A Performance To Remember

Today’s blog is a bit more of a ‘story time’ blog than some of my others, and it is a brief recounting of the story that really sparked my interest in human rights and disability advocacy. And without further delay, I invite you back to 2001…

I was 16 years old, and it was a family night out to see my brother (a long-time actor) perform in a play at U of T’s Hart House theater. This was a rare treat for me, as most of the ‘spaces’ he acted in were up or down multiple flights, and my wheelchair regrettably can’t levitate. We got there early, and as was our usual custom, went to inquire about pre-seating me due to disability. This is when the fun started.

The woman at the ticket booth, who we soon discovered to be the building manager, informed us that due to policy, me and my disability were not allowed in. She claimed it was a safety issue. We attempted to engage her on this issue, assuring her that we were in no worse safety situation than ANYONE else in the building. What followed was a heated back and forth on disability rights, with my long-time advocate parents and I on one side, and a very close-minded theater manager on the other. She had dug her heels in on the issue, as had we, and neither side looked likely to budge.

Before too long, this impromptu ‘performance of wills’ had attracted the attention of other patrons and theater staff, all of whom (at least all who spoke up) agreed with us. But this manager, despite the growing numbers of voices that had joined our ranks, had put her stake in the ground and would not relinquish. She held all the cards, at least from a theater perspective, and she knew it. We managed to get word to my brother backstage who came out, in full costume and told her that unless I was allowed in, he was not performing. When she refused again, he went back and convinced the rest of the cast to boycott the show. Being a group of liberal university actors, naturally they were on board.

The theater went dark, the usual expectant hush fell over the waiting theater-goers. But no performance was coming, other than the live ‘disability rights’ action drama that was on the verge of exploding in the lobby. One woman and her skewed sense of rules vs. a throng of active human rights resisters, with me as their unwitting leader, were in the midst of a showdown.

Eventually, the situation escalated. She called campus security to escort us from the premises, and my parents responded by saying “We are going in. If you feel like dragging us out by our ankles, be our guest.” We were in the middle of this maneuver when U of T’s finest arrived, clearly trying to diffuse the situation. She told her side of the story, and we told ours. They agreed with us, informed her that she had no grounds to deny us entry, and the battle was over. Our impromptu nemesis skulked away, clearly embarrassed, trying to safe face. We went in, as did the rest of our allies, and enjoyed a great show.

I have often thought back to this day. In reality, it was parents who had done most of the direct advocacy on the night, so why did it light a fire in me? Quite simply, it was the first time that I had ever experienced person-to-person discrimination. Not bureaucratic frustration, or structural injustices, but another human being considering me and my disability to be less than. It made something click in my head. I was not going to be treated like that again, and I was going to dedicate my university career and beyond to arming myself with the practical and physical tools to fight

It is these struggles, these moments in life, that Disability Positive Consulting is dedicated to learning from.