Telling the Story of the PA’s Disability Movement Through Theater - Generocity Philly


May 1, 2015 11:44 am

Telling the Story of the PA’s Disability Movement Through Theater

A Fierce Kind of Love is part of the Institute on Disabilities’ at Temple University’s Visionary Voices.

A Fierce Kind of Love – workshop process with the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University at Christ Church Neighborhood House. photo © Jacques-Jean Tiziou JJ Tiziou Photography /


About two years ago, in March of 2013, the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University held a public reading of its work in progress theater production of A Fierce Kind of Love at Christ Church Neighborhood House.

The play, by theater artists Suli Holum and David Bradley, recounts the untold stories of the advocates in Pennsylvania who played a significant role in the fight for disability rights, revealing how past activism has informed present-day issues.

“We did a public reading of the work in progress two years ago in March of 2013, just to see, ‘could this story be of interest to people, not only within the disability community but outside the disability community?’ And it really was,” said Lisa Sonneborn, project coordinator of Visionary Voices at the Institute.

In fact, the reading was sold out — there wasn’t enough space in the 130 seat theater to fit everyone who wanted to attend.

The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, which provided funding for the initial start of the project in 2012 with a $75,000 planning grant, awarded the Institute, a $360,000 grant for the project.

The full version A Fierce Kind of Love, will premiere in April 2016.

Using Oral Histories to Document History of the Disability Movement

A Fierce Kind of Love is part of a larger project at The Institute called Visionary Voices. The Institute itself has a multitude of functions, including research, leadership development and training, assistive technology and information dissemination.

“About four years ago, our co-executive director, whose name is Celia Feinstein, really wanted to launch a project that would preserve the history of the intellectual disabilities rights movement in Pennsylvania,” Sonneborn said.

“What Celia realized is that, two things really: the stories from that community are undertold, and also that Pennsylvania had a very unique role in the history of the intellectual disability movement. We were the first state in the country to allow children with disabilities to enter schools, we were one of the first states to work on de-institutionalization, self-determination, etc,” she added.

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It was the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens (PARC) v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the first right-to-education suit in the country, that overturned the Pennsylvania law which allowed public schools to deny services to children “who have not attained a mental age of five years” by the start of first grade. A subsequent case, Mills v. Board of Education reached the Supreme Court soon after and established the fundamental Constitutional right to education of all children with disabilities.

PARC and the Public Interest Law Center also worked on de-institutionalization, through working to close Pennhurst State School and Hospital and other institutions in Pennsylvania where residents were abused and neglected and deprived of almost all social, educational and employment opportunities. The population of state institutions in Pennsylvania decreased from the tens of thousands in the 1960s to just over one thousand in 2008.

Now, as the people who were responsible for creating the movement in Pennsylvania are getting older, the Institute needs a way to preserve its history.

“So [Feinstein] brought me on board. I’m a filmmaker by trade and I do documentary work. What we did was launch the Visionary Voices project,” Sonneborn said.

The Visionary Voices project consists of oral history interviews with the folks who led the movement, interviews with who were impacted by the movement in a significant way, as well as an archival preservation of personal papers collections that enhance the understanding of Pennsylvania’s Intellectual Disability Rights Movement.

Using the oral histories recorded for Visionary Voices as a starting point, Sonneborn said they realized that they could use public performance to help bring the history of the movement to a larger community.

“We developed a cast, an inclusive cast. It started out as five, it’s now a nine person cast. And by inclusive I mean we have professional actors, as well as aspiring actors with intellectual disabilities, which makes for an incredible dynamic,” she said.

A Year Long Arts and Civic Engagement Project

Now, A Fierce Kind of Love is the cornerstone of a year long arts and civic engagement project.

“Leading up to the play, we have a number of community programs starting in October of this year,” Sonneborn said, adding that October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

The project recently brought interviewers to do oral-history style interviews at State Centers, Intermediate Care Facilities (ICF/ID), and sheltered workshops with people with intellectual disabilities, working with a total of 19 interviewers. One of the places they’ve done interviews at is Selinsgrove State Center, which is outside of Harrisburg.

“On our first trip we’ll go, we’ll get to know each other, we’ll do the interviews and JJ [Tiziou] will do the portrait,” Sonneborn said. “On our second trip, our interviewers will return, they’ll review the interview transcripts with the narrator, to be sure the narrator is comfortable with what he or she has shared. And then JJ [Tiziou] will facilitate a self-portraiture project with those folks which we’re very excited about.”

For Tiziou, who will also be helping to document the workshops and the performances, it’s a “project that just makes sense.”

“It resonates a bit with my heart in terms of helping sharing stories that aren’t always heard, helping bringing a little bit of life to faces that aren’t always seen as beautiful even though they are. It just seemed like a natural collaboration,” Tiziou said.

The portraits and the self-portraits and excerpts from the audio will form an exhibition called Lives Lived Apart, that will be on display in Harrisburg in the state capitol building in October of this year. The full exhibit will be mounted in City Hall in March and April of 2016.

Visionary Voices will also have other programming going on around A Fierce Kind of Love, including a story slam with First Person Arts.

“We’ll be doing one of their story slams, but this particular story slam is called a Sib Slam. It’ll be focused on stories of siblings,” Sonneborn said.  “What we’ll do in advance of the Sib Slam is curate stories together with First Person Arts of siblings with and without disabilities which we think is also pretty exciting.”

Suli Holum the playwright for the piece, director David Bradley and some of the cast, will also facilitate a workshop called “Stories and Play,” that’s designed to help cultural practitioners learn how to make inclusive work. There will be an academic symposium called “Fierce Love and Parental Activism,” designed to trace the history of the parents movement.

“What’s exciting is a lot of the programming happening around the time of the play, so we’re hoping to create almost like a mini-festival atmosphere and get people excited,” Sonneborn said.

“What’s really incredible about this piece is that these stories are never told. But there’s such a universality about them. We’re hoping this will be a great point of connection and just sort of help people recalibrate a tiny bit about how they think about disability,” she added.

Images via Jacques-Jean Tiziou


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