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Disability visibility: ‘Cripfest’ reclaims the word

Crippled and proud: Mat Fraser, who has organized a showcase of disabled artists called “CripFest” says he is proud to call himself a cripple.
Photo by Jason Speakman

Don’t diss their ability!

A group of comedians, dancers, and other performers with disabilities will converge on Fort Greene on July 25 for an all-day festival that celebrates their talents. The organizer of the extravaganza said he wants to show just how entertaining he and his fellow “cripples” can be.

“This is not about moaning about how we don’t get opportunities,” said Mat Fraser, a British-born actor and former Coney Island freak show performer. “This is an opportunity to celebrate how awesome we are.”

Fraser, who reigned as King Neptune at this year’s Coney Island Mermaid Parade, was born with phocomelia, a congenital disorder caused, in his case, by his mother’s use of the drug thalidomide, resulted in the malformation of his arms and hands. He created the event to mark the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and worked with a British cultural agency to bring in artists from the United Kingdom as well as the United States.

The title of the event, “Cripfest,” may give some pause, but Fraser uses the term “cripple” proudly. When used with the wrong intent, it really is a nasty word, he said, but when used in the right context — by self-described cripples — the word takes on a new meaning. Fraser and his fellow cripples are taking it back.

“As with many people of oppressed groups, with the n-word being the most famous, we are picking it up and using it as a badge of honor,” he said. “It’s empowering to me, and it says ‘I’m political about my disability, I want to work in the world, and I expect the world to allow it, dammit.’ ”

A similar line of thinking led Fraser, to perform in the freak show at Coney Island in 2000. He checked out the famous show while researching the cultural history of disabled performers, and soon took to the stage performing original material and a retro “Sealo the Sealboy” shaving act. He said that confronting his difference head on and using it for art was an eye-opening experience.

“I see sideshow being a good thing, similar to burlesque,” he said. “In the same way burlesque allows women of all sizes to own their bodies, sideshow can be a way of us saying ‘We’re sexy b—–s and you’re lucky to watch us.”

The free festival will feature panel discussions and readings in the afternoon. Free drinks, burlesque performances, and sideshow acts will take over as the sun sets, said Fraser, who will host and play drums with cabaret act the Spazms.

“Cripfest,” at BAM Fishman [321 Ashland Pl. between Lafayette Avenue and Hanson Place in Fort Greene, (718) 636–4100, cripfest.splashthat.com]. July 25 from 2–11 pm. Free.

Reach reporter Noah Hurowitz at nhurowitz@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–4505. Follow him on Twitter @noahhurowitz

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