Passing and Performing
I would like to explore how people living with invisible disabilities perform certain behaviours in order to survive in day to day life. Judith Butler writes that “identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results” (Butler, 1990, pg 25). Although Butler is referring to gender, I describe these behaviours specific to disability as performed because they are consciously chosen by an individual in response to the attitudes of other people, hoping to illicit a different response, or reading, from others.
I have identified two types of performed behaviour that all of the people I interviewed, and myself, have experienced. These are passing as able-bodied and performing as disabled. I would argue that although these behaviours are selected by individuals to survive in society, they are also political acts with consequences that go beyond the individual who performs them. This is not a judgement on any people who perform these behaviours, but an attempt to understand what the consequences are so that we can make more informed choices.
Unlike visibly disabled people, invisibly disabled people can choose to perform able-bodiedness as there is no visual indication that they have a disabled body. By passing as able-bodied, an individual may wish to avoid the prejudices aimed at disabled people. Additionally, they may not have accepted their identity as disabled because they do not identify with the stereotypes associated with a disabled identity, or because society has told them they are not disabled due the invisibility of their disability.
Within my research I have identified three main methods used by disabled people to pass as able bodied. The first is hiding any visible manifestations of a normally invisible disability. Performance artist Rita Marcalo created a performance called Involuntary Dances (date?), where she attempted to induce an epileptic fit for an audience to observe. This controversial work aimed to problematise the fact that “as an epileptic I constantly work very hard at ‘hiding’ my condition”(Marcalo, 2011). The second method is to push the body beyond its physical or energetic limits in order to match those of able-bodied people. The final method is possibly the most universal. Many people do not disclose their disability to anyone, whether that be face to face or when applying for a job or course of study.
Attempting to ‘pass’ as able-bodied can create tensions within individuals and their relationships with others. Samuels writes that “the option of passing” is a double-edged sword, offering “a certain level of privilege and a profound sense of misrecognition and internal dissonance” (Samuels, 2014, Pg 321). An invisibly disabled person can be read as able bodied and avoid prejudice, which is in some sense a privilege. However, if no-one knows your disability exists because you do not disclose it and hide any signs of its existence, they cannot support you. Combine this with pushing yourself beyond your energetic and physical limits, and you end up hurting and exhausting yourself, but unable to explain why or prevent it happening in the future. This was an experience shared by many my interviewees from Glory. Disability theorist Susan Wendell describes this as the self-betrayal associated with passing (Wendall, 2014).
If people with invisible disabilities choose to pass as able bodied, it reduces the acknowledgement of invisible disability within society. Despite this, passing does not have to be a negative act. It can be used to challenge the supposedly stable category of disabled. Samuels says, “Passing can become a subversive practice” where the individual is “read not as an assimilationist victim but as a defiant figure who, by crossing the borders of identities, reveals their instability” (Samuels, 2013, Pg321). I will discuss the potential of passing as well as the possibility for its translation into dance in the third section of this study.
Disability theorist Carrie Sandahl outlines the two choices for disabled people offered by society; “if one cannot pass as non-disabled, then one must at least represent one’s impairment as absolutely impeding (charity case) or relatively inconsequential (overcomer)” (Sandahl, 2003 pg 25-56). Invisibly disabled people may feel the need to perform their disability in order to validate it in the eyes of society. By validating their disability status, people are more able to access support and acceptance from society, as you can be neatly placed into one of the categories Sandahl describes.
Performances of disability can manifest in many ways. One way is to use a signifier, often in the form of mobility equipment. Some people I spoke to used crutches or wheelchairs they did not need because it validated their identity as disabled, allowing them to use disabled entrances, seats and parking spaces without judgement. Petra Kuppers highlights a second form of ‘performance’, stating that “many disabled people I know ‘perform’ their disability to the medical regime if they require certain accommodations, pain killers, disabled parking plates etc” (Kuppers, 2003, Pg 3). This is true for mental illness as well as physical disabilities. People are pushed to perform an exaggerated and often inaccurate stereotype of what it is to be disabled to access the little support available. However, in playing up to misconceptions of disability, the stereotype is reinforced.