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Content may be subject to copyright.
Word and Text
A Journal of Literary Studies and Linguistics
129 – 148
Setting the Stage for Bridging Disability and Trauma
Studies: Reclaiming Narrative in Amy and the Orphans
The Graduate Center, City University of New York, USA
Disability studies and critical trauma studies are both deeply concerned with the social
construction of meaning and identity. However, these disciplines often remain mutually
disengaged, inadvertently overlooking shared mechanisms of oppression that foster stigma. This
article explores the novel depiction of disability and trauma in the play Amy and the Orphans by
Lindsey Ferrentino. Amy, a character with Down Syndrome, challenges disability stereotypes
by exercising autonomy; she is not solely defined by her disability or her experiences of abuse.
The theatrical narrative is one of both disability and trauma, encouraging a nuanced reflection
on the origins of stigma and revealing how theatre can be used as a tool of resistance to reclaim
agency through performances that challenge conventional ‘disability’ stereotypes.
Keywords: disability, trauma, representation, performance, narrative, intersectionality, Amy
and the Orphans, Lindsey Ferrentino
The fields of critical trauma studies and disability studies rarely engage with each other,
despite similar concerns with overlapping personal experience/ narrative.1 Disability
studies and critical trauma studies are both deeply concerned with representation and
social constructions of meaning and identity. However, these disciplines abstain from
contributing to each other,2 therefore perpetuating a cultural narrative that overlooks the
shared mechanisms of oppression as articulated in narratives representing stigma.
Their isolated theoretical models can be enhanced through an interdisciplinary
approach, thus creating an intersectional lens whereby the social justice component of
the field of disability studies is bridged with the strengths of trauma-based theories that
address issues of pain, denial, and loss.
This article explores how the depiction of Amy, a character with Down
Syndrome, challenges stereotypes about both disability and trauma in Lindsey
Ferrentino’s Amy and the Orphans.3 Amy exerts agency, she refuses to be reduced and
defined by her disability or her experiences of abuse. This theatrical representation
highlights the need for an interdisciplinary theoretical model that reveals how ‘trauma’
1 See, for instance, Margaret Rose Torrell, ‘Interactions: Disability, Trauma, and the Autobiography’, Life
Writing 13.1 (2016): 88. Hereafter cited as IDTA, with page numbers in the text.; James Berger, ‘Trauma
Without Disability, Disability Without Trauma: A Disciplinary Divide’, JAC 24.3 (2004): 563. Hereafter
cited as TWD, with page numbers in the text.
2 See Antonio Traverso and Mick Broderick, ‘Interrogating Trauma: Towards a Critical Trauma Studies’,
Continuum 24.1 (2010): 9 and TWD, 563. Hereafter cited as ITTCTS, with page numbers in the text.
3 Lindsey Ferrentino, ‘Amy and the Orphans’ Roundabout Theatre Company, January 01, 2018; available
at https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/Amy-and-the-Orphans.aspx [accessed 27 March
130 Josephine Barnett
and ‘disability’ are often interrelated as a result of social and political conditions. Amy
and the Orphans exemplifies how the stage can be used to depict a nuanced narrative
that reclaims ‘the gaze’4 and engages the audience in critical, reflective process whereby
the meaning of stigmatised groups can be rearticulated.
Defining Disability and Trauma through a Disciplinary Lens
The main theoretical model in trauma studies is often criticised for failing to address
political or structural factors that shape the individual’s subjective experience and
contribute to cultural trauma (TWD, 567). Trauma models often pathologize the
individual, as their experience is understood in terms of symptoms and therefore treated
in a medicalised fashion. Thus, these models exclude a social analysis that allows one to
connect personal experience to that of a collective. Scholarship has been criticised for
positing models that overstate social factors, limiting analysis and muting voices that
bring attention to bodily pain or wounds that intersect with their lived experience as a
person with a disability (ITTCTS, 7).5
Disability studies is a well-established discipline mainly centred around embodied
differences as a result of social structures and not from a physical impairment (DII,
584).6 The social model is the main conceptual foundation for disability studies
scholars, who emphasise the distinction between ‘impairment’ and ‘disability’.7 The
social model of disability asserts the following reconceptualization that redefines the
traditional definition and perception of disability:13 the physical or mental feature
qualifying the individual as ‘disabled’ is a result of social attitudes and social
institutions, the organization of the physical environment perpetuates the lack of access
and participation of persons with disability and discrimination against persons with
disability reflect social norms and values that position them as ‘less valuable’ than abled
individuals, thus denying them equal rights and treatment.
Morrison and Casper, along with David Goodley, Gabel and Peters, Alison Kafer
and Tom Shakespeare and others,8 have criticised the predominant view of
conceptualising disability strictly through a social constructionist lens, for it excludes
experiences that imply pain originating or associated with one’s impairment (EAD,
299). There is an overall avoidance of tying suffering to the body due to the potential for
4 Petra Kuppers, Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on the Edge (New York: Routledge,
2013), 40. Hereafter cited as DCP, with page numbers in the text.
5 See also Julie Mulvany, ‘Disability, Impairment or Illness? The Relevance of the Social Model of
Disability to the Study of Mental Disorder’, Sociology of Health and Illness 22.5 (2000): 591. Hereafter
cited as DII, with page numbers in the text.
6 See also Mike Oliver, ‘The Social Model of Disability: Thirty Years on’, Disability and Society 28.7
7 Daniel R Morrison and Monica J. Casper, ‘Intersections of Disability Studies and Critical Trauma
Studies: A Provocation’, Disability Studies Quarterly 32.2 (2012): no pagination; available at http://dsq-
sds.org/article/view/3189/3073 [accessed 26 July 2018] and Julie E. Maybee. ‘Em“body”ment and
Disability: On Taking the (Biological) “Body” out of Em“body”ment’, Journal of Social Philosophy 48.3
(2017): 299-300. Hereafter cited as EAD, with page numbers in the text.
