Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Activating the Past: Performing Disability Rights in the Classroom

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Activating the Past: Performing Disability Rights in the Classroom

Article excerpt

Introduction

On 27 April 2015, students, professors, and staff from across the University of California, Los Angeles, campus came together with members of the southern California disability rights community for a staged reading of On the Road to the ADA: a Reenactment, September 27, 1988. The event, like thousands across the United States that spring and summer, commemorated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which ushered into law an unprecedented array of civil rights for people with disabilities. Yet, as one participant commented, "this was not your typical ADA celebration" (Sweeney). Instead of earnest testimonials celebrating a "post-disability" utopia inaugurated by the act, the play jumped back in time to reenact one step in the long journey toward its passage. On the titular date in 1988, two years prior to the signing of the ADA, congressmen, presidential appointees, disability rights leaders, grassroots activists, and supporters of the bill, from across the country (several hundred all told) crowded into room SH-216 in the Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., for the first joint hearing of the Senate subcommittee on the proposed bill. Using verbatim testimony culled from the Congressional Record of the hearing, playwright and director Victoria Lewis constructed a seventy-five-minute documentary drama that was performed by an ensemble of undergraduates, UCLA faculty, and disability rights veterans. After an intensive weekend workshop rehearsing the play, the ensemble presented a public staged reading (scripts in hand) in which they voiced the stories of ableist discrimination told by those called to testify. Despite the brevity of the rehearsal process, the performance bristled with electricity as the cast brought these stories into the present. The sense of being part of a particularly heightened political moment was contagious as the audience, like the group assembled in room SH-216 that day, sat on the frontlines of the fight for disability rights in the United States.

In this article we, disabled artists and educators, assess this performative enactment of disability history within the context of a disability studies course. Enriched by a post-performance audience dialogue and student feedback, our experience demonstrates the potential of the genre of documentary theatre (specifically verbatim theatre, in which transcribed proceedings of a public event or interviews constitute the sole source of dialogue/dramatic text) to make disability oppression tangible to undergraduate college students. Born into a world of curb cuts, reserved parking spaces, and accessible bathrooms, undergraduate students correlate visible indications of change with a level of social equity that has yet to be obtained for the majority of people with disabilities.1 The deep engagement with this history that On the Road to the ADA provides, we argue, enables students not only to view disabled people as political actors and agents of change, but, by activating the past in the present, see themselves as allies in the ongoing fight. We have thus found that the opportunity to try on the history of disability rights activism by voicing the spoken record to be a valuable pedagogical tool for a post-ADA generation.

This argument is developed in relation to three aspects of On the Road to the ADA. In the first section, we discuss the development of the project as a pedagogical tool to introduce the history of disability rights activism in relation to the genre of documentary theatre. In the second section, we focus on casting and directorial decisions that foreground the collective action responsible for this history. In the third section, we discuss how these strategies shape temporal disjunctures and convergences that underscore the significance of the past to the present. To conclude, we return to the performance event to reflect on its effects in order to argue not only for the value of using theatre within undergraduate disability studies pedagogy, but also to aver the capacity of theatre to create a shared sense of collective presence in the present that looks to the future through the performance of the past. …

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