This year’s International Women’s Day was unique considering the fact that celebrations have had to move online due to the pandemic. However, this has not impacted the quality of celebratory content, and this Crip Talks Choose to Challenge female-led event was no exception. The event was co-hosted by Disability Arts Cymru, and We Shall Not Be Removed, the intersectional UK Disability Arts Alliance formed as an emergency response to the pandemic. Review by Natasha Sutton-Williams.
Peppered with laughs and tears, this cabaret style Zoom event was genuinely moving, with songs, poems, tributes, and speeches describing the extraordinary impact Covid has had on disabled womxn’s lives. The overall message was clear: the disabled community are determined to be included in upcoming talks on how to come out of this pandemic with more freedoms and access rights than before.
Julie McNamara MC’ed the event, who never fails to delight with her innate, mischievous joy. Dr Natasha Hirst, photographer, journalist and chair of Disability Arts Cymru, kicked off the event stating, “Together we can keep on choosing to challenge discrimination and barriers, and to showcase the amazing talent we have amongst our community.”
Next up was the indomitable Jenny Sealey, who was wearing a special piece of clothing in celebration of International Women’s Day, “In honour of women, I have got my bra on. I haven’t worn one for a lot of lockdown but today is bra-worthy.”
Sealey continued with a call to action, “I want you to think for one split second how awful this world would be if all of us were not part of it. How boring. How unchallenging. How dull. We are a vital part of the fabric of society, and the fabric of the creative industry. We Shall Not Be Removed was set up as a campaign group to ensure that we are present, visible, and can kick ass. In the summer we did a social media campaign where we roared about the need for inclusion. From that campaign came the seven guiding principles on how we come out of lockdown with us in mind. The main principle is to end the ableist world in which we inhabit. How often do we recognize that we are the square that they’re trying to shove into a circle? Why do we have to fit in? Never ever apologise for who you are. Don’t do it. It’s ridiculous. We need to find who are our allies that want to join us in the challenge to end ableism.”
The anarchic comedian Francesca Martinez offered three realisations that have profoundly affected her life, “Number one: never let anyone make you feel bad about your body. Our bodies give us life. No matter how they look, no matter how they work or what shape they are, they are miracles and we need to love and cherish them. Loving your body in today’s consumer society is an act of civil disobedience, so get out there and love yourself.
Number two: I don’t think we are ultimately defined by our bodies, despite what medics think. I think we’re defined by how much love we get and how we see ourselves. How we choose to see ourselves is one of the most important decisions we’ll ever make so use that power wisely.
Number three: all my life I’ve been told that being wobbly is a disadvantage, that it is a negative. I want to refute this and say that being wobbly has made me more tenacious, patient, determined, and imaginative. I’m very good at problem solving because I don’t live in a world designed for me. Anything I have achieved is because I have been wobbly, not in spite of it. Never let anyone else make you feel ashamed or embarrassed about your so-called imperfections or differences because they are what make you grow, learn and adapt. Embrace them and be proud of them because diversity makes us stronger individually and collectively.”
For a change in tone, pianist Rachel Starritt played a classical piano piece written by composer Julian Jacobson. Novelist, playwright and activist Hilary McCollum was up next, reading an extract from her upcoming novel Twelve Days, set during the British suffragette movement. This extract focused on two suffragettes, Mary Leigh and Rose Yates, who had found out that their friend, Emily Davison, had been injured protesting at the Epsom Derby.
Welsh poet Wendy Jones was commissioned to write the poem Roses for the event. The poem, written in Welsh, uses the metaphor of white, pink and red roses for menstruation, and celebrates the complexity and wonder of women’s bodies. Jones added that, “We would not be here if it weren’t for menstruation”.
Actor and Deaf consultant Deepa Shastri spoke on the importance of access rights for deaf actors, “If you are going to translate an English script into British Sign Language you need to give time for deaf actors to be able to do that away from rehearsal. Otherwise you will take away from their rehearsal time, and are giving them a dual role, sometimes even a triple role as they are also given the responsibility to do admin for access costs. I want to see producers and creative teams taking on that responsibility so deaf and disabled actors can just be actors because they understand how to act. Unfortunately at the moment you take on the role of an advocate and have to advocate for all your access rights… I want us to be on mainstream theatre stages. I want our history to be on the stage of the National Theatre.”
Poet, songwriter and activist Miss Jacqui performed a song illustrating the stark reality that there is always rebellion before freedom, singing, “We don’t know what true freedom is. We take it for granted until it is taken away from us. We think we are free. But in reality we are still treated as slaves, just with different master’s names. We went from the potential to rule, to underachieving under oppression. Working hard under someone who doesn’t even know your name. We need to believe in our own ability to make a change.”
Dancer Claire Cunningham described the obvious differences between training in an ableist educational environment, compared to studying dance with a disability-led approach, “I wanted to learn the technique of my own body, and of my body with my crutches, to find the full potential of that. Part of that understanding came from training for six weeks with Bill Shannon, an American disabled artist and dancer, who used crutches and had crafted their own bespoke crutch dancing technique. This was a pivotal moment in my life. He encouraged me to find my ways of moving, of handling the crutches and to drill those moves over and over, refining it as technique. It is far more about a way of being, thinking and feeling with the crutches, than a set of codified movements. I still believe one of the most crucial ways forward for developing disabled dance artists is to create disabled-led and disabled-only spaces and classes. Some people weren’t ready for that when I tried to suggest it years ago, but I’m pleased to see that’s changing.”
Feminist poet Dr Vole performed a poetic reprimand of the patriarchy’s relentless need to control women, “We women, we won’t be your Stepford Wives. You gaslight us, rewrite the rules, to hasten our demise. We have the right to name ourselves; you shan’t impose your lies. In every land, we won’t be banned. You’ll hear the tables turning. We’re finding ways to firmly say, ‘These witches aren’t for burning.’ A million women rise, and then ten million women more from each oppressed community. We’re women – hear us roar! We’ll speak out now, to name our truth and shame all your male violence. This International Women’s Day, we shall not be silenced.”
Edel Murphy is a writer and activist who gave a moving tribute on Chris Ledger, the founder of the University of Atypical and Bounce Festival in Northern Ireland. Murphy stated that, “Chris made disability sexy, feisty and fabulous. I thought, ‘I want to be like her.’ She asked me to consider being an ambassador for others. She said I had the opportunity to be fearless, and show others I am proud and happy, so they could be fearless too. ‘I think you could’, she would say, with a pause at either side. The pride I have now in myself as a person with a disability is almost exclusively down to Chris. I display my blue badge with honour.”
Mared Jarman was the penultimate performer of the event, singing a honey-sweet melody in Welsh. The final speaker, playwright Kaite O’Reilly, gave a galvanising speech on the challenges of ‘difficult’ women. “I speak in praise of ‘difficult’ women, the challengers, the protestors, the objectors, the provocateurs, those rattling the handles of the slammed-shut doors, along with their vision and determination. Rattling the status quo, questioning, daring to imagine a more diverse and equal society. The women who will not lie down and be quiet, as for centuries we’ve been told. For one thing we know without question: well-behaved women never made history. Difficult women do.”