Olivia Watts, Special study unit with Attik


The article below was written by Olivia Watts,  a fourth year medical student at the University of Plymouth Medical School who undertook a Special Study Unit with Attik this year. This SSU involved Olivia and 3 other students experiencing a number of Attik 360 sessions, talking with the company about the work, about our practices, about disability and about dance and disability. These experiences led to them responding to the work and then presenting that response at a festival day at the University.

Humanisation of those with Disability

Disability is defined as a “physical or mental condition which limits a person’s movements, senses or activities.”(Oxford Dictionary, 2012)  However the person is not necessarily disabled by their inability to see, or walk or read, until they meet a society which says they must be able to do so (Benjamin, 2002).(Kuppers, 2000)“For a woman using a wheelchair, it is not her body or the wheelchair that disable her, but the stairs.”

Society and its ability to disable

How do you disable the blind? By removing touch and guidance. How do disable those using a wheelchair? You arrange a lesson upstairs in a building without a lift (BCODP, 1997). Those with learning difficulties are disabled by a society dependent on the written word, job application forms which require filling, and lack of patience. The deaf are disabled by a society who are not taught sign language.  Interestingly facial disfigurements do not significantly limit a person’s functional capacity, instead they are disabled due to the reactions of others.  Why has our society prevented those with impairments from integrating, placed deliberate barriers that create disability, and how can this be changed?

It has long been thought a disability is a medical issue with the person whom it affects.  It is thought if someone has an impairment, they require special equipment to allow them to integrate.  However, where would able sighted people be without street lamps in the dark (BCOCP, 1997)?  It seems society has adapted to only suit part of their population.  Maybe after blaming the individual for so long, maybe society needs to take a greater responsibility.  This is something I had never considered before, that despite humans being deemed superior to animals and having “morals”, we still seek out the weak and try to hide them, as the runt of a litter is left behind in the wild (Townley, 2010).

Society has shunned those with impairments throughout history.  It began with Neolithic tribes, Spartans and the Ancient Greeks, who all believed the disabled were possessed by spirits and therefore not human, so left them in the countryside to die (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 1999).  The Romans usually assisted those with disability, occasionally leaving people to die, but did not usually perceive non-physical disabilities as a problem.  Caesar for example, suffered from epilepsy, and it was thought during his seizures, he would have visions which came from the gods. Throughout the ages the disabled have been seen as demons, monsters, the expression of Gods displeasure and a punishment to the parents or the person themselves.  They have undergone burning at the stake, institutionalisation, inequality, forced sterilisation, mass extermination by the Nazi’s, depicted as monsters in films and literature and have been the subjects of pity (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 1999).  How are they supposed to live in this society and feel worthwhile, beautiful and appreciated as individuals, and be able to express themselves, when we constantly categorise them into being helpless and tragic?

Now in the 21st century, those with disabilities are supposedly being treated as humans, with schools “dedicated” to their education, help for parents and the Disability discrimination act 1995 and the Equality act 2010, which made it illegal to discriminate against people because of their disability (UK Government, 1995). Yet those with disabilities are still met with fear, misunderstanding and prejudice every day.  How can they be integrated if they have to attend a different school because of the lack of thought into the education system (BCODP, 1997).   My school for example did not have a single lift, despite being over six floors.  Why is sign language not included in the curriculum? We learn about geography, religion and politics at school but do not gain the skills to give ability to the deaf.  However the disabled have spent the last hundred years locked away from society in workhouses and institutions, and therefore it is unsurprising that it has developed without taking their needs into consideration.  If there were no blind or deaf children in a school, why would there be Braille books available, or sign language lessons? Even in 2013 incapacity benefit is given based on an assumption that disabled people are unable to work for a living, and only assesses impairments, not how that impairment affects the individual.

Dance for your freedom

For someone with an impairment, a safe environment in which they feel comfortable such as the dance studio, allows expression of personality, intuition and creativity.  However, having the privilege to be a part of this experience is not shared by many.  My personal experience of this was eye-opening to say the least.  I was in an environment where movement was encouraged, individuality was normal, people were accepted for who they are rather than who people thought they were. They were allowed to be whatever they wanted to be.  The result was beautiful; they were no longer just classed as disabled, but also as dancers.  The label brought obvious joy and happiness in a world intent on making their lives difficult.  Companies dedicated to bringing both able and disabled dancers together have created a unique environment where expression is encouraged and the outcome is brilliant (Benjamin 2002 & 2012).

Communication can be a serious hurdle to overcome for disabled people and dancers.  They may look different and therefore their ideas are not considered due to fear.  Verbal fluency is an important issue, those who are not able to vocalise what they think are limited by others, both in how much others understand of what they are trying to say, and their appreciation of their inner intelligence (Wanzer & Sadowy, 1990). This leads to frustration, and future withdrawal. In those attempting to choreograph dancers, verbal communication seems imperative if not vital to convey your ideas.  However this should not prevent them from being given the opportunity to choreograph, or the chance to express themselves.

