It’s been a tough week for Britain and the weeks and months ahead are bound to be anything but peachy. As for me, I’ve been nursing a stubborn ‘Brexit’ headache since the referendum last Thursday, accompanied by a heavy feeling in my chest, reminiscent of a broken heart.
As I mindlessly scrolled through the tweets on my Twitter account the other day, I came across a notice by Francesca Martinez, one of my favourite stand-up comedians. She was advertising her next performance,“Wobbly Manifesto,” part of the Science Museum’s Late Programme, and I quickly made up my mind to attend, hoping that a night out might cheer me up.
Also performing that evening was Deaf Men Dancing (DMD), an all-male dance company made up of professional dancers who happen to be deaf. I’d never heard of them before but the title of their show, “Let Us Tell You a Story,” intrigued me. I was definitely not going to miss either performance.
Leaving my husband in charge of the children’s bedtime routine I thus set off across the city to the Science Museum.
Choreographed by DMD’s founder and artistic director, Mark Smith, “Let Us Tell You a Story” tells not just one, but six different stories about deaf history, beginning with the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf in 1880.
Known as the Milan Conference, its delegates passed a resolution, 160-4, banning the use of sign language in schools across Europe and the United States and declaring speech therapy the ‘superior’ method of education for the deaf.
For over 100 years, deaf people were thus forbidden to sign, depriving them of their true language and it was not until 2003 that the UK government formally recognised British Sign Language (BSL) as a language in its own right.
Mixing modern dance with sign language, visuals and sound, DMD’s show explored aspects of deaf experience that I – as partially hearing impaired – could relate to, including an almost comical scene from a high-frequency hearing test.
Illustrating how deaf people were forbidden to use their hands when communicating, the show reminded me of a time in middle school when my class teacher told me to sit on my hands to prevent me from gesturing while speaking.
Although I didn’t use sign language I had a habit of using my hands when communicating and being told that was unacceptable was not only humiliating but also left me feeling inhibited.
If that’s how I – a hearing person – felt, I can only imagine what it must have been like for a deaf person to be told they mustn’t use their hands.
Following a brief intermission at the end of the performance, it’s time for Francesca Martinez’s “Wobbly Manifesto.”
Martinez suffered brain damage at birth and was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a label she intensely dislikes, preferring instead to call herself ‘wobbly’.
“I don’t like labels such as normal, able-bodied and disabled,” she says, pointing out that “we all have things we can’t do, it’s normal.” So why define ourselves accordingly?
Besides, “who wants a normal life?” Martinez asks. “I want a fucking amazing life.”
It’s almost impossible to feel blue in the presence of Francesca Martinez’s high-octane energy, exuberant zest for life, comical genius, and great wisdom.
“There’s an assumption in society that a child that’s not ‘normal’ is going to suffer,” she observes.
“But that’s bollocks! For we are not defined by our bodies, we are defined by how much love we get.”
Martinez ends her performance by calling on everyone to celebrate diversity and to embrace difference.
“Don’t let those in power breed fear of difference; diversity is natural.”
Those are especially poignant words in Britain right now, where we’re seeing a sharp rise in xenophobic abuse and hate speech following last week’s referendum.
I leave the Science Museum half-wishing that Francesca Martinez was in charge of our political future. One thing is for sure: this country is in dire need of more people like her.