8 See Tom Shakespeare, Disability Rights and Wrongs Revisited (London: Routledge, 2013); Davis,
Lennard J., The Disability Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 2016); Susan Gabel and Susan Peters,
‘Presage of a Paradigm Shift? Beyond the Social Model of Disability toward Resistance Theories of
Disability’, Disability and Society 19.6 (2004): 585-600; Alison Kafer, ‘Un/Safe Disclosures’, Journal of
Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 10.1 (2016): 7. Hereafter cited as UD, with page numbers in the
Setting the Stage for Bridging Disability and Trauma Studies: Reclaiming Narrative in Amy and the Orphans 131
regressing back to the medical model; however, ignoring these experiences restricts the
collective narrative. Furthermore, impairment itself is also a social construction (EAD,
300 and DII, 586). To shift the perspective on suffering can acknowledge how physical
bodies are the products of their social context, thus providing a theoretical framework
that no longer denies the corporeality of disability (EAD, 300-301). This shifting
perspective reveals how visible and invisible wounds that may originate from trauma
are marked by socio-political environments and oppression.
Additionally, overstating the origins of limitations in social structures may
invalidate others’ experiences related to their corporeality, such as pain or wounds,
which are meaningful to one’s narrative. Kafer argues that the acknowledgment of loss,
grief or trauma is essential to critical theories of disability, for the denial or rejection of
seeing disability as tragedy, or as traumatic can be restricting to the progression of the
social justice movement as a whole (UD, 7). To entirely ignore the ways trauma
coexists with disability can be as problematic as ableist arguments that view disability
as consistently being a tragic misfortune. I argue that a multidisciplinary, pluralistic
approach is vital to enrich both the fields of trauma and disability studies. The
theoretical foundation of traditional disability studies is rooted in the medical and social
model, yet such theoretical paradigms are often reductionist, failing to provide a
comprehensive lens to study one’s experience living with a disability. The adoption of
an interdisciplinary approach would strengthen and enrich the scholarship of disability
studies as well as the encounters of tangential academic fields — offering deeper insight,
expanding the definition of disability and therefore increasing inclusivity.
Critical trauma studies originated from the larger discipline of trauma studies,
which was influenced by medicalised models from psychiatry and psychology that
pathologise trauma and the way it impacts individuals (ITTCTS, 5). The contribution of
critical trauma studies is to contextualising the relationship between culture and the
individual through adopting interdisciplinary approaches that address head-on social and
political aspects of analysis of trauma (ITTCTS, 9). The theoretical models rooted in
critical trauma studies continue to echo conventional medicalised discourses, limiting
the analysis to symptomology or an individual’s experience, often expressed through
metaphor (TWD, 567).
In her work, Screening the Body, Lisa Cartwright traces the way science has used
cinema as a technological tool in discerning ‘healthy’ from ‘nonhealthy’ bodies in order
to validate and affirm previous forms of medical knowledge.9 Cartwright provides
additional historical context by providing a deeper understanding of Foucault’s concepts
of the ‘clinical’ and ‘medical gaze’.10 Foucault introduced the idea of ‘the gaze’ in his
1973 The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. Overall, the ‘gaze’
is associated with the power of seeing, particularly with respect to the use of medical
knowledge as an oppressive force to control and regulate bodies. ‘The gaze’ utilizes
medical discourse to separate out ‘deviant’ bodies through the medicalisation of human
experience and the exercise of power.11 The ‘clinical gaze’ refers to the process by
which by his/her doctor no longer views an individual as a whole person, but rather sees
them as their disease or condition (or disability, ‘product’ of their trauma). In contrast,
9 Lisa Cartwright, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 2006), 1-16.
10 Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (New York: Pantheon
Books, 1973), 100.
11 Foucault, 89 and 168.
132 Josephine Barnett
the ‘medical gaze’ characterises the individual’s experience of feeling dehumanized as a
result of being an object of analysis rooted in medical knowledge informed by optical
Generally speaking, the field of trauma studies is primarily informed by
psychoanalytical theories and therefore employs medicalised language, as the
theoretical foundation is rooted in the discipline of psychology and psychiatry.12 The
main critique of the primary theories within trauma studies is that they rely too heavily
on medical discourse and therefore perpetuate ‘otherness’ and stigma (TWD, 576),
mainly through viewing disability and trauma through the lens of a ‘medical gaze’. The
‘gaze’ fosters a power dynamic that positions the ‘clinician’ as possessing power in the
form of knowledge of one’s body or access to treatment and, therefore, that individual
becomes submissive to or compliant with the clinicians to regain agency.13
Consequently, the patient-doctor relationship is inherently structured such that a person
with a disability or a person seeking treatment after a trauma does not have equal power
to that who she or he is relying upon as their primary source of care or support, thus
presenting the potential for abuse of power.
Despite the critique of the field of trauma studies, scholars have also claimed that
the emergence of this discipline has contributed to the rise in published autobiographical
accounts of the lives of previously unheard voices (TWD, 571 and 577; IDTA, 90). The
autobiographical narratives are then placed within a theoretical framework that validates
one’s experience of physical pain and suffering as well as acknowledging the role of
social stigma. Although conceptualisation of trauma may provide validation to one’s
personal experience of suffering, this also positions trauma outside a socio-political
context, which conflicts with the primary aims of disability studies (DII, 585; TWD,
569). However, the recent shift to critical trauma studies has begun to draw attention to
the relationships between social and political forces and trauma, which reinforce
oppression among marginalized groups (ITTCTS, 9).
Critical trauma studies differs from traditional trauma studies, shifting away from
a restrictive, psychoanalytical paradigm to a pluralistic approach that positions trauma
within a larger social, political and economic context, which dialogically shapes the
meaning and practices inherent in traumatic experiences.14 By synthesizing conceptual
models that address trauma studies’ ‘political inadequacy’ (TWD, 577), this addresses
the fear that inclusion of trauma would undermine the overall aim of challenging
powerful forces that perpetuate inequality (social, political and economic institutions).
Cathy Caruth defines trauma as the psychological and physical response to an
‘unexpected or overwhelming violent event or events’, whereby one has yet to process
the experience fully.15 Ruth Leys discusses trauma regarding its effects on memory,
12 See Colin A. Ross, The Trauma Model: A Solution to the Problem of Comorbidity in Psychiatry
(Richardson, TX: Manitou Communications, 2007), 377; Sonya Andermahr, ‘Decolonizing Trauma
Studies: Trauma and Postcolonialism – Introduction’, Humanities 4 (2015): 503; IDTA, 98.