The Simpson board was developed by Adam Benjamin to allow disabled dancers with difficulties communicating, who had been ‘participating’ in dancing sessions, to convey their ideas, and actually choreograph dancers (Benjamin, 2002). It began with Lisa Simpson, a lady with severe cerebral palsy which affected her ability to communicate verbally (Benjamin 2013). She started by creating a pattern on the floor, which showed the direction of movement she wanted, and the initial placement of the dancers. This image was transferred onto a page with option boxes and diagrams added, that could direct actions, timings and space.  This board allowed Lisa to show the dancers when and where to move, when it was their turn and when they should freeze.  It was hoped the board would provide a tool that would allow expression of thoughts and ideas despite having an inability to verbally communicate (Benjamin, 2013).  It not only allows a glimpse into the mind of someone previously cut off due to inability to communicate, but also gives them the opportunity to finally express themselves by coordinating the movement of others, an action previously denied by their bodies.  If this is not freedom, then I am not sure what is.


Identity is an integral part of who we are, how we think we should act and what makes us who we are. How can you be comfortable in your own skin, and be able to express yourself, if you live in a society who does not appreciate you, degrades you daily and refuses to see you as you would like.  Society holds many assumptions about what makes you who you are; race, sexuality, education, ability and disability.   However we rarely address these assumptions, and realise what we are doing when we make them.  It is difficult to change the perceptions of an entire society, thoughts that have lasted generations and are occasionally right, and therefore considered gospel.  Society likes to exist with fixed identities, ones that allow people to swiftly be compared to others, labelled and ultimately controlled (Dimitrov & Kopra, 1998). If it is difficult for able people to get away from their label, how challenging must it be for those with a disability to walk out in society, remove their ‘fixed identity’ of being helpless, scary, unintelligent, and a tragedy and face the world (Gwernan-Jones, 2008)? It may surprise society as it surprised me, that many disabled people would prefer to have their disability than have it ‘cured’.  It is maybe difficult for those who are able to understand the inner spirit of someone with a disability who faces challenges every day, and views it as part of who they are; a concept we fail to recognise or consider.  They may take those experiences, learn from them, adapt to better tackle them and would not change that for anyone.  Their identity is crucial to them, and we should except that.

Medical model

The medical model is the process of seeing illness with a physical cause and remedy, whilst ignoring social and holistic influences on a disease (Shah & Mountain, 2007).  It is a model that is opposed by the disabled community as it harbours the impression amongst doctors that a disability is a problem which required fixing, and therefore encourages fear and patronisation.   This project has opened my eyes to this.  However the connotations are not all negative, as it explains the biological basis for some diseases such as epilepsy and psychosis which were previously thought to be caused by demonic possession (Shah & Mountain, 2007).  I have observed doctors patronising patients during this project, and feel that it is not always intentional, but an expression of their fear and poor understanding of the person.  It is therefore easier to cope with these situations by medicalising them.  Thinking about them as a set of symptoms and issues creates a barrier, behind which the doctor can hide.  However patronisation may prevent those with disabilities from seeking health care, avoiding help until it is too late and therefore they are seriously unwell on presentation.

How has this influenced me?

Personally I am guilty of blindsiding people due to stereotypes, and throughout this project my views and reactions have been altered, and I have become acutely aware of how I and others treat those with disabilities.  Simply walking down the street, frequently I smile at people, but before, if faced with someone in a wheelchair or with an obvious physical disability, would I have shown the same smile, or instead due to fear and lack of understanding would I have acted differently? Honestly I cannot be sure.  Now however I endeavour to treat everyone with the same kindness, especially in my role as a medic.  It would be easy to take my fear out on the patient, rather than put it aside and ensure they have the same quality care.  This experience has also taught me despite their differences, they may aspire for the same things, enjoy the same activities and have opinions that are worth listening to. I feel as if I have spent too long pretending to be scared of something I knew nothing about, and if I can share my new attitude with others, maybe life would be simpler for a great deal of people.


Disabilities affect a great number of people in different ways, the degree of which is dictated by the environment in which they live, and the people with whom they share that environment.  There are barriers placed by society which create disabilities, which we should realise and attempt to change, in order to develop the equal society everyone wants.  Dance has provided an outlet for many people with a disability who have not been able to express their ingenuity before, and by combining able and disabled dancers, they are able to tell a story from various points of view.  I feel that I was blind to the prejudices before completing this project and this has led me to change my attitudes, actions and perceptions to those with a disability.  Maybe “one day they will live in a nation where they will not be judged” by their ability or disability “but by the content of their character” (Luther-King, 1963).

April 2013 Newsletter

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