Edu O. – Brazil
In an open letter, Edu O. defines bipedalism, outlines the collective experience of the ageing body, and calls for a disability-led paradigm shift.
You may not be aware of it, but you are a biped. Yes, if you do not have any disabilities, fall within the standard-body category and you view disability as a pathology; if you feel pity and compassion for us “poor things”; if you consider people with disabilities to be unproductive, less capable and less beautiful; if you think of disability as a unique experience or one that affects everyone the same way; if you overlook the wide diversity and particular aspects of disabilities, then yes, you are a biped. If your idea of inclusion fences us off in areas that exclude us more, yes, you are a biped. If you think that a body without disabilities is the only normal one possible, yes, you are undoubtedly a biped.
From my perspective, bipedalism is a social, economic, cultural, and political structure that determines normality and abnormality, capability and incapability. For me, bipedalism is not just the way you walk but a system of oppression based on the traditional concept of what it means to be “normal” or “disabled.” In Robert McRuer’s Crip Theory, the construction of “normal” connects to the economic and political interests that establish a compulsory able-bodiedness and normalize dominant ideologies aimed at boosting productivity. In dance, these same structures enforce a standard of able-bodiedness and exclude those it considers disabled, unfit, and incapable. This is what I call compulsory bipedalism.
Therefore, you are a biped if your dance ignores the possibilities of different bodies; if you are unaware of the limitations of your own bipedalism which over time repeats the reductive clichés of verticality and virtuosity in dance and use of the body; if your aesthetic, artistic, and therefore political choices maintain and reproduce invisibility strategies and non-recognition of works by artists with disabilities; if, as a curator, you fail to recognize that the white-biped-cisgender body is predominant in festival dance programs; if you consider our presence as something exotic, as a theme for study or discussion; if your classes and methodologies do not even contemplate the involvement of the disabled, making us the ones who need to adapt; if your production does not care about accessibility, showing indifference to your audience; if, as a journalist, you carry on writing sensationalist articles that treat us like in the freak shows of the past. If you approach dance or art in any of these ways, then you are a biped.
How am I supposed to feel about your TV programs, plays, musicals, movies, and love stories when you assume that I’ll never be able to live? Do you understand? Biped thinking is everywhere, it dominates all spaces, makes us invisible, and rejects our very existence. How many disabled people do you live with or have you worked with?
When you think about dance, what body can dance your dance? Who can perform your art? Who can watch it? If the whole body is the person — because bodies cannot be detached from the person — who do you include? Who do you leave out? What do you think about disability? What words do you associate with it? When you think about dance and disabilities or art and disabilities, what images come to mind? What are your reference points? And if you do not have references or cannot apply common sense, how do you judge our competence and production? You know so little about so many things!
There is more to it than what meets the eye… and yet it’s still an obstacle course for the wheels on my chair. You always dig holes so I can’t get too close to you. Perhaps you think my disability is contagious. Or, as Boaventura de Sousa Santos says, “there is less to it than what meets the eye.” Establishing who belongs and who doesn’t belong on the side of a line invented to create hierarchies between some who are authorized to speak, and others condemned to a lifetime of silence and submission is quite simple. You, biped, lock us away in a little backroom to hide what we reveal about you. You are afraid of us.
I’m going to tell you a story I read in the book Holocausto brasileiro – Genocídio: 60 mil mortos no maior hospício do Brasil (Brazilian Holocaust – Genocide: 60,000 Deaths in Brazil’s Largest Psychiatric Hospital), written by Daniela Arbex. Antônio was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Barbacena and spent 21 years in total silence; the hospital staff considered him to be non-verbal. One day, Antonio uttered a sound when he heard music playing. Everyone was shocked. When asked why he had not told them he could speak, he simply said, “because no one ever asked.”
Well, you never asked me either. But I’m not going to hold my tongue, and I’ll say it over and over again: “YOU BIPEDS WEAR ME OUT!”
