretch mentions that "disabled people, like others, do not exist outside history and were impacted as part of the colonised". Those who had been categorised as disabled, had also experienced the torment caused by the colonisers — if not equally, then more.


Gretch further argues that impairments were pitched to the colonised as the irreversible and consequent punishment, meaning that disabled bodies were used as examples of disciplinary action for those who dared to defy them. As a result, disability became an "accessory of difference".

Social justice


Decolonising the South African educational system requires the use of inclusive practices which strives for social justice by resisting the notion of exclusion within and from communities and institutions.


The main question seems to be: How do we ensure inclusivity? For starters, by promoting participation and accessibility.


Loots, who has conducted various inclusive dance workshops, emphasises that "the educator and pupil enter into a mutual learning process" by drawing onto "their own localised knowledge and understanding of the world". 

Case study: Oasis Group Home


This notion I had witnessed during a workshop conducted by Kate Jaskolski at the Oasis Group Home where we were divided into groups of varied abilities and were instructed to create a single still image (as a group) of what the term "home" meant to us, which eventually developed into a 30-second skit. 


This was when I realised that theatre was an abandonment of appropriateness and rather an engagement with the intuitive lived bodily experience.

Theatre as a tool of instruction


Loots further says theatre should be used "as a tool – or indeed a strategy – towards other kinds of learning that engage the issues that plague our own lived reality".


In another instance, she mentions that when being inclusive, it is important to "look deeper into how we gave instruction" – which is exactly what Jaskolski did while facilitating her workshop at the Oasis Group Home.


The instructions given were left open for one's own interpretation, instead of being closed off with extremely specific directions which would ultimately end up excluding someone, one way or the other.


However, at the Unmute Dance Company — where integrated dance occurs through inclusive practices — the term "disability" has been reclaimed.


Arts consultant, author, filmmaker and activist Simi Linton explains the reason for this by stating that "disabled people are taking the thing in their identity that scares the outside world the most and making it a cause to level in with militant self-pride".

Opportunity and access


Thus when visiting Unmute, the dance company's co-founder and artictic director Nadine Mckenzie mentioned that everyone –  people with different body histories, types and abilities – is able to discover and gain their full potential when given the opportunity and access to the appropriate resources.


While watching the rehearsal of Siphenathi Mayekiso's solo on albinism, choreographed by Andile Vellem, it became evident that majority of the time as Lliane Loots mentions in her journal "You don't look like a dancer!": "when disabled bodies do dance, it is often met with – at best – pity, shame and a patronising critical inability to look at the creation of art/performance".


Nonetheless, the solo work on albinism as a disability feeds into Linton's statement in the publication Reassigning Meaning:


"Albinism includes the idea that a person's abilities or characteristics are determined by disability or that people with disabilities as a group are inferior to non-disabled people".


I concur that once we start looking beyond what society has deemed as "abled" and "disabled", only then will we realise that the work which they have created is challenging clichés surrounding what varied abled bodies can/cannot do – something which can only happen through inclusive education which is congruent with the notion of ubuntu.

Learning across differences


Through visiting the Oasis Group Home and Unmute Dance Company, the notion of inclusivity needs to influence personal teaching practices.


By observing the way in which Mayekiso and Vellem communicated during rehearsal – through gestures and sign language – the importance of eye contact and focus became imminent; something which we often take for granted when we assume that everyone in the room can hear us.


In addition through participating in Jaskolski's Oasis Group Home workshop, I learnt that stimulating learning across differences provides individuals with opportunities to engage and accept the next person's differences.


From an applied pedagogical perspective, Jaskolski had mentioned that when one becomes familiar with who one will be teaching, it is important that activities are accommodating to all and can alternatively be modified (when need be) in order to be inclusive.

Disability as an identity


These inclusive practices ensure nurturing of cultural consideration and belonging.


Diverse manifestations in theatre's primary manner of communication is the body and with the body comes consciousness to body politics. In order to understand the notion of body politics we have to recall that historically the colonizer framed the other culturally, spiritually, racially and bodily – measures which were used to isolate disabled people.


Despite having caused tremendous suffering, today disability is seen and understood as an identity.


In South Africa, disability can truly be seen as a form of discrimination that often excludes the disabled body, not only in a theatre setting, but in general.


Thus the practice of inclusivity and integration in the South African education system is important as it aids in decolonisation by teaching us to: Support diversity, encourage involvement, support safeguarding and promote equality overall.