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Disabled artists at Panamania break barriers, smash stereotypes

07/17/2015 04:03 EDT | Updated 07/17/2016 05:59 EDT
Hundreds of acts are taking over Toronto stages for Panamania, the arts and culture festival of the Pan Am Games, but of the 250 performances and exhibitions expected, only two will feature disabled performers.

Montrealer Luca "Lazylegz" Patuelli leads his crew of five international breakdancers – each of whom has what he calls "different abilities" – for the show Limitless. In PUSH! Real Athletes. Real Stories. Real Theatre, director and playwright Ping Chong weaves together the stories of six world-class, disabled athletes.

The integration of disabled people in the arts is still rare. According to Statistics Canada, more than 13 per cent of Canadians reported having a disability in 2012.

"And we know that certainly on our stages, we don't see anywhere close to that kind of representation," said Dr. Kirsty Johnston, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia who specializes in disability and the arts.  

That's something that the creators of Limitless and Push hope to change.

On mobile? Watch the official trailer for "Limitless" featuring ILL-Abilities

Patuelli, 31, whips around a dance floor on forearm crutches. At 15, he found himself in the centre of a hip-hop dance circle. He realized then it was a place where he would be appreciated for his disability: it gave him an edge as a unique dancer.

"That gave me the confidence to start believing in myself," recalls Patuelli.

As his passion for the dance form grew, so did his skill. He started competing globally in 2004 and eventually caught the attention of Olympics organizers in Vancouver. Patuelli was invited to perform during the opening of the 2010 Winter Paralympic Games.

His dance crew, ILL-Abilities, hails from the Netherlands, Chile and U.S.A. The name holds significant meaning for each member.

"Ill means 'sick' in the hip-hop world. Sick means amazing and incredible, so we are five dancers with amazing and incredible abilities with a hidden message: no limits, no excuses, because we have all lived by that message," explains Patuelli.

While he believes "inclusion is the way to go," Patuelli says he understands it will take time to see the full integration of disabled and non-disabled people, whether it be in the arts or in sports.

"Who knows, maybe in the long run rather than having Olympics [and] Paralympics, it will be a different event and be for anyone who wants to compete, who is at that level that can handle it."

New York-based theatre director Chong shares that perspective. After spending hundreds of hours interviewing disabled athletes, he's co-written a play based on six of their stories. Those athletes will also be onstage in Toronto, performing the play.

Victoria Nolan, a rower who only has has only about three per cent vision, is one of them.

"Sports literally saved my life," says Nolan, who has been dubbed "The Metronome" in the water.

"It really turned my life around, so to be able to share my story with other people is really meaningful because I know that sports can change other people's lives, too."

Having worked with marginalized groups in the past, Chong found the stories the athletes shared similar to others who have suffered inequalities. Nonetheless, he found PUSH! eye-opening.

"Working with athletes also brought me to realize that they can do things I can't do at all, so who's the disabled person in this situation?"

It's a question he hopes audiences who attend his play will ask themselves, too.

On mobile? Hear from Jenna Lambert, a competitive swimmer and one of the cast members of PUSH! Real Athletes. Real Stories. Real Theatre

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