13 Foucault, 146.
14 Michelle Balaev, ‘Literary Trauma Theory Reconsidered’, in Contemporary Approaches in Literary
Trauma Theory, ed. Michelle Balaev (New York: Palgrave, 2014), 1-14.
15 Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 2016), 94.
Setting the Stage for Bridging Disability and Trauma Studies: Reclaiming Narrative in Amy and the Orphans 133
since it produces a subject with an ‘incapacity to retrieve the past, or to speak truth
about it’.16 To discuss trauma in relation to capacity is to define it as a disability, since
‘disability’ represents the social ramifications surrounding an individual’s mental or
physical impairment (DII, 591). Situating mental disability with trauma not only
warrants fusing theoretical models of trauma and disability, but calls for collective
solidarity among those who have experienced either/or, as well as both/and. Thus, this
intersectional approach draws attention to nuanced narratives and experiences of
disability integral to traumatic experience.
Comparable to the ‘supercrip’ accounts of individuals that take form in the
narrative of ‘survivors to thrivers’, medicalised discourse in trauma studies is
problematic for emphasising a ‘cure’ or ‘fix’.17 Such rhetoric is reductionist as it
pathologizes traumatic experiences, which may result in the individual feeling as if one
is ‘broken’ or ‘diseased’.18 Like persons with a disability, those who have gone through
a trauma may feel pressured to serve as ‘inspiration porn’19 for the public.20 Some
trauma-recovery narrative entail being strong enough to transform their pain so that they
become a hero to themselves and others.21 Sehgal’s piece, ‘The Forced Heroism of the
“Survivor”’, published in New York Times Magazine further explored the disconcerting
nature of framing individuals who have experienced acts of violence or other forms of
trauma, as heroic or inspirational. She poignantly states:
It’s ‘looking-glass shame’ all over again — that terror of facing your vulnerability — a
treasonous thought in a society that is desperately optimistic and addicted to recovery
narratives… And so, the pendulum swings from one extreme to another: from casting
rape as insurmountable pain to casting the survivor as possessing superhuman strength.
16 Patricia Ticineto Clough, ‘Introduction’, in The Affected Turn: Theorizing the Social, eds Patricia
Ticineto Clough and Jean O’Malley Halley (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 6.
17 Angela M. Carter, ‘Teaching with Trauma: Disability Pedagogy, Feminism, and the Trigger Warnings
Debate’, Disability Studies Quarterly 35.2 (2015): no pagination; available at http://dsq-
sds.org/article/view/4652/3935 [accessed 26 July 2018]. Kelly McKinney, ‘“Breaking the Conspiracy of
Silence”: Testimony, Traumatic Memory, and Psychotherapy with Survivors of Political Violence’,
Ethos 35.3 (2007): 292.
18 Paige L. Sweet, ‘Chronic Victims, Risky Women: Domestic Violence Advocacy and the
Medicalization of Abuse’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 41.1 (2015): 82. Hereafter
cited as CVRW, with page numbers in the text.
19 Stella Young, ‘We’re Not Here for Your Inspiration’, The Drum (2 July 2012); available at
http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-07-03/young-inspration-porn/4107006 [accessed 26 July 2018].
20 Parul Sehgal, ‘The Forced Heroism of the “Survivor”’, The New York Times (3 May 2016): 13;
available at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/magazine/the-forced-heroism-of-the-survivor.html
[accessed 30 March 2018], hereafter cited as FHS, with page numbers in the text. Regarding Wagatwe
Wanjuki, a sexual-violence activist and author, who published an article on transforming the survivor of
trauma into a hero, she states: ‘[y]ou’re best known for enduring the worst experiences of your life.’
Similar to arguments made among disability scholars and activists, trauma survivors do not want to be
defined by one trait, the trauma, nor do they made to be a one-dimensional character consumed for the
public’s inspiration of the day. For Sehgal, ‘[t]rauma is a visible wound – suffering we can see – but it
is also suffering made public, calcified into identity and, inevitably, simplified […] Those who have faced
sexual violence are so commonly sentimentalized or stigmatized, cast as uniquely heroic or uniquely
broken. Everything can be projected upon them, it seems – everything but the powers and vulnerabilities
of ordinary personhood’.
21 See for instance, Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose’s novels, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and
Raymond M. Douglas’s memoir On Being Raped for resistance to this survivor-victim dichotomy.
134 Josephine Barnett
The narrative of victim-to-survivor-to-thriver is beyond semantics, it is an ideological
shift. The rise of medical discourses in the context of trauma and ‘treatment of trauma’
shifts how one classifies one’s experiences and seeks guidance or care following
exposure to a traumatic event.
The push to identify as a survivor or ‘thriver’ (instead of victim) is comparable
to Barbara Ehrenreich’s discussion on the problematic discourse surrounding ‘victims of
cancer’ in her book Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, in
which she argues that America’s obsession with positive thinking has constructed an
unhealthy survivorship narrative based upon and perpetuating certain expectations for
individuals.22 As such, this narrative is one whereby the value of individual survivors is
based on whether they participate in certain or expected acts (e.g. receive chemotherapy,
go to therapy, require or reject trigger warnings, attempt to ‘correct’ an impairment).
This in turn suggests that certain individuals are more deserving or trying harder more
than others to ‘survive’, and thus should be honoured for their dedication and strength.
Whereas those who do not live up to one’s expectation or resist mainstream treatment
are seen as deserving of the consequences, whether in the form of social stigma or
Dana Bolger, a director of a sexual violence education training school in New
York City, expressed a similar frustration, referring to the prevalent trauma narrative as
‘[c]ompulsory survivorship’ that ‘depoliticizes’ society’s understanding of the
consequences and impact of violence (FHS, 13). ‘Compulsory survivorship’, and the
restrictive binary script in which trauma is often placed, further individualizes and
isolates the individual. As a result, individuals enduring the aftermath of the trauma feel
responsible for having survived unlike the others and for their healing ‘while
comfortably erasing the systems and structures that make surviving hard, harder for
some than for others’ (FHS, 13). Prior to the late 1960s, it was not common for there to
be public discussion or even a consideration of certain events as traumatic (e.g. war,
physical violence, sexual assault, psychological abuse). These tended to be disregarded
or seen as insignificant events in a person’s life.23 War veterans, holocaust survivors,
feminist scholars and activists contributed to shifting the public’s perception of the
consequences of enduring a traumatic experience.24 Furthermore, the recognition of
one’s trauma was common among groups.25 As such, the shared experienced was often
coupled with advocating for a social-political cause. For instance, ‘rap groups’ popular
among members of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, frequently gathered to share
the psychological disturbances they experienced after returning to the United States
after combat in Vietnam.26 They then advocated for a revision of the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). In 1980, the veterans shared their stories
before members of the American Psychological Association as a form of activism to
22 Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (New York:
23 Joseph E. Davis, Accounts of Innocence: Sexual Abuse, Trauma, and the Self (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2005), 31.
