Something was left out of my recent introduction and I did so on purpose. Not because I am ashamed of it — very much the opposite. I have a speech impediment and unless someone has knowledge about my type of cerebral palsy (such as doctors or physical therapists), my speech is the main external indicator that I have a disability. The fact that my speech impediment -- what I refer to as an accent -- has a whole blog post devoted to it, is not so much my way of romanticizing it, as it is to draw attention to some of the most common misconceptions in society about having a speech impediment.
The first one, which I have had to wrestle with for years, is that if I cannot speak properly, then one of two things must be true: either I have an intellectual disability (ID) or I am drunk. Let me unpack these two assumptions that are as off-base as teaching children that the earth is flat.
I have dysarthria, a motor speech disorder caused by my cerebral palsy. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, dysarthria occurs because “the muscles of the mouth, face, and respiratory system may become weak, move slowly, or not move at all after a stroke or other brain injury.” My “other brain injury” was my premature birth. At the top of the list of symptoms of dysarthria is slurred speech. The most common activity society associates with slurred speech is being drunk. The fact that I am also Irish does not help matters.
If someone cannot speak properly and they are not drunk, then the other “reasonable” explanation is that there must be some issue with their intellect. While in some cases, that may be true, it is ridiculously unfair to blanket that assumption to every speech impediment. Many people with dysarthria are quite intelligent.
People are so accustomed to the natural development of speech that it is taken for granted. But in fact, it is a skill learned and developed over a lifetime. However, just like tomorrow is never an iron clad guarantee, neither is the mastery of speech. The ability to speak can be taken away at any time -- just ask most anyone who has had a stroke. I personally do not take speech for granted. That is because I have to earn it day in and day out.
The taunt that I hear most often is the classic one, a word that virtually everyone with disabilities gets called at one time or another. I have been called the R word so many times because of my speech, it no longer phases me -- but that does not mean the sting has been taken out of it. The R word is as hateful as the N word.
Despite the taunts, my speech accent has never impelled be to hide or be quiet. Public speaking is one of my skills and I am often asked to do so. I enjoy it and by putting myself out there, I am helping to dispel people's knee jerk reaction to speech impediments. After a few minutes of hearing me, ears adjust to the rhythm of my voice and the passion comes through, illuminating the topic I am speaking on. One could say that I was born for the stage, even with my accent.
Even after 24 years since it was signed into law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is still having trouble gaining traction, especially regarding Title 1 which focuses on employment.
According to United Cerebral Palsy's 2014 "The Case for Inclusion" report, only 13 percent of people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, are currently employed in New York.
The U.S. federal government is offering tax credits to companies that hire people with disabilities. Among these tax credits is the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which allows a company who "fills a vacant position with a WOTC-certified employee, the employer can become qualified to claim a federal income tax credit for a portion of the new employee's salary." (For more information, please visit: http://www.thinkbeyondthelabel.com/Blog/post/Making-Sense-of-Tax-Credits-for-Hiring-People-with-Disabilities.aspx)
This tax credit, among the others that are offered, has the noble aim of increasing the employment of people with disabilities, while providing employers with an incentive to save money on taxes by hiring individuals with disabilities. I am well aware that these incentives also help companies pay for reasonable accommodations for their employees with disabilities and especially in this economy, whatever helps those with disabilities should be embraced. Never mind that you have to wonder if companies (or at least some of them) are using the hiring of people with disabilities as simply a way to save money, instead of hiring people with disabilities to increase the diversity of their workforce.
What matters most is that people with disabilities should be hired on their merit and their willingness to work, not on the basis that employers can save on taxes. All of that aside, the fact remains that in the State of New York, it is not working. Looking at the data in the scorecard for New York by United Cerebral Palsy, the highest percentile of employment was 15 percent in 2004, in 2006, it dropped to its lowest at 12 percent and since 2009, it has remained at 13 percent.
The report ranks New York as the 5th best state in the country for people with disabilities. So given that, it makes no sense why companies are not hiring individuals with disabilities. Could it be the social concern that hiring people who are differently abled might upset customers? While that is understandable in some regard, after all people fear what they do not understand or have had no prior exposure to. However, it is up to employers who, if they claim to support diversity in the workforce to promote diversity of all types, not just the types they understand or are comfortable with.
Elbert Hubbard said it best: "It is a fine thing to have ability, but the ability to discover ability in others is the true test."
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.