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Disabled Dancers: Agents of Change?

By Shawn H.E. Harmon

As Blades notes in ‘Narratives and Agency’,[1] a post on the AHRC project, ‘Resilience and Inclusion: Dancers as Agents of Change’[2] (itself a follow-on to the InVisible Difference Project [3]), it is our belief and ambition that disabled dancers are and ought to be agents of change.  This is in no small part a result of our observations that social justice is lacking in the culture creation setting, where those with disabilities have been marginalised and remain significantly under-supported.  However, as Blades suggests, agency is not at all straightforward, being tangled up, as it is, with social frameworks.  What measures of agency might we rely on to make judgments about whether the arts (and specifically dance) field is moving appropriately toward a greater social equality and representativeness?

Writing in the context of development and social justice, Sen argues that agency is a person’s ability to act in support of what she values and has reason to value, and that it is both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable.[4]  People with high levels of agency can more readily pursue actions congruent with their values, and those without may be alienated from their reality, or be forced to submit to conditions that they decry.[5]  So understood, agency clearly has both internal and external elements, but what elements exist and what do we need to attend to in the context of disabled dance to realise the objective of agency for change?  Sen offers five measures for analysing agency; according to Sen, agency:
1.      is exercised in relation to one’s wellbeing and goals;
2.      must be supported by ‘effective power’ (i.e., the power to achieve desired goals); though this may be exercised by a group rather than an individual, the individual must have the ability to influence processes and exercise choice;
3.      requires ‘capability’ (i.e., the space within which individuals might exercise ‘wellbeing freedom’, which itself might be other-regarding);
4.      is appropriately associated not only with values, but with goals the individual has a reason to value (and so might be differentiated substantively from raw autonomy);
5.      is associated with responsibility to understand one’s role in the prevailing conditions as well as that in realising alternative (better) conditions.[2]
There has been some useful work in support of disability and disabled dance, particularly since the Cultural Olympiad,[6] but what is the current state of the disabled dancer’s agency in relation to these measures?

Our findings in the InVisible Difference Project offer some grounds to believe that disabled dancers have made significant strides in (1) systematically advancing a reasonably cohesive set of goals, (4) articulating cogent and both culture- and rights-based reasons to value those goals, and (5) appreciating the responsibility that leadership imposes on those (pioneers) who have wedged their way into the conscience of the elite dance scene and the dance-viewing public.  However, that project has also demonstrated that disabled dancers are incredibly under-resourced and under-supported with respect to measure (2) and (3), a reality which continues to undermine the just advancement of their roles as creators of culture and agents of change.

This reality must be viewed as an affront to the human rights that disabled persons/dancers hold under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the European Convention on Human Rights.  And many actors have been complicit in the deficiencies that exist, from arts funders, to dance organisations, to memory institutions, to dance critics, and more.[7]  Disabled dancers need to be much more effectively facilitated in exercising their agency if they are ever to adequately perform their desired, demanded and deserving role as ‘agents of change’, and become equal (and celebrated) creators of culture.

The Online Toolkit mentioned by Blades and the associated film described by Brown,[8] both being developed in the Resilience and Inclusion Project, are just two small steps in the many that are needed to realise this objective, others being further research to ascertain the state of the shortfalls in the above measures.  Let us hope that more funding is made available to help generate the ‘effective power’ and to open up the ‘capability spaces’ that are so needed for real change to occur.

Notes and References
[1] H Blades, ‘Narratives and Agency’, 4 December 2016, at
[2] Resilience and Inclusion: Dancers as Agents of Change, at
[3] InVisible Difference, at
[4] A Sen, Wellbeing, Agency and Freedom: The 1984 Dewey Lectures’ (1985) 82 J Philosophy 169-221, at 206.
[5] Ryan and Deci, Autonomy is No Illusion: Self-Determination Theory and the Empirical Study of Authenticity, Awareness and Will’ in J Greenberg et al. (eds.), Handbook f Experimental Existential Psychology (NY: Guilford Press, 2004) 450.
[6] M Sinclair, ‘The 2012 Cultural Olympiad: From Initial Planning to Final Delivery and Beyond’ (2014), at
[7] S Whatley, C Waelde, S Harmon, A Brown, ‘Validation and Virtuosity: Perspectives on Difference and Authorship/Control in Dance’ (2015) 6 Choreographic Practices 59-83.

[8] A Brown, ‘Words, Bodies and Film: The Start of a Journey’, 16 December 2016, at
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