24 Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (London:
Pandora, 2001), 19.
25 Jeffrey C. Alexander, ‘Toward a Theory of Cultural Trauma’, Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity
26 Wilbur J. Scott, ‘PTSD in the DSM-III: A Case in the Politics of Diagnosis and Disease’, Social
Problems 37 (1990): 294-310.
Setting the Stage for Bridging Disability and Trauma Studies: Reclaiming Narrative in Amy and the Orphans 135
ensure that the newest DSM included post-traumatic stress disorder as a billable code,
as means of receiving relief from their suffering.27
Comparably, during the same time, feminist scholars and activists advocated and
raised awareness of the traumatic experiences common among women such as rape and
domestic violence.28 Many campaigns brought attention to the ways in which
individuals were adversely impacted by such traumas as childhood sexual abuse,
psychological abuse or other forms of abuse.29 The overall sentiment that the ‘personal
is the political’ reflects the initial approach to trauma survivors including veterans,
holocaust survivors, and women at risk or who have had a history of sexual or physical
trauma.30 Although contemporary advocacy groups and resources for trauma ‘survivors’
may also have a socio-political aspect to their organization, there has been a rise in the
medicalisation of trauma and abuse and thus the process of healing is most often highly
individualized and depoliticised (CVRW, 88-92).31 Again, this is reflected in the
individualized routinized treatment for trauma such as one-on-one therapy and the
tendency of the media to construct heroic survivors, creating a hierarchy of legitimate
and illegitimate ‘survivors’ of trauma (FHS, 13; CVRW, 88).32
Moreover, a central critique of trauma studies is that it depoliticises trauma
(TWD, 577), and the public perception of trauma has shifted to reflect an individualized
healing process, whereby treatment may entail being isolated from others who have
endured trauma. Therefore, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify social factors
contributing to one’s experience, which is problematic considering the trauma may be a
result of war or gender-based violence – a systemic problem in need of a collective,
public response or efforts to remedy (TWD, 577; CVRW, 86).
Critical trauma studies emphasise that pathologizing trauma or promoting such
models has the potential to perpetuate mass violence against marginalised groups
around the world, as this conceptual framework overlooks critical macro-level factors
that would provide insight necessary to develop social or political interventions to
prevent future systemic acts of abuse. Margaret Price suggests that if we are to
understand trauma in terms of disability, or recognise the intersection, we must then call
for a conceptualisation outside the medical model of disability; this reconceptualization
will lead to reclaiming power from the medical community that fundamentally
pathologizes suffering.33 Cvetkovich34 and Kafer (UD, 4) aim to re-conceptualise
trauma and, in turn, redefine disability. Kafer argues for a political/relational model
within the field of disability studies, further supporting the critique that the predominant
framework is problematic because it fails to recognise the physical pain and struggle of
those who have different ways of being and experiencing (UD, 3) the world, whether
that be due to a trauma directly or indirectly to an individual’s impairment. Advocating
27 Scott, 300-2.
28 Herman, 19.
29 Davis, 79.
30 Herman, 246
31 See also McKinney, 270.
32 See also Jennifer M. Gómez, Jenn K. Lewis, Laura K. Noll, Alec M. Smidt, and Pamela J. Birrell,
‘Shifting the Focus: Nonpathologizing Approaches to Healing from Betrayal Trauma through an
Emphasis on Relational Care’, Journal of Trauma and Dissociation 17.2 (2016): 168.
33 Margaret Price, Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life (Ann Arbor: The
University of Michigan Press, 2001), 33-7; Carter.
34 Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (Durham:
Duke University Press, 2003), 164-8.
136 Josephine Barnett
an integrative theoretical model brings to the surface more narratives that reveal how
accidental, isolated traumatic experiences are the minority. In fact, the majority of
traumatic events are the result of institutional forces of oppression in the form of racism,
sexism, ableism and homophobia.35
Depiction of Disability and Trauma in the Arts
Representation of Disability
What can the representation of disability in the media tell us about societal beliefs and
values concerning persons with disability? Portrayals of disabled persons have changed
over time, both reflecting and influencing society’s understanding of disability. Societal
beliefs and values concerning persons with disability have been heavily influenced by
medical insights and knowledge of the body.36 Research has shown that the
representation of disability continues to be a narrative shaped by the ‘medical gaze’.
Though nearly 20% of the US population report having a disability, only 2% of
fictional film and television characters have a disability. A Ruderman Foundation study
found that among the small percentage of characters that do have a disability, 95% of
the roles are given to non-disabled individuals.37 Further, much of the media formats are
inaccessible for persons with disability, thus preventing them from participating in the
production and viewership of material. Therefore, it is critical that actors with
disabilities continue to fight for self-representation.
Traditionally, film, television and theatre have depicted disabled persons in a
negative light by positioning the disabled character as either an object of ‘cultural
fascination’ or a ‘charity case’.38 Persons with disability are rarely the protagonist, and
the narratives lead the spectator to identify with the non-disabled character, reducing
disabled characters to ‘objects of spectacle’ (CI, 22). Arthur Campbell Jr, a disability
rights activist with cerebral palsy, states that ‘[m]ost filmmakers want to make us either
some sympathetic poor little character that no one could have mature normal relations
with or some kind of monster who has to be kept away and watch for the safety of
society or themselves’ (CI, 24). To reduce the disabled individual on film to mere
spectacle or to construct him or her as ‘the Other’ is reflective of society’s
understanding of disability.