Without a doubt we cannot deconstruct and destroy such deeply ingrained mindsets. Biped thinking is an integral part of our society. It molds and limits our comprehension of the body and the world; discounts any experience not considered normal. This normality does not exist, biped. Believe me! Rethink, revise, change these concepts. You cannot continue to enjoy so many privileges. Do you know why not?
I feel a wind approaching from far away, perhaps a wind of change. We, the disabled, are finding our place and debunking some stereotypes. We habitually change ourselves when we come into contact with the other. We feel apprehensive when confronted with the unknown or, in this case, the not-so-unknown non-disabled body, but because it is so well-known, we take it for granted. Encounters and contacts cause transformations.
I’d now like to address my disabled friends — those “intruding bodies,” as Estela Lapponi says — who come without asking permission, encroach on places where historically we have not been invited, and disrupt everything from architecture to attitudes, communication and technology. Our bodies incite, bother, and perturb. We challenge stereotypes to affirm who we are and to reject standards imposed upon us. Never forget that when we enter spaces, we transform them. A lived experience cannot be negated. No one speaks for anyone else, no one speaks for us, but we can comprehend the other’s universe and try to co-create with them.
Biped, I am not writing to you to widen the chasms into which you have thrown us so many times since the times of Ancient Greece. My intention is to build bridges to make you aware of the violence you cause every day, when despite your good intentions you belittle us with your compassion and pity. I get it: some of you may not even be aware of this.
But the time could be ripe for us to change our consumer habits and dismantle the stereotypes we have created and perpetuated and that ultimately determine for us what is beautiful, productive, and capable. When we are free from this isolation imposed upon us by COVID-19 — an isolation that perhaps is a new experience for you bipeds, but which for those of us with disabilities is a condition routinely imposed on us by the lack of accessibility and opportunities — what will matter? Which lives matter? Some more, others less?
You even appear to support worthy causes in a visible way, but does your activism take into account disabled lives? If not, biped, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I do not believe in your fight. Do you know why?
Because a disabled body awaits us all. This is a message I repeat endlessly. The disabled experience is our unavoidable future, whether we are women, men, transgender, cisgender, gay, lesbian, asexual, Black, or Indigenous. The disabled experience is our inevitable future either because of some quirk of fate or simply as a result of living. Ageing comes from staying alive, and ageing goes hand and hand with disability. Understanding the disabled body as the future implies thinking about how disabled people and disability studies have contributed to various branches of science, from medical studies to robotics, technology, communication, and the arts. Understanding the disabled body means thinking differently and dialogically and deconstructing the idea of the subalternity of disability. If everybody will develop a disability at some point, would it not be smarter to build a world grounded in this fact?
For the future that is already present, my wish is that we — as people with disabilities — occupy spaces, because we are legion. We should work on breaking down the barriers imposed on us by social norms and expose this much-overlooked reality of isolation, exclusion, and misunderstanding that is essentially unknown to the majority of non-disabled people. This wind of change is what gives me the strength to exist in this past-present-future-HERE.
See you soon,
Edu O. is a dance artist, performer, wheelchair user, and professor at the School of Dance at the Universidade Federal da Bahia/Brazil. He likes to write and create content on his Instagram @eduimpro, where he documents the exclusions and violence caused by “compulsory bipedalism”, a term that he coined, and that he is currently expanding on in his Doutorado Multiinstitucional e Muldisciplinar em Difusão do Conhecimento [Doctorate in Multi-institutional and Multi-disciplinary Diffusion of Knowledge] (PPGDC).
Unlimited – UK
Looking back at the partnership between Unlimited and the British Council – a joint venture that brought disability arts to a global stage.
At the heart of the British Council’s work in disability arts is our partnership with Unlimited. Beginning in 2008 in the lead-up to the London 2012 Olympic Games and Cultural Olympiad’s, we made a commitment as partners to do for disabled artists what the Paralympics has done for disabled athletes.
