That last bit surprised me. As a writer, I spend a lot of time dredging my own (and sometimes others') experience for answers to life's big questions, but giving myself time to examine my feelings about my disability, from age eight onward, seemed daunting. I was happy to accept I could hear better now, but when asked what I thought of my disability, or why I didn't write about it, I often passed my hearing loss off as part of my life, a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole essence of my identity. Sure, I had memories of rough times adjusting to wearing a hearing aid, and the stress of being the constant classroom expert on hearing loss took a little getting used to; but no great shakes, these memories. But when asked to plumb my experience of disability for narrative conflict by my advisers, why was my response immediate and dismissive? "Not being able to hear is intrinsic for me, that's all," I'd think. "Nobody on the outside will be interested enough to know about it."
First off, I was wrong about that. Plenty of people were interested, and plenty of people could find parallels between a hard of hearing person's struggles and their own (without either party being reductive about it). Second, though I may never know the why of my immediate response, I now find it telling nonetheless. I assumed sole-ness or alone-ness in my condition. As far back as I can remember, I was the only kid in my class with hearing loss. This made it extra-imperative for my parents to motivate me to see my disability as a positive, as something that contributed to my work ethic and personality, as opposed to detracted from those elements of my identity. (So, of course, I took their encouragement and turned it into a superhero. More about that here.) They also worked hard to make sure I never felt different from my classmates, but the honest fact of the matter is that I still was. That's neither a positive or a negative; it's also not something I ruminated on until I began research for a play centered on family and disability and identity.
As part of my research, I educated myself on the Deaf community's relationship to technology, some of which I've used in the past -- shake-awake alarms, closed captioning systems, basic stuff. I took the 2000 documentary "Sound And Fury" out of the Ohio University library and watched it. I'd highly recommend tracking this movie down (as well as its sequel!), because it deftly explores the pro and con sides to using a cochlear implant, while documenting one family's debate over whether or not its Deaf members should adopt the technology. At one point in the first "Sound and Fury," a Deaf father laments that if his daughter gets a cochlear implant, she will be neither Deaf nor hearing; she will be a third thing, with no specific culture to bind her to her family, to him. I paused the film. I rewound it. I played his comments again. I rewound the film. I played the comments again. I paused the film. I began to cry. Because I was that third thing he was talking about. And I'd never recognized that before. Obviously, I don't feel disconnected from my life or from my family and friends. I relate to them as any fully hearing person would; my disability is not severe to the point of separating me from anything, but it still calls for a lot of explanation. And I see myself in parts of the Deaf community (in the emphasis on visuals and body language), though I have no clue if I have a place there. I am that third thing that has no prescribed place.
When describing this reaction to an adviser, he pointed out that straddling two worlds afforded me a unique perspective as an artist. I agreed, but my epiphany also made me lonely in a weird way. The more research I did, the more singular I felt; the more singular I felt, the more I latched on to reflections of myself in media. (This is why I so love shows like "Switched At Birth" or books like Wonderstruck; they show me myself, and I devour their tales selfishly -- less for the ideas they impart, more for the "Yup, I've been there" feelings of relief they evoke in me.) Two years and some change away from that fateful watching of "Sound and Fury," I still wrestle. Examination of disability has claimed a larger and larger part of my own writing, and I find myself attracted to discourse on the subject, which further challenges me as an artist.
Take, for example, Jacqueline Lawton's recent great interview with Gift Theater co-founder and artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton, as part of the Theatre Communication Group's Diversity & Inclusion blog salon. Seriously, read the whole interview and then come back. It is a smart, thought-provoking discussion about the types of inclusion needed within Chicago storefront theatre. Of particular interest to me was Michael Patrick Thorton's thoughts about casting actors with disabilities: "Maybe in addition to seeking out disablist playwrights, we should also be strongly encouraging our national playwrights to encourage casting directors to see disabled actors for non-disabled-identified roles and advocate for them to producers. To me, that’s really a critical step toward the endgame of perceptive normalcy." In another part of the interview, Thornton talks about the foregrounding of disability in ableist storytelling, which reduces a person to simply what they lack, or what happened to them to create that lack. There's a ton of truth to what he's saying, and writing for disabled actors without making their disability the focus of their plots is one way to create balance between character and actor.
But I wonder if there's another way to do that, too. And it involves such a personal way of looking at things for me that I don't know if my perspective has any merit in the larger goings-on of producing theatre. But here we have it anyway -- perhaps another necessary thing for disablist playwrights to do is to draw the audience, disabled or not, into the perspective of characters who have disabilities, and to do that in as many different ways as possible, to reach someone and communicate experience clearly and intelligently (through touch, taste, sound, or any possible sense). For me, I find freedom in my everyday problems being examined; the actor's vocals changing as his hearing aid blinks on and off provides some of my favorite material in Tribes. So I wonder ... Is there a way to make disability a part of the world of one's play, without reducing it to stereotype or "triumph-over-adversity" tales? Is there a way to make it business as usual while sharing it with someone unaware of its pitfalls and daily accommodations? Or can it be the driving examination of the play without seeming wholly negative? (I am trying to walk this tight-rope with a play about Joe Shuster and his diminishing sight; it's no easy task, I'm finding.) These questions always leap to my mind in discussions about how disability is portrayed or invited onto a stage. Because there are so many possible answers, the questions kind of haunt me.
The one thing I do know is that an individual artist's perspective (whether it be writer, director, designer, or actor) will always come into play somewhere along the line, and a choice about portraying disability will have to be made. For me, if I could offer someone the opportunity to recognize their own experience far sooner than their late twenties (when I did), I'll be a happier playwright for it.