Hunt’s study conducted in 1991 identified the ten primary media stereotypes
used to portray disabled people as: pathetic, mysterious, sinister, supercrip (overcoming
all ‘impairments’ to be like able-bodied individuals), clown, a prop, self-destructive,
35 Samantha C. Holmes, Vanessa C. Facemire, and Alexis M. DaFonseca, ‘Expanding Criterion A for
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Considering the Deleterious Impact of Oppression’, Traumatology 22.4
(2016): 314-21; Carter.
36 Cartwright, 4.
37 Tari Hartman Squire, Kristina Kopić and Daryl ‘Chill’ Mitchell, ‘On the Challenge to Create More
Authentic Disability Casting and Representation on TV’. Ruderman Family Foundation. September 2017;
available at https://rudermanfoundation.org/white_papers/the-ruderman-white-paper-on-the-challenge-to-
create-more-authentic-disability-casting-and-representation-on-tv/ [accessed 30 July 2018].
38 Thomas Richard Fahy and Kimball King, Peering behind the Curtain: Disability, Illness, and the
Extraordinary Body in Contemporary Theater (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016), 48; Martin F.
Norden, The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies (Toronto: CNIB, 2006),
2. Hereafter cites as CI, with page numbers in the text.
Setting the Stage for Bridging Disability and Trauma Studies: Reclaiming Narrative in Amy and the Orphans 137
asexual, a burden, and unable to participate in daily life/as a death sentence.39 All of
these tropes are present in the cult-classic film Freaks,40 one of the first films to cast
people with disabilities as opposed to non-disabled individuals acting as persons with
disability. Though it may have cast people with disability, the plot plays on exploitative
stereotypes. Many disability rights’ activists critique this film, arguing it to be the
‘pornography of disability’, given that the plot centres around circus performers with
disabilities that become unrestrained monsters seeking to destroy their non-disabled
Current mass media depictions do not portray people ‘living with’ disability but
rather convey disabled persons as ‘overcoming’ their disability. As mentioned above,
this is the ‘supercrip’ narrative.42 This type of narrative sends a message that living with
a disability is so horrific and devoid of value, that one must go to any length to
heroically ‘overcome’ the disability.43 Furthermore, conventional narratives position
characters with disability as ‘the Other’ or merely helpless or confined without the help
of an ‘able-bodied’ individual (CI, 22). This discourse represents ability as a binary,
with ‘disabled’ individuals reliant on others to fulfil their human potential, unable to
reach their dreams without the assistance of ‘able-bodied’ individuals.44 Disabled
people lack agency in such representations, even when the author’s intention may be to
demonstrate a survival story with a disabled individual at the centre.
Regarding the portrayal of developmental disabilities, adults with Down
syndrome typically get cast in roles for Public Service Announcements advocating for a
disability or raising money, perpetuating the ‘pity’ and ‘charity’ stigma.45 Studies show
that when the media uses negative, ableist language, this fosters a negative self-image
for people with the disability as it impacts the use of such terminology in society.46
Concerning casting, Born This Way, a reality-based US television series, cast
multiple adults with Down syndrome. The show depicts a variety of issues and
illustrates the diversity within a group stereotyped as being all the same. The show
constructs a multi-dimensional narrative, whereby the individual(s) are independent,
sexual, and face challenges that resonate with the majority of able-bodied viewers.47
However, this is just one media portrayal among many, and the major networks
39 Paul Hunt, ‘Media Representation of Disabled People’, in Media Representation of Disabled People: A
Critical Analysis (January 1991): no pagination; available at http://www.disabilityplanet.co.uk/critical-
analysis.html [accessed March 28, 2018].
40 Freaks, dir. Tod Browning, 1932 (Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 2009, DVD).
41 Angela M. Smith, Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema (New York:
Columbia University Press, 2011).
42 Suzanne Levine, ‘Disability and the Media: Prescriptions for Change’, Disability Studies Quarterly
26.1 (2006); no pagination; available at http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/670 [accessed 26 July 2018].
43 Paul K. Longmore, Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability (Philadelphia: Temple
University Press, 2003), 133. Hereafter cited as WIBMB, with page numbers in the text.
45 Lingling Zhang and Beth Haller, ‘Consuming Image: How Mass Media Impact the Identity of People
with Disabilities’, Communication Quarterly 61.3 (2013): 320.
46 Zhang and Haller, 322; Beth Haller, Bruce Dorries, and Jessica Rahn, ‘Media Labeling versus the US
Disability Community Identity: A Study of Shifting Cultural Language’, Disability and Society 21.1
47 Matt Grobar, ‘“BTW” EP Jonathan Murray Discusses Reality TV Journey & Focus on “The Ability
within the Disability”, Deadline Hollywood (2017); available at http://deadline.com/2017/08/born-this-
way-jonathan-murray-emmys-reality-interview-1202146289/ [accessed 26 July 2018].
138 Josephine Barnett
continue to portray the vast majority of persons with disability as ‘charity cases’ at one
end or ‘supercrips’ at the other.48
Among theatrical performances, themes reflect the construction of disability
through the medical model, which views disability as a deviation or as a marked but
otherwise able body (DCP, 15). The medical discourse is prevalent in early depictions
of disability in theatre as far back as 400 years ago.49 For instance, in William
Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Richard the III, the protagonist Richard III is described
as ‘deform’d, unfinish’d’ (1.1.20) and, more directly, ‘elvish-mark’d’ (1.3.228).50
Richard III’s narrative is not a display or powerlessness, but rather a claim to power. 51
The character illuminates the transformation of the disability narrative throughout time;
during the Renaissance, when the play was written, disability was conceived of as a
result of one’s moral character, thereby becoming intertwined with the
medicalized/medical model of disability.52As such, this informed modern
representations, framing disability as a disease in need of modern medicine’s ‘cure’.
In the majority of mainstream theatrical performances of disability, these
characters are isolated, infantilised, and pitied. Furthermore, a person with disability
rarely appears on stage alone; a doctor or a caregiver frequently accompanies them as it
understood that s/he is incapable to care for or speak for themselves. In this regard, in
this article I argue that the play Amy and the Orphans does not entirely depart from this
prevailing plot, reflecting that disability is still often understood as a pathology in need
of medical treatment or a cure. The fact that the main character, Amy, has Down
syndrome is a central plot piece. However, unlike other representations of disability,
especially those set in the pre-modern era (WIBMB, 150), disability today is not always
seen as a death sentence, and her disability does not define Amy, as she exhibits far
more qualities than any other character on-stage.53 Later I consider the ways that the
play reinforces certain stereotypes while challenging others, especially in relation to the
intersection of disability and trauma narratives.
