Winter will soon be upon us, and with it innumerable sidewalks covered in snow, never to be shoveled, maddeningly preventing disabled people from using the sidewalks in their own neighbourhoods.
We seldom think about that, about how something as simple as whether or not we shovel our sidewalks could mean the difference between people being able to leave their houses to wander their own neighbourhoods – or not. But that’s how ableism works; it’s a matter not of malice or hate towards disabled or chronically ill people, but rather a matter of indifference to those our society has deemed invisible, unwanted, best kept out of sight. And therefore, out of mind.
But the example also shows how simple accessibility can be. In this case all it requires is fifteen minutes of shoveling to make sidewalks accessible to people with mobility impairments and other disabilities that affect safe movement.
Here’s another example for you to ponder. For many weeks in late 2019 and early 2020 I was negotiating with my daytime employer to work from home because I’m a blind person with mobility impairments who can do most of his job from home anyway. Even though many, many people in my profession work from home, making it official turned out to be a huge hassle. I had to overcome a multitude of overstated and often baffling obstacles, many of them involving potential legal situations that wouldn’t occur outside of a T.V. show. Eventually we came to an agreement. Phew! That was a lot of unnecessary hassle but now we were all on the same page. Shortly thereafter the COVID-19 pandemic struck and nearly everyone at my institution was working from home, legally and official, without any hassle because simple things become possible when “normal” people need them.
In Pirate Attack on the 1C Bus Going Downtown by Windsor-based playwright Joey Ouellette, we experience the story of four people who refuse to give up on the community center that has been their second home for years. Claire (played by Shannyn Mcrae), Ollie (played by Justin Mulder), Aggie (played by Chantel Pare), and Shawn (played by Michael K. Potter) meet nearly every day at the Roll In Center after work to hang out, play games, watch T.V., read, and otherwise exist together as human beings. Each of them is disabled, neurodivergent, and/or chronically ill in some way. Claire has Tourette’s Syndrome, though that doesn’t stop her from working in a local library. Her beau, Ollie, works at a supermarket; his autism prevented him from speaking until he watched the Pirates of the Caribbean movies – now he communicates with gusto through pirate language. Although the cause of her disability is uncertain, Aggie is nonverbal, mute. Instead of speaking she communicates with her extraordinarily expressive face. Shawn, a double amputee who works at the local university, uses a wheelchair to get around.
The Roll In Center used to be full of life and energy. Then the city cut the bus route that serviced the center in order to save a bit of money – not that the buses were accessible anyway. Since many people could no longer get to the center, it became virtually abandoned aside from our four hardcore heroes. The cancellation of the bus route infuriates them, but they aren’t surprised by it because that’s the sort of thing that regularly happens when you’re disabled. Things you need in order to live like any other person suddenly vanish for reasons that are never made clear, because no one ever bothers explaining their reasoning to people they don’t even see.
But this crew isn’t about to go down without a fight. When they discover that Kelly (played by Emma Truswell) has arrived to close down the center because it’s no longer heavily used, they decide to take matters into their own hands. As the story begins, we learn immediately that Shawn is in jail for chaining himself to a city bus – and every time he’s released from jail, he chains himself to another bus to protest the inaccessibility of the buses to wheelchair users. As the story progresses, Claire, Ollie, and Aggie decide to stage a sit-in at the Roll In Center, refusing to leave the building while it’s under threat of being shut down. Thankfully the police aren’t interested in kicking them out and their actions draw the attention of the mayor. When it’s clear that the sit-in isn’t working they get a little more active, a lot more enraged, and. . . well, a bus is boarded by at least one pirate.
Despite the fun story, and the absurd comedy of Pirate Attack on the 1C Bus Going Downtown, the most wonderful thing about this play is the cast of disabled, neurodivergent, and/or chronically ill characters. This script won the 2021 Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest in large part because Ouellette wrote disabled characters who are actual human beings with personalities, hopes, fears, jobs, and lives. They are more than their disabilities and conditions. While to many “normal” people those disabilities and conditions may define who they are and how they’re treated, amongst themselves these things are just parts of their life that they have to deal with. Each character is so much more than whatever diagnosis they’ve been given.
This is highly unusual in stories presented through any medium – whether theatre, films, television, or novels. Usually disabled and/or chronically ill people are presented as either objects of pity, objects of ridicule, or objects of inspiration. That’s all they get to be – and if you’re a disabled actor, even if you’re lucky enough to get cast in something, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’re going to play one of those objects. But bicycles are objects, not people. People are subjects. They don’t exist to make you feel better about yourself and your life. They don’t exist to give you a good laugh at their expense. They don’t exist to inspire you to find hope and comfort in the idea that if one day you become like them, there might be options other than suicide. Disabled people are used to being told things like “Oh, you’re so courageous, I could never live the kind of life you have to lead”, without any awareness of the grotesque degradation those sorts of comments imply.
The disabled and/or chronically ill characters in this story also caught the attention of the contest judges because they are active. They don’t sit around doing nothing while life happens around them. They don’t wait for other people to help them or save them because they don’t need to. They’re people who can take action themselves. Disabled characters who have actual agency are so rare in stories of any medium that finding just one is like spotting a black swan riding a unicorn.
When you see Pirate Attack on the 1C Bus Going Downtown you’ll find yourself laughing an awful lot – but not at the expense of people with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses. You’ll also find yourself caring about these fictional people in a fictional version of Windsor because they’re compelling people not too far removed from reality. We hope that after the play you find yourself thinking about what the characters had to face, and how unnecessary it was for them to face it. And we hope you’ll see the similarities between their situation and the very similar situations disabled and/or chronically ill people face in our city every day. Maybe you’ll feel compelled to ask whether they’d like your support. Maybe you’ll feel compelled to donate to charities and community organizations that help break down unnecessary barriers for disabled and/or chronically ill people. And maybe you’ll be that one person in a conversation who speaks up to say “wait a minute, wouldn’t this make the lives of disabled people harder than they need to be?”
Post Productions presents Pirate Attack on the 1C Bus Going Downtown at The Shadowbox Theatre (103B -1501 Howard Ave. – corner of Howard and Shepherd) November 18, 19, 24, 25, 26; December 1, 2, and 3, 2022 at 8:00 PM (doors open 7:30). Matinee November 27, 2022 at 2:00 PM (doors open 1:30). Tickets are $25 at postproductionswindsor.ca – or cash at the door when available. Written by Joey Ouellette. Starring Emma Truswell, Shannyn Mcrae, Justin Mulder, Chantel Pare, Michael K. Potter, Michelle Mainwaring, and Joey Ouellette. Directed by Fay Lynn and Michael K. Potter. Produced by Michael K. Potter and Fay Lynn. Presented by Post Productions in association with Waawiiyaatanong Feminist Theatre.