How philosophy and theatre can help us value profoundly disabled people

John Vorhaus

A series of philosophical questions arise from reflection on profound disability and dependency, with implications not only for profoundly disabled people, but for all of us at some stage in our lives. A few thoughts about our moral status will illustrate the point, with  help from the world of theatre.

What does our moral status depend upon?  A common response is the capacity for autonomy and rationality. But not all human beings have much of either. What about the importance of human relations and relationships? But where would that leave the lonely or unloved? Belonging to the same species? For some this is just a matter of biological taxonomy, yet for others it is of the upmost moral significance, a reminder that we are all ‘fellow creatures’.

Philosophers think about these features of humanity in strikingly different ways. Some explore the meaning of a human life and the language we employ to understand it. Others emphasise empirical enquiry, looking especially in the direction of the neuro- and cognitive sciences. People with profound and multiple learning difficulties and disabilities (PMLD) present a challenge. What exactly is their moral status? They lack what many see as the hallmark of moral agency – a capacity for rational autonomy.

When thinking about these questions it can help to get one’s head out of a book and spend time with parents, carers, teachers, interpreters, therapists – and theatre directors. Tim Webb first set up Oily Cart over thirty years ago, producing “all sorts of theatre for all sorts of kids”. His company offers interactive, multisensory theatre to profoundly disabled children, and what it provides is not only ‘theatre’ as you or I might understand this, but an experience of smelling, hearing, touching, and feeling a rush of fanned air against your face. It’s a world in which, as Lyn Gardner of The Guardian described one performance, “soundscape, sensory diversions, colour and water come together in a liquid world of enchantment”.

The work of Oily Cart – what they bestow on the children, and what they succeed in bringing out of them – whether a smile, stilled attentiveness, or chuckling pleasure – is a wonderful thing to behold: magical, sensitive, clever, pretty, thoughtful, imaginative and –above all – a world which reaches inside the children, exciting their senses and imagination, and making an intimate connection with a group of human beings who number amongst the most dependent and hard to reach on earth.

Possibilities abound: how theatre might reveal what someone is capable of that might otherwise be thought impossible (adults watching on sometimes cannot believe their eyes); how the subtlest enticing of the senses might draw out and enliven a previously inert and ‘unreachable’ child.  And while these children may never participate in politics or anything like it, they might succeed in contributing to a theatrical event, becoming – if only momentarily – members of a group sharing in a common human endeavour.

These possibilities are open to ridicule as the product of sentimental wishful thinking. But the thoughts inspired by theatrical work of this kind are not to be dismissed out of hand. We are shown how a human being may surprise herself, and us, when brought alive by something captivating, becoming part of something beautiful that she will not see for herself, but which she is yet contributing to and representing. Thoughts of this nature, prompted by remarkable theatre, and a remarkable and exceptionally vulnerable group of human beings, are worth reflecting on when thinking about the contours of their moral status, and ours.

John Vorhaus’s forthcoming book, Giving voice to profound disability: dignity, dependence and human capabilities, will be published by Routledge next year.

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Posted in Special educational needs and psychology
4 comments on “How philosophy and theatre can help us value profoundly disabled people
  1. Jay Derrick says:

    Thanks for this John. I’m very pleased with your emphasis on our moral status, often absent in our intense debates about ‘what works’ in education. Discussions about the moral status of teachers connect with other ideas it’s easy to sneer at: civic virtue and public service, for example. I very much look forward to reading your book!

  2. When Oily Cart approached me to publish a book celebrating their 30th year of unique and glorious productions, they invited me to attend one of their productions. I was spellbound by what John Vorhaus calls: the ‘wonderful thing to behold: magical, sensitive, clever, pretty, thoughtful, imaginative and –above all – a world which reaches inside the children, exciting their senses and imagination’. In ‘Oily Cart – all sorts of theatre for all sorts of kids’, published by Trentham Books at IOE Press in 2012, one of the productions discussed by the leaders of the company, Tim Webb. Claire de Loon and Max Reinhardt, is ‘Baby Balloon’, designed for infants and others with profound disabilities.
    I look forward to reading John Vorhaus’s forthcoming book and learning more about how theatre reaches children who have been deemed unreachable. As he says, valuing them is the first step.

  3. […] How philosophy and theatre can help us value profoundly disabled people. […]

  4. […] – Philosopher and University of London academic Dr John Vorhaus highlights theatre’s capacity to help children and adults with profound and multiple learning difficulties and disabilities: “We are shown how a human being may surprise herself, and us, when brought alive by something captiva…“ […]

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