Representations of Trauma/Narrative
According to predominant theoretical models of trauma, a traumatic experience is a
severe psychological disturbance often unable to be fully processed in one’s memory,
therefore posing a difficulty for the integration of a cohesive autobiographical narrative.
Freud’s study of trauma profoundly influenced the pathologization of trauma, thus
isolating individuals who endured or exhibited any ‘symptoms’ or change in behaviour
after a specific event.
49 Katherine Schaap Williams, ‘Enabling Richard: The Rhetoric of Disability in Richard III’, Disability
Studies Quarterly 29.4, (2009); available at http://dsq-sds.org [accessed 24 April 2018].
50 William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, in Complete Works, ed. and Glossary by
W. J. Craig (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1910).
51 Schaap Williams.
52 Linda P. Ware, ‘A Moral Conversation on Disability: Risking the Personal in Educational
Contexts’, Hypatia 17.3 (2002): 151.
53 Unlike many mainstream theatrical performance and narratives surrounding disability, Amy does not
exhibit self-pity. Further, Amy is not defined by her disability or her trauma. Finally, Ferrentino appears
to intentionally further develop Amy’s character more than her siblings’ to challenge the audience’s
preconceptions of disability.
Setting the Stage for Bridging Disability and Trauma Studies: Reclaiming Narrative in Amy and the Orphans 139
As a formal discipline, trauma studies is heavily informed by psychoanalytic
theories and is criticized for pathologizing human experience, best exemplified by the
relatively recent development of trauma-related diagnoses such as post-traumatic stress
disorder (PTSD). 54
Media scholar Suzanne Little argues that there is an ‘obsession’ with the real,
seen for instance, in the depiction of trauma that is often in the form of a testimonial,
using words to describe the trauma or visual imagery in the form of documentaries
concerning torture, abuse, and war.55 This is illustrated within the arts through written
testimony, cinematic style to emulate flashbacks, fragmented memories through non-
linear narratives and character-driven plots repeat scenes of the traumatic events as a
means to communicate a desire to ‘recover and reprocess’56 through repetition.
The arts often use the audience’s memory or previous knowledge of history to
affirm the witness role that is needed to establish meaning and shape the trauma
narrative.57 Among theatrical representation of trauma, ‘the real’ relies even more so on
the audience’s ‘gaze’58 and ‘collective memory’ of a shared historical past (ITTCTS, 6-
7).59 Within the sphere of theatrical representation, the audience rarely see a character
experience trauma, but instead meets the character before or during the aftermath of a
traumatising event. The award-winning off-Broadway show Indecent which follows a
predominantly Jewish theatre group as they find venues in which to perform a
controversial play in Europe, never depicts actual death or violence, despite taking place
during the Holocaust during the Second World War.60 The group has the opportunity to
perform in New York City just before the horrors of the Second World War begin in
Indecent is a portrayal of intimacy, the building of relationships, and the
protection of the stigmatized Jewish identity amidst the terror and trauma of the Second
World War. Director Vogel’s juxtaposition of the past and the present weaves poetry
and beauty into a nuanced and honest depiction of what it may have been like to try to
survive the trauma of wartime, specifically when the war is waged against one’s
personal identity. Thus, the theatrical performances explored Jewish, political and queer
identity through an intersectional lens, since expressing terror and trauma necessitates
such a theoretical frame to capture the nuanced experience. Such an intersectional
approach uses theatre as a site to reclaim power through a narrative that re-politicises
trauma to build solidarity through shared experience (DCP, 4).61
The opening scene exemplifies finding unity and agency through the collective
trauma, which is depicted as a stream of ashes falls from the sleeves of the actors’
jackets, while beautiful music plays. In the background in Yiddish and English, the
54 Derek Summerfield, ‘The Invention of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and the Social Usefulness of a
Psychiatric Category’, British Medical Journal. 322.7278 (2001): 97.
55 Suzanne Little, ‘Repeating Repetition: Trauma and Performance’, Performance Research 20.5 (2015):
44 and 46.
56 Little, 46.
57 Andrew Sofer, Dark Matter: Invisibility in Drama, Theater, and Performance (Ann Arbor: University
of Michigan Press, 2013), 14; Little, 47.
58 Fahy, xiii.
59 See also Ruth Leys, ‘Death Masks: Kardiner and Ferenczi on Psychic Trauma’, Representations 53.1
60 Paula Vogel, Indecent (Guthrie Theatre, New York, January 2018).
61 See also Sofer, 119.
140 Josephine Barnett
audience reads ‘through the ashes we rise.’ Given that the play opens with this scene,
this specific depiction of trauma is both foreshadowing and a haunting memory
associated with the lives lost during the Holocaust. Throughout the production, there is
minimal dialogue about the increasing horrors the Jewish community was facing in that
historical moment; death and physical violence are not portrayed. Instead, the characters
repeatedly rise, allowing the ashes to depict this cultural trauma. The ashes serve as ‘as
tantalizing proof of “real” experience’ of a trauma many audience members know of
only indirectly. As with Amy and the Orphans, this theatrical performance becomes a
space for the ‘historical recovery’ of systemic abuse and violence against those deemed
‘less than’ human.62
Turning the Gaze: Intersecting Trauma and Disability
This article explores the theatrical representation of the disability narrative of the play’s
main character Amy, a woman with Down syndrome, who is shaped by both disability
and trauma. The Off-Broadway show, Amy and the Orphans is one of the few that casts
a lead actor with Down syndrome.63 Amy was placed in the State-run facility
Willowbrook in Staten Island, New York, where she endured many traumas. Her sense
of autonomy, despite her past and her disability, challenges conventional stereotypes of
persons with disability.
Furthermore, the abuse she was subjected to reveals ways in which disability
and trauma interconnect through institutionalised violence against marginalized groups.
