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Podcast #63: Artist Sue Austin's Creating the Spectacle challenges audiences to think differently about disability and wheelchairs

‘Beyond School Books’ – a podcast series on education in emergencies

© 2012/Jeffery
Artist Sue Austin glides underwater on her custom wheelchair. Her performances have captivated audiences and challenged entrenched conceptions about disability and wheelchairs.

By Rudina Vojvoda

NEW YORK, United States of America, 11 September 2012 – Images of Sue Austin, gliding through the deep on her wheelchair, past schools of fish and lush coral reefs, are taking the world by storm. A multimedia, performance and installation artist, Ms. Austin is the architect of Creating the Spectacle, a groundbreaking series of performances of an underwater wheelchair user that challenges the perception of wheelchairs and disabilities.

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Ms. Austin recently performed at the London 2012 Festival and Paralympic Games. She spoke to podcast moderator Kathryn Herzog about her motivation and her plans for the future.

Thinking differently

The main purpose behind Ms. Austin’s work is to transform preconceptions and create unexpected images that inspire people to think differently. Her series does just that. “I came to realize during my research that the words attached to the wheelchair are fear, limitation, pity and illness, words that are slightly fearful and anxious,” she says. But when the audience watches her move freely through the ocean, reactions are quite the opposite.  “One of my favorite responses is when people say ‘I want one of those [wheelchairs]’.

People have said that, if you could do that, I can do anything. They use words such as graceful, free, exciting, inspiring,” she adds.

The idea of an underwater wheelchair was born in 2005 when Ms. Austin was training as a disabled diver. She realized that scuba equipment and the wheelchair share a common quality: they both extend one’s range of activity.

When she first approached experts about uniting the two, she met some resistance. “When I started talking to the engineers about my idea, they were saying it can’t be done. The wheelchair is not designed to go under water; the drag will be too much on it, it won’t stay stable in the water,” says Ms. Austin.

But she insisted on following through with her idea. Years of work led to the first wheelchair in the world outfitted with a propeller and fins that allow for steering. She recalls, “I could loop and do barrel rolls and lovely curls. It is the most incredible sense of freedom. There is nothing else like it that I have experienced in life because it’s like flying, but under water.”

Unique perspective, unique insights, unique solutions

Addressing disabled young people and artists, Ms. Austin says that she, herself, has learned to create and share her experience rather than to accept exclusion and feel upset about the preconceptions society might have: “It empowers me because then I value my own particular view of the world and the way I need to negotiate the world now… creating positive stories for other people so that non-disabled people and the disabled people have an alternative set of ideas to think about and society becomes more inclusive.”

Ms. Austin stresses that sometimes preconceptions can be so powerful that people are excluded from living a full and valued life just because they are different: “My message would be: because someone is different, they can have a unique perspective on the world, they can generate unique insights and offer unique solutions to the problems that help move the world forward for all of us.”

Her future plans include an international tour featuring underwater wheelchair performances, with a focus on countries in which there is limited access or little understanding of issues around disability, as well as another series of films.

Learn more about the work of Sue Austin and Creating the Spectacle performances at: wearefreewheeling.org.uk.





11 September 2012: Podcast moderator Kathryn Herzog speaks to artist Sue Austin about the motivation behind her series Creating the Spectacle.
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