When Actions Challenge Theories: The Tactical Performances of Sue Austin


  • Mabel Giraldo University of Bergamo
  • Dalila D'amico Sapienza University of Rome


In the 19th century, disability was turned into a spectacle through the freak shows, where deformities were enjoyed as something extraordinary to be observed. Today these shows are considered immoral and some disabled artists have retaken the power of exhibiting their bodies to challenge the idea of disabled as “other.” Such is the case of Sue Austin, the English artistic director of Freewheeling, a project that transforms her life experience in a wheelchair into a spectacle. She dives into the Red Sea with her underwater wheelchair in “Creating the Spectacle!,” or paints ith the chair's wheels in “Traces from a Wheelchair.” With her performances she dramatizes the vulnerability of the body, claims the power of the chair, and brings the audience into an authentic dimension of participation. Sue Austin, rewriting the meanings of the disabled body image, gives us the opportunity to think through, from a pedagogical point of view, the potential condition of being a disabled performer and its impact on the spectator's perspective of disability. Her works force us to rethink the boundary line between disability and talent, and to remember that disadvantage and disability, normality and exceptionality, must be considered as problems, tasks, or qualities specific not to the person, but to the entire network of relationships in which she lives. This paper addresses these questions through the principal categories of a personalist pedagogy and recent research in Performance Studies and Disability Studies.

Author Biographies

Mabel Giraldo, University of Bergamo

Mabel Giraldo is a Research Fellow in the Department of Human and Social Sciences, University of Bergamo.

Dalila D'amico, Sapienza University of Rome

Dalila D'amico is a PhD candidate at Sapienza University of Rome.