As such, this theatrical performance depicts a narrative of disability and trauma that
necessitates an intersectional theoretical approach, encouraging an exchange between
the two disciplines of ‘disability’ and ‘critical trauma studies’.
Amy and The Orphans
Written by Lindsey Ferrentino and directed by Scott Ellis, the play Amy and the
Orphans premiered at Roundabout Theatre in early 2018. The show continues to gain
media attention due to the lead role being played by Jamie Brewer, who has Down
syndrome.64 Her male understudy is Edward Barbanell, who also has Down syndrome.
Amy’s narrative is inspired by the real-life experience of the playwright’s aunt,
illustrating how traumatic experience intersects with disability off-stage. Ferrentino
describes her aunt as ‘not of a high-functioning level, not because of Down syndrome,
but because she was abused her whole life’.65 Like Amy, Ferrentino’s aunt resided in
Willowbrook in Staten Island, New York.
Amy is a film-loving, middle-aged adult who must spend a few days with her
distant siblings as they take a road trip from Queens, NY to Long Island, NY to bury
62 David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, ‘The Eugenic Atlantic: Race, Disability, and the Making of an
International Eugenic Science, 1800–1945’, Disability and Society 18.7 (2003): 844.
63 Lindsey Ferrentino, Amy and The Orphans (Roundabout Theatre, New York, February 2, 2018).
64 Brewer’s casting in the lead role increased attention to the play, as she has a strong fan following from
being the first model with Down Syndrome to appear on the runway at New York Fashion Week. She was
also a favourite character on the US television series, American Horror Story.
65 Olivia Clement, ‘Lindsey Ferrentino Tells Another Underrepresented Story in Amy and the Orphans’,
Playbill (3 March 2018); available at http://www.playbill.com/article/lindsey-ferrentino-tells-another-
underrepresented-story-in-amy-and-the-orphans [accessed 26 July 2018].
Setting the Stage for Bridging Disability and Trauma Studies: Reclaiming Narrative in Amy and the Orphans 141
their father. Amy refuses to be defined by her disability, while her two ‘able-bodied’
and ‘neuro-typical’ siblings continuously and foolishly undermine Amy’s self-agency
out of guilt.66
The Role of Theatre in Shifting the Gaze
Theatrical performances have the potential to provide a space for the audience to engage
in reflexivity about assumptions and meaning associated with disability (DCP, 11).
Amy’s performance challenges the conventional stereotype of people with disability
through self-assertion and expression of understanding beyond the expectations of the
other characters (and most audience members). Performing is a form of representation
that allows for marginalized groups to reclaim power and control; meanings of disability
can then be re-articulated (DCP, 9). The ‘gaze’ is shifted onto the audience, altering
their perspectives of disability. Since the performer has Down syndrome, rather than
being a non-disabled person, the audience is made increasingly aware of their cultural
assumptions of bodily difference (DCP, 12).
There is profound potential to evoke social and political change through
theatrical visibility among stigmatized individuals. Theatre performances offer a space
for the audience to engage in an interplay and exchange of meaning. Amy’s assertion of
self-agency, coupled with the complexity of her life experiences of being abused due to
her disability, exemplifies how narratives can shift ‘the gaze’ on to the audience,
altering their perspectives of disability.
Another way the play has used their platform to raise awareness concerning
disability issues is through the presence of Spread the Word to End the Word, an
organization that campaigns against the word ‘retard’ at each performance. Viewers
were asked to sign a large board that was in the lobby pledging not use the word
‘retard’, considering its negative and belittling connotation. Signing the petition is
another aspect of the overall experience of attending a viewing of Amy and the Orphans
that contributed to reshaping the meaning of disability.67
The campaign engaged the audience members, providing an opportunity to
educate and shift their perceptions of disability before and after the play. Since 2009,
millions have signed similar petition banners, pledging to end the use the of the R-word
(retarded), in support of Intellectual Developmental Disability (IDD) communities
throughout the world. People with Down syndrome are classified as having an IDD,
which is the reason that Spread the Word to End the Word had requested to be present
for each theatrical performance of Amy and the Orphans.
Similar to the multiple people-first, disability rights organizations that came
before, Spread the Word to End the Word advocates on behalf of people with IDD,
emphasizing inclusion and reducing stigma. The word being used to describe any
66 The siblings find out the institution Amy was placed in was shut down due to inhumane acts.
67 In 2010 Rosa’s Law was signed into United States law by President Barack Obama, requiring that the
terms ‘mental retardation’ and ‘mentally retarded’ be prohibited from any federal record. Such terms were
to be replaced with ‘intellectual disability’. Rosa’s Law was a success families and people with IDD have
been fighting to obtain since the late 1970’s. This law is a testament to the dedication of activists and
families as advocates and active participants in the IDD-rights movement. See Charles Edmund
Degeneffe and Jacylou Terciano, ‘Rosa’s Law and the Language of Disability: Implications for
Rehabilitation Counseling’, Rehabilitation Research, Policy and Education 25 (2011): 167.
142 Josephine Barnett
population identified with IDD must be replaced to ensure ‘respect, dignity, acceptance
and inclusion’ for all.68
The production of Amy and the Orphans, as well as the community of fans that
seeks to involve audience members in advocacy on behalf of people with IDD, can be
further contextualised by Snyder and Mitchell’s cultural model of disability. This model
is useful for it extends beyond the social model, integrating the importance of arts and
culture as ‘a political act of renaming that designates disability as a site of resistance and
a source of cultural agency.69 Snyder and Mitchell posit an interdisciplinary theoretical
model, integrating concepts from cultural studies and disability studies. Similarly, this
paper seeks to provide support for the use of pluralistic approaches to bring insight to
‘cultural locations of disability’, commonly referred to as the ‘sites of violence,
restriction, confinement, and absence of liberty for people with disabilities’.70
Throughout the play, Amy refers to her home in Staten Island, despite living in a
group home in Queens for the last 15 years. An aide who is required to accompany Amy
during the trip to their father’s funeral reveals to the unknowing siblings that Amy was
moved to Willowbrook as a small child. The audience then realises the opening scene of
the two parents arguing was about moving Amy from their home to an institution
described to them as a beautiful college campus, fully staffed to care for their young
daughter with special needs.