The partnership between Unlimited and the British Council emerged within the context of a long history of arts-led activism in the United Kingdom (UK). The Disability Arts Movement in the late 1970s brought together disability activists, artists and creatives of all kinds who campaigned for the civil rights of disabled people and fought against their marginalisation in the arts and culture. The influence of this movement led to the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act in the UK in 1995, which banned discrimination of disabled people in connection with employment, the provision of goods, facilities and services. It was replaced in 2010 with the Equality Act.
The inspiration provided by these artists manifests itself in the opportunities afforded to disability artists in the UK today. Unlimited’s contribution to the Paralympics’ Cultural Olympiad resulted in 29 new commissions by disabled artists from across the UK and five international collaborations with artists from Brazil, China, Croatia, Germany, Japan, and South Africa.
Delivered by disability-led Shape Arts and arts-production hub Artsadmin, Unlimited has subsequently developed into the world’s largest commissioning programme for disability arts and remains a major partner for our work.
Jo Verrent, Senior Producer for Unlimited and member of the defining Disability Arts Movement, reflected on Unlimited and its impact on disability arts:
“All sounds great, doesn’t it? And in the most part it is. However, what’s important is to look at why initiatives such as Unlimited exist, not just what they do.”
Unlimited exists because disabled artists experience multiple and systemic barriers to developing arts skills, gaining funding, negotiating the arts sector, and platforming their work. This is not due to a lack of talent, vision, skill or resilience. This is due to entrenched ableism within the cultural sector – and all sectors of society. It’s due to historic systems excluding rather than reimagining. Access and inclusion are not seen as a priority despite the fact that disabled people make up 15% – 25% of our global population, according to some definitions of disability. Together we aim to change perceptions of disabled people both in the UK and internationally with ground-breaking and high-quality art. Indeed, “Unlimited funds exceptional work.” It supports disability arts and enables it “to cut through the barriers – to become ‘must see’ rather than ‘should see’ and therefore change the perception of disabled artists from one of pity or discomfort to a more rounded one – we are just part of humanity. People often assume there is one type of disabled artist producing one type of work, but artists are artists, and the variety is infinite – of both artform and approach.”
Many of Unlimited commissions have gone on to tour internationally with the British Council’s support, bringing boundary-defying work to new contexts, challenging audiences world-wide, and raising the profile of disabled artists. Cultural leaders across the globe are inspired by Unlimited as a funding model that has the capacity to lead social impact.
Verrent reflects on the reach of their collaborations: “Unlimited [projects] and artists have worked [across] the Americas frequently such as [with] VIVA Carnival developed with Brazil,, Touretteshero, which toured through the USA and Canada, Raquel Meseaguer adapting work with Mexico, and Richard Butchins showing work in Argentina .”
There are many facets to our partnership. British Council Arts specialists sit on Unlimited’s commissioning panels. We provide training and advice for disabled artists regarding international work. We support a placement programme for disabled arts professionals from outside the UK to gain valuable experience working with Unlimited’s team at Shape Arts and Artsadmin. To date we have had placements from Australia, Cambodia, South Africa, Taiwan, and Uganda. In 2016, with Arts Council England Ambition for Excellence funding, we launched a second round of Unlimited International commissions, resulting in collaborations with Brazil, Palestine, Japan, Singapore, and India.
Over the last 10 years we have established an international biennial showcase, the Unlimited Festival, delivered by Southbank Centre, which reflects the growing international demand for the UK’s disability arts. At the first Unlimited Festival in 2012, we hosted 50 international delegates. By 2018, the number of international delegates had grown to 120 from 40 countries. We introduce the delegates to UK disability arts by hosting presentations and talks, networking events and providing opportunities to attend performances by leading UK artists.
