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How an Acrobat With One Leg Is Challenging Ableism

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He used the strength of his arms to propel his body into the air, balancing on his crutches, thrusting his torso and leg overhead. He switched from one crutch to the other, elegantly twisting back to standing. He twirled his crutches proudly, using them as props in his acts. Much like the other performers on stage, he masterfully commanded his body, isolating and contorting his muscles. This was the first time in my life I have seen someone physically disabled featured in an acrobatic performance. Actually, it’s the first time I’ve seen someone visibly physically disabled in any “mainstream” athletic, theatrical, or musical performance. I watched this man, feeling inspired and grateful, at one of the Cirque Du Soleil shows in Las Vegas.

This man displayed how people with disabilities may perform differently, and it is often in this difference that incredible talent emerges. He could not dance the way the able-bodied dance. He could not walk the way the able-bodied walk. Yet, he moved his body in ways the able-bodied cannot. The strength of his arms enabled him to position his body in various inversions. His familiarity and comfort with his crutches enabled him to use them as extensions of his arms, on which he balanced as if he were a gymnast suspended in the air on rings. It was because of – not despite – his disability that he elevated his artistic medium with innovation.

I highlight this experience with no intention of subjecting this man to “inspiration porn.” It is incredible what he has accomplished, as it is incredible what the other performers on stage have accomplished. Instead, I hope to highlight the equity and inclusion demonstrated by Cirque du Soleil in featuring this talented performer. The choreographers of the show undoubtedly modified routines to best suit his needs and strengths. I applaud the flexibility and courage demonstrated by the many who facilitated his artful participation.

It is obvious that people with disabilities are forced to navigate the world differently. The challenge arises when others assume navigating the world differently is accompanied by more difficulty and less enjoyment. I have been asked how I adore shows like Cirque du Soleil. “Can you see well enough to really appreciate it?” The question assumes that if I am unable to see, I am unable to experience. Although I certainly see less, this does not mean I experience with less enjoyment. I can, and do, value art, theater, and athletic performances. I do so with all my senses, which happens to mean with less visual acuity. Doing things differently does not mean enjoying them – or experiencing them – any less.

Likewise, this performer was an equal part of the performance, dancing and contorting differently, but no less gracefully. He was both part of the larger dance numbers and highlighted in solo acts. He was a member of the cast like any other. His integration in the performance reveals that disabled people can and do fulfill the demands of challenging fields. Seeing this strong, talented, artistic performer with a disability shows it is possible to have a profession as an acrobat and a dancer and have one leg.

Given the dearth of role models with disabilities across professions, I watched this performance with a full heart.  It is rare to see people with disabilities in esteemed positions. It is rare to see people with disabilities in performances. Thank you, Cirque du Soleil, for challenging these cultural and social norms of ableism.

Learn more about dancer Jean Sok on his Facebook page.

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