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July 14, 2014

Disability in Theatre

Being a theatre enthusiast myself, thanks to my parents taking me to plays since I was little, I have come to care passionately about the arts. Since I started disability studies this year at CUNY, my awareness of how disability is portrayed in media and the arts has been heightened. I became aware of Martin McDonagh's play The Cripple of Inishmaan — which sounded quite Irish and being very proud of my Irish roots, I decided to see it with my father. I had heard that Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry Potter in the films, was acting in the title part, that of  "Cripple" Billy Claven, so my interest was piqued.

The play is set on the small Aran Islands community of Inis Meáin off the Western coast of Ireland, where the community is excited to hear of a documentary being made about life on their islands. Billy, who wants to escape the gossip and boredom of Inishmaan, tries out for a role in the documentary and to everyone's surprise, gets his chance. The play, though written in the late 1990s, takes place in the early 1930s, so naturally the language lacks the sensitivity of today's standards. That is why Billy is commonly referred to as Cripple Billy, rather than by his given name. This is unsettling to our ears but it is an integrated part of the story, casting a light on a different time.      

Everyone in the play seems to pity Cripple Billy and they show it in mean-spirited ways often. We soon see that Billy, a teenage orphan with cerebral palsy with a gnarled left arm and leg, is the most mature character in Inishmaan.He has become used to people poking fun at his disability, tolerates it on some level (does he really have a choice?), and wisely comments near the end of the play, "Well, there are plenty [of people] round here just as crippled as me, only it isn't on the outside it shows." 

Even though Daniel Radcliffe does not have cerebral palsy, he did his research; as a theatre goer with cerebral palsy myself, I believe his portrayal was done with as much sensitivity as one would hope it would be. There is a larger issue looming whenever someone without a disability portrays someone with a disability — but this issue requires much more debate than we have space for here. The subject is briefly alluded to in the play when Billy fails his screen test and an actor is given his role: "Ah, better to get a normal fella who can act crippled then a crippled fella who can't fecking act at all."   

Inishmaan is a compelling tale told in the vein of a black comedy (a play that uses humor to make light of otherwise serious subject matter). Of course, Billy yearns throughout the play for a girl and as one might expect she will have no part of him and only pokes fun at him — this is a story arc that comes to a surprising conclusion by the play's end. Now at the tail end of its run at the Cort Theatre, which concludes on the 20th of July, The Cripple of Inishmaan is a worthwhile investment of your time to see, with superb acting by the entire cast. Nothing is cut from the play, as the text is just over 100 pages.

Another play based on a person with a disability will be at the Barrymore Theatre soon, so watch for it. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, based on a book of the same name by Mark Haddon, comes to life on Broadway in September. The story revolves around Christopher, an autistic teen, who falls under suspicion for killing his neighbor's dog; he then sets out to find the true culprit. While doing so, he is led to an earth-shattering discovery and a journey that will change his life forever. Sounds like one not to miss.

It is very important that portrayals of people with disabilities are being done more thoughtfully now than they were in the past and it is gratifying to see it happening more and more. It is no surprise that stories about people with disabilities are being told more often since their lives are often creative and compelling. Art is a great tool in breaking down negative stereotypes and misconceptions and for creating deeper understanding — and dramatic theatre can do that best of all. 

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I'm Keith R. Murfee-DeConcini and thanks to the trust of YAI and its continued commitment to promoting diversity, I have been given the opportunity to write for YAI's blog as part of my summer internship with the organization. Each week I will bring you different perspectives about disability issues. You will be able to make comments, as well and we all look forward to what you have to say.
Yes, as you might suspect, I have some disabilities that stem from birth. I was born at New York Hospital on October 30, 1984, weighing 2 pounds, 11 ounces, three months premature and nearly died in the middle of December of that year. A few weeks before that fateful time, I pulled out my breathing tubes from my nose and proceeded to breathe on my own for eight hours, much to the amazement of the doctors, nurses and everyone else in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

For my first 99 days in intensive care, I lived in an incubator which my mother, Elizabeth Murfee, used to bathe me in classical music by placing a tiny tape recorder inside. She was at my side every day that I was in NICU, sometimes staying as much as 20 hours a day. She also saw that I got every available intervention as early and often as needed. At my naming ceremony, held in the chapel at New York Hospital the day I was released, one of the doctors noted that if I had stayed in NICU 100 days, they were going to name me an honorary doctor.
At 18 months of age, I was diagnosed with mild to moderate cerebral palsy, hypotonia type, hemiplegia at the preemie clinic at New York Hospital. Hypotonia means decreased or floppy muscle tone, while hemiplegia means that one complete side (arm and leg) is affected by cerebral palsy. In my case, mainly the right side is affected.
I have been fortunate to live in various parts of the country, receiving my associates degree from Landmark College in Putney, Vt.; my bachelor's in creative writing from the College of Santa Fe (now, Santa Fe University of Art and Design) in New Mexico. Currently, I am in the process of earning my master's of public administration from the University of Arizona (UA), with a specialization in disability policy. It so happens that UA does not offer graduate courses in disability policy, but CUNY (City University of New York), School of Professional Studies has an excellent program, so I am back in my hometown for a year.
I have been a writer most of my life and have written in many mediums, including poetry, fiction and non-fiction; and like my mother, I am a published author. While living in Tucson, I served as Vice Chair on the Mayor's Commission on Disability Issues, one example of my activism in disability issues.
Every day I seek to change and enlarge the notion of what someone with a disability can do, which has become my life's passion and mission. Some people view me as a "Super Crip," as I am relatively high performing but those skills mean nothing without passion. Passion is the fuel in the fire and it is that fuel that inspires me to challenge everyday notions about what people with disabilities offer the world. Join me this summer in this movement!

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Tags: Advocacy

February 1, 2014

Self Advocates In-Action

The winter 2014 issue of our New York City Self Advocacy group's newsletter features a tribute to Tom Dern, our C.O.O. who passed away unexpectedly in December.

First article

Tags: Advocacy; Legislation; Person Centered; Independant Living

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