Working closely with Unlimited and Unlimited commissioned artists, our disability arts programme spans 46 countries and includes tours and exhibitions, disability conferences, and symposia, disability awareness and access training, skills development for disabled artists and practitioners and consultancy to cultural organisations and governments. We have also developed tools that can be used by anyone such as our short, animated video that explains the social model of disability, and our Disability Arts International website promoting increased access to the arts for disabled artists and audiences around the globe. In 2021, we provided micro-awards to artists to collaborate remotely. A few examples of these collaborations from the Americas include Hannah Aria (England: South East) and Estela Lapponi (Brazil); Gina Biggs/SheWolf (Wales), Javier Hernando Peralta Gonzalez (Colombia), and Anthar Kharana (Colombia); Poet Ekiwah Adler-Belendez (Mexico) and multimedia artist Juan delGado (England: London) and Chris Tally Evans (Wales) to work with Fernanda Amaral (Brazil).
Our partnership places UK disabled artists and cultural leaders firmly at the centre of an international disability arts movement which is a catalyst for social change. The Unlimited/British Council partnership leaves a legacy that is far-reaching and transformational. From the establishment of the first integrated theatre and dance companies in Bangladesh and Armenia respectively, to the first Minister for Disability in Korea, the work we initiate and support has a profound impact in arts and culture. In the Americas, this legacy is taking shape in ways that amplify the work done by arts and activist groups in the cultural sector. Our programmes create spaces for cultural exchange and raising awareness, like with Cripping the Arts in Toronto (2016, 2019), Trazando Possibilidades in Guadalajara (2019) and the inclusive programme for the FIBA in Buenos Aires (2020); It supports and showcases UK and local talents, like the collaboration between Natalia Mallo and Marc Brew in Brazil, and influences and builds capacity for accessibility and inclusion through the Relaxed Performance project in Canada. All these initiatives, realized on the ground with key partners, further create an enabling environment for arts and culture for all.
Elements of this text are from an article by curator and writer Linda Rocco, originally published on the Unlimited website and as part of her associate role with Unlimited and The Art House. She interviews Tony Heaton OBE, David Hevey and Jo Verrent, members of the Disability Arts Movement, for their thoughts on the legacy of disabled people’s art and activism in the UK.
Following the first round of Unlimited during the 2012 London Cultural Olympiad, the British Council team in Brazil developed Unlimited: Arte sem Limites together with 8 UK and 20 Brazilian cultural organisations. This programme was part of Transform, a programme that aimed to connect British and Brazilian cultural organisations and artists around programmes that focused on social change.
Unlimited in Brazil was an extensive programme that aimed to increase access to culture and encourage artists with disabilities to produce work. It was a unique umbrella programme focused on disability arts with a special focus on showcasing high-quality work produced by disabled artists. The programme had four major strands of work, from access auditing and policymaking, capacity-building and training for showcasing to collaborations and co-productions. A total of 16 projects took place between 2012-2016 in Brazil and in the UK.
In its final year, Unlimited held its biggest projects and events culminating with activities within the Paralympic celebrations Rio 2016.
Amongst others, Natalia Mallo, producer and artist, was supported to develop MayBe, a dance piece co-created by the Brazilian artist Gisele Calazans and the Scottish artist Marc Brew, which subsequently toured both in Brazil and the UK. Graeae Theatre presented The Garden – a large-scale open-air performance, as part of the British Council’s Cultural Olympiad programme during the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. This was the largest project ever produced as part of Unlimited in Brazil and it was a recreation of the original piece, with Brazilian artists in the cast. Finally, in partnership with Biblioteca Parque, Rio 2016 and Rio’s Secretary of Culture, the Fórum Unlimited de acessibilidade na cultura was a 3-day forum on accessibility where Shape Arts delivered a training course for 20 people who cascaded their learnings in their institutions and networks.
With activities happening in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Recife, Edinburgh and London, Unlimited: Arte sem Limites engaged with more than 500 d/Deaf and disabled artists and allies, and a total of 89,000 audience attended Unlimited events across the four years of the programme. In the Americas region, this programme has led the way in developing a model of cultural relations focused on disability and based on nurtured international exchanges and collaborations.