Breaking Through Stereotypes With Integrated Dance

I remember the time when we had gotten the boys’ reevaluated by a psychologist who we respected—someone with a storied history and impeccable credentials. It had been awhile since there had been any assessment of their abilities and a reevaluation of their diagnosis, so it was needed.  Well… it didn’t turn out as we expected.

While the diagnosis was basically on par with what we had always been told, there was an added extra discussion of what professional goals to which the boys might endeavor. Now my oldest at this time, who not only deals with the anxiety associated with autism, but also has generalized anxiety disorder was thinking of going to law school. As everyone knows, law school is very high pressure and can produce a lot of anxiety. Never mind what the practice of law itself entails! So, what does this psychologist suggest? Well, that he become an archivist instead. Since he was a history major, she decided that law school was too hard for him emotionally, and that it would be better if he did something that didn’t have too much human interaction and wasn’t so high pressured. Apparently, he was smart, but she decided that his disability would prevent him from reaching for his dreams. I am not and have never been a shrinking violet. When I got finished with her, she refused to meet with me to discuss my other son’s reports and sent her boss instead.

It wasn’t that I was especially mean. I was simply furious. Here she decided that my brilliant child should sit in the dark nether regions of a museum—away from human contact—and give up his dream of helping others through law. Instead of trying to think of supports that would help him reach his goal, she decided that his disability should prevent him from even trying.

In the end, he never went to law school, instead he decided to study computer science and software engineering. The funniest part is that so many in-the-know experts on autism spectrum disorders like to tell you to put your child with autism in computer science programs since there is very little social interaction, and they seem to think that the autistic brain functions like a computer. Little do they know that computer engineering and software design—even programming—is all social interaction. The schooling is all about group dynamics. It models the real world.

When they did go to college and graduate school there were a myriad of disability support persons who were happy to grant them their needed accommodations. Now, I will not lie. The professors thought that they wouldn’t be able to attain their degrees when they saw that they needed a support coach. But once the professors realized that they not only could do the work, but also excel at it, the aide became simply like a class assistant. Not only were they happy to have the aide in the class, they also took full advantage of him being there. The boys became just like any other student in their classes.

In fact, one professor once came up to my younger son, and chastised him for his B+ grade. “If you simply put in a little more effort, you would be a straight A student,” he said to him. This professor saw my son as a talented student (albeit a lazy one—I’m his mother, I should know!), not as a talented student with autism.

Also, we were more than pleased to find that when the older one went for his first major internship, not only was the director happy to accommodate the education coach now turned job coach, they were also actually excited to be able to give our son this chance.

I remember when hubby got off the phone with the director, after leaving a long email about our son’s needs, he just sat there, and couldn’t believe it. “Whatever he needed, they said. They would be more than happy to work with us and the coach to make sure our son was happy and was able to excel at work.” 

So yes, while you may find that there are people who will not be what you expect them to be, there are also those out in the world who not only will accept your child, but will also go out of their way to understand and embrace your child. They will support and work on full inclusion alongside you and your child.

I also know that this attitude shift did not simply happen. It took a lot of hard work by disability advocates over decades to get the typical world to see the person first, and the disability second.

Luckily, we live in an age where there are activists and educators will not broker marginalization anymore. The demand that the disabled have a right to decide their own future—that they have a right to be integrated fully into our culture without having to hide their disability is called Disability Culture. Their call to action is “Nothing about us without us.” No part of society can exist successfully without the full inclusion of those who have disabilities.

_DSC0806 12x6 Darker.jpg

This is where groups like Born Dancing come into play. Integrated dance is an outgrowth of disability culture. It’s a way of allowing dancers with disabilities to fully express themselves. Integrated dance allows dancers to be fully instrumental in their actions. They’re given agency. They’re first and foremost seen as actors with intentions.

But—how do we get from the accepted norms of dance to integrated dance? First—understand that the challenge with traditional dance in many ways is its own traditions… its own unadaptability. The stricture and structure of dance doesn’t allow for much deviation from what’s seen as the norm. Of course, this norm is prescribed and understood in the guise of the typical dancer who is not disabled… the fully mobile, long-legged, lithe body that is so prized by the dance world. This is also where integrated dance comes into play: It challenges the long-held aesthetics of the dance world. It demands change.

Integrated dance wants adaptation in dance to include those persons with disabilities, as well as the typical dancer. Integrated dance isn’t adapted dance, but rather “transposed” dance—a new and wonderful way of examining our world through movement, music, and understanding. It, as with all forms of art, demands that the most essential attribute for any person first and foremost is artistic achievement. Integrated dance isn’t a novelty act, a medical model, or objectification—it’s the recognition that the joy of dance in and of itself is the goal.

Does this mean there are new and exciting venues of choreography? Yes. Does this mean we ignore that a person has a disability? No. But it means they’re seen first as a dancer, and not a dancer with a disability. Does this mean we throw out a lot of the old? No, but it also depends. If part of the old makes dance inaccessible to someone, then society needs a new way of examining exactly what they mean by dance and accomplishment.

In the end, what integrated dance means is that we enable dancers of every kind to fully realize their dreams and allow their souls to soar.


Elise, an award-winning blogger, writes about the practical aspects of raising autistic children at her blog Raising Asperger’s Kids, http://practicalautism.com. She writes under the pen-name Elise Ronan, to protect her sons’ privacy, and has permission from them to tell their story.

Everything Elise writes about raising autistic children can be applied to any disability, invisible or even physical. There is information about creating your child’s support village, and practical information grouped by age. These direct pages can be found on the sidebar on her blog page. She is open to answering questions about her writings and helping other parents where she can. You can reach her at practicalautism@gmail.com.

Elise also writes a book review blog at Journaling on Paper, http://journalingonpaper.com.  She reviews different genres from memoirs, to spy thrillers, murder mysteries, space operas, historical fiction, and more. She also explores the use of language, and its effects.