• Rebecca Karu

Addressing Ableism In and Out of the Performing Arts

Another day, another dollar; another week, another blog post!


Over the past two weeks I’ve been super busy! Between interviews for DMA programs, lessons, classes, work, and other interviews and meetings, I’ve been in a time crunch! But all in all there has been something that has continually come up in many of these discussions. That being the importance of musicians' health. When I say musicians’ health, I mean all of it encompassed. I mean injuries, overuse, psychological, and emotional. It’s also important to take into account other health problems that don’t stem from playing music itself, or the stress of a career. Many musicians, and really performers of all kinds, deal with illnesses everyday. Some include, but are not limited to, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, cancer, bipolar disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. Many of these things cannot be outwardly seen, however some can. Regardless of what we may manage on a daily basis, it’s hard. For many of us we need some form of accommodation. It might be having to take the elevator versus the stairs, needing to sit during performances versus stand, or maybe even need to have a snack on hand just in case.


Regardless, there’s a stigma. There’s always been a stigma behind health problems; as if it makes you look weak or incapable of doing the job you were hired to do.


This… this seems so silly to me.


Why is it that we look down upon those who fight health battles daily? Why is it that we may coddle, or assume that someone can’t do the job? In addition to that why do people make comments about people waiting for the elevator to go up one floor?


There’s something called ableism. Ever heard of it? If you haven’t, now is the time to learn. If you have, but don’t fully understand how it affects people, now’s the time to learn.


First, what is ableism?


Ableism is the discrimination against those with disabilities, and the belief that those who are typically able are superior. Like racism and sexism, ableism is real and we need to recognize that. There is no room for this to continue on in our society.


Let’s talk about a couple of ableist things that you might encounter in your daily life.


First, there’s always something you don’t know about a person. With that being said, some people with disabilities may look like a healthy individual. For example, me. I don’t “look sick”, but also hold up, ask yourself this. What does being sick look like?


You cannot judge people based on their appearance. There are plenty of people out there who fight silent battles, whether it be physically or mentally. You are not in a position to pass judgement on someone who “does”, or “does not look sick”. With that being said, if someone takes an elevator up one floor, the next time you go to sigh, or make a comment, do not. That is ableist. There were plenty of times where I personally was too weak to take the stairs. When I was first diagnosed with Dysautonomia, I had a hard time walking. I had a hard time getting around because I was weak and constantly in pain. I took the elevator many times and I’m sure people passed judgement towards me. In conjunction with that, musically I used to not be able to stand and play. I still do not stand and play much, but I try to occasionally when I feel like I can. There have been times where I have been labeled “lazy”, because of it. However, this is an example of ableism and a circumstance where people could have simply asked why I don’t stand and play, rather than claiming me as lazy. I am highly susceptible to fainting. My blood pressure is consistently low and I am tachycardic when I am in a vertical position. Therefore, I would not like to always stand and perform, especially on days where I am not feeling well.


Moving forward, what else can I be more aware of?


There have been many times where people have used a disability or symptom as an adjective. These are considered microaggressions. Terms like crazy, psycho, and retarded are words we need to get rid of in our vocabulary. They aren’t terms to be used to describe something, or someone. Also, actions like claiming you have OCD just because you like a clean space does not mean you have OCD. That’s a serious condition that is very difficult for people to manage and it is not okay to use that if you are not diagnosed, and just trying to describe that you like to be organized. It implies a lack of understanding of the severity of it, and it comes off as belittling the condition. Phrases and terms as such come off as a slight to those who are disabled. It comes off as if these conditions are negative and need to be “fixed”. In actuality, there is no need for fixing. This is who we are, and these are the things we fight through and manage on our own.


The last part of the previous sentence is really important. “Manage on our own”. Oftentimes, people will offer those with disabilities advice on healing. Sometimes people who do not understand think that chronic illnesses are indeed curable. That’s not really the case. There are some people who tend to offer advice on “fixing” or “curing” an illness. “Have you tried yoga?” “Do you NEED to take medication?” “Just try to eat”. These suggestions are really triggering and imply that we haven’t tried to make ourselves feel better. There is no cure to diabetes. There is no cure to dysautonomia. There is no cure to bipolar disorder. There is just management. We all see doctors, and in some cases, many doctors. They are helping us manage what we go through. Unsolicited advice is ableist, and it is rude. Please be careful when trying to support those with disabilities! While your intentions may be good, these actions do affect us deeply. Instead of offering suggestions, or judging us for the amount of medication we take, you could ask us if we need anything, or just give a reminder that you’re here if you see us struggling. This goes much further, I promise.


So what does this have to do with the music community or the performing arts?


In the performing arts community, people tend to be nervous to disclose any health problem; physical, mental or emotional. Why’s that? We are afraid of rejection. We are afraid that we won't get hired because of our conditions. That people will see us as frail, or weak. That people may think that we’re incapable of doing the job to the highest degree.


At first, my doctors questioned if I was able to handle school at the time of my diagnosis. I felt like I had to. This is my life and career and I needed to be able to work it out. There were also suggestions of keeping my diagnosis on the down low. The more I thought about it, I was like...why?


I’ve had days where I needed to sleep all day. I’ve had days where I couldn’t eat anything. Days where I could barely walk to school.


But I did it.


The thing is, we learn and we listen. I did a bunch of reading about my diagnosis. I listened to my doctors about what to do, what to keep track of, and what to avoid. I listened to my body. I’m at a point where overall, I have it managed. I don’t always feel super deluxe, but I make it work.


That’s my decision to tell you whether I can do something or not. It’s my decision to accept or reject a gig based on how I’m feeling. If I do accept, you bet I’ll show up and be the very best I can be.


It is ableist to not hire musicians because of a physical, mental, or emotional illness. It’s ableist to make jokes about disorders or diseases that are out of people’s control. It’s time to normalize this. We are all different, but we all have amazing things to offer. Disability is not a dirty word. While things may be a bit harder and we may need an accommodation, we know our limitations. We will be upfront and honest about what we can do. It isn’t anyone else's job to make that judgement for us.


So with that all being said, what can you do to be a good ally?


  1. Believe someone when they tell you they have a disability. It’s not always easy to be candid about it. Some people are still adapting, especially if they’re newly diagnosed.

  2. Listen when they request an accommodation. This makes us feel supported. We can do everything to the best of our ability, but sometimes we may need a little help.

  3. Don’t ask intrusive questions. Someone will tell you if they feel comfortable and would like to disclose information to you, but please let us do it on our own terms. Don’t ask questions that can seem offensive, or intrusive.

  4. Just be there. Be supportive. In a word where it’s easy to tear each other down, we should focus on lifting each other up. Regardless of our differences, we need to support each other.


Lastly, if you’re suffering from an injury, trauma, or a potential illness and you feel unwell, but are trying to work through the pain, please see a doctor. Your health and well-being is SO important. Acknowledging this and getting help is the first step to getting better. There is no weakness in seeking help of any kind. Please take care of yourself first.


Questions, comments or need advice? Feel free to reach out to me on instagram @mindoverpractice or email me at mindoverpractice@gmail.com. I also offer coaching sessions so please feel free to check out my lessons tab for more information! For now, have a productive week of positive practicing.



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