In reality, Willowbrook State School was a state-supported hospital and school
for people with mental retardation, which was located in Staten Island, New York
(WIBMB, 41-52).71 There was an investigative study conducted in the 1960s due to
suspicion of unethical and abusive treatment of the inmates. Some of the horrors found
were overcrowding, insufficient sanitary facilities, and physical and sexual abuse by the
staff. During the 1970s, more abuses were revealed, and new human rights legislation
forced the institution to close in 1984 (WIBMB, 41-52).
The aide explains to the siblings that Amy is highly functional and many of her
limitations are a result of the trauma she endured and have very little to do directly with
Down syndrome. The audience initially are likely to attribute Amy’s behaviours (e.g.,
eating fast) or physical marks of the body (e.g., dentures, ‘deformed’ leg) to Down
syndrome, however, in light of the information about the abuse she endured at
Willowbrook, this conceptualisation of her disability is challenged.
For example, Amy does not eat quickly as a result of her intellectual disability.
In fact, it is a survival habit she learned from life at Willowbrook. Her food would be
taken away if she did not eat quickly enough; and she did not know the next time she
would eat at all. Another example of the consequence of institutionalised abuse
attributed to Amy having Down syndrome is that her legs are disproportional because at
Willowbrook she was left outside during a winter blizzard, which resulted in the flesh
on her legs deteriorating from frostbite. Also, she has dentures because she was fed dog
68 ‘Resources’, R-Word Main, January 2013; available at https://www.r-word.org/r-word-resources.aspx
[accessed 26 July 2018].
69 Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, Cultural Locations of Disability (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2006), 10.
70 See Snyder and Mitchell, 10 for a detailed overview and Dan Goodley, Dis/ability Studies: Theorising
Disablism and Ableism (London and New York: Routledge, 2014) for a comprehensive text that explores
disability as a ‘cultural trope’ and the theoretical applications of a ‘cultural model of disability’.
71 See also Nancy J. Hirschmann, Civil Disabilities: Citizenship, Membership, and Belonging
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 5.
Setting the Stage for Bridging Disability and Trauma Studies: Reclaiming Narrative in Amy and the Orphans 143
food for a year. Again, her physical state is the result of the wounds and trauma
embedded within the system in place to ‘care’ for her.
When it is disclosed to the siblings that Amy was severely abused at
Willowbrook, she is talked about as though she is not there. However, she can hear
everything with her headphones on, and in response to her sister asking if she
remembers the abuse, she reasserts her identification with her traumatic past by restating
that Staten Island is her home. She follows this statement, as she frequently does, by
boasting to her siblings about her current new boyfriend and job at the movie theatre.
Amy does not exhibit shame of her traumatic past or hide any grief from the current
loss. She continues to assert agency over the life she has built for herself throughout the
years. Theatre provides a space for the audience to re-examine their cultural
assumptions concerning disability. As a result of the presence of an alternative narrative
that challenges conventional stereotype, the gaze is turned back to the audience in a
non-threatening manner. Accordingly, the audience begins to question their
misconceptions and role in perpetuating the stigma and discrimination of marginalised
and stigmatised groups.
Full of guilt, the day after the siblings find out about Amy enduring so many traumas at
Willowbrook, they ignorantly invite her to live with one of them, as if they are doing
her a favour. As a result of this, Amy storms out and attempts to cross the highway,
screaming out why they would even think to take her away from her friends, boyfriend,
and job. It is in this scene that the audience begins to understand that ‘the orphans’ in
the title refers to how she was never part of the family in the same way as her siblings.
Her life was the consequence not of being born with particular chromosomes, but the
result of an agreement made by her parents, long before she had a voice of her own.
Luckily, that voice was not taken away from her at Willowbrook.
Amy’s character is multidimensional, capturing the complexity and nuance
needed to challenge prevailing, negative notions of disability that often position the
individual as weak or dehumanized. The performance includes a disability narrative that
challenges the stereotype of one-dimensional ‘charity case’ or ‘super-crip’ characters;
the character displays vulnerability, strength and, most of all, resilience. The aide treats
Amy as an equal.
However, the two siblings treat Amy as extremely fragile, almost like an infant.
Each time they approach her to inform of her vital information, it appears not only that
Amy already knows, but it is the siblings who seemingly need extra care. There are
several humorous scenes of the siblings being flustered over how much Amy knows and
remains unfazed, whereas the siblings cannot manage their emotions.
Amy is the only sibling of the family that displays the ability to accept and
grieve the loss of their parents. She does not overcome any obstacles but rather lives
through them. Amy’s character is multidimensional, exhibiting the need for increased
attention to the intersection between ‘critical trauma studies and ‘disability studies’ to
establish a stronger theoretical frame. An interdisciplinary approach is critical to
enriching our understanding of how trauma becomes intertwined with a disability, as a
result of institutional abuse.
144 Josephine Barnett
The need to reshape one’s understanding of disability is felt most in scenes
where Amy reclaiming and justifying her life choices is juxtaposed with scenes of her
parents fighting over whether to have Amy live at a facility. Amy’s voice becomes
stronger as she illustrates that a person with disabilities can both acknowledge the
trauma, grief, and loss associated with a disability, without compromising one's political
voice in resistance to stigma or self-worth. Amy's radical, total acceptance that fosters
her overall ability to exercise self-agency, despite others ignorance, illustrating how
empowerment can fostered not hindered by the intersection of trauma and disability.
Using the narrative in the play Amy and the Orphans, this article sought to
deconstruct the narratives and symbolic boundaries that create trauma and disability as
separate categories. The deconstruction of these categories can redirect the focus to the
connection between disability and trauma, revealing how the lived experience is at risk
of oppression and social control through medicalization of the human condition. In
doing so, the analysis of representation shifts the perspective to enable identification of
what social forces determine the meaning and hierarchy of trauma, explicitly revealing
the importance of visibility of a marked body in determining disability. Traumatized
bodies are understood as disabled, also broadening the definition to be more inclusive of
unseen disabilities that are the result of structural forms of violence (e.g., war, poverty,
abuse). However, these ‘disabilities’ are often not visible. In Amy’s case, her traumas
are visible on her physical person as well, as in her use of dentures.
An analysis of this production reveals how ‘trauma’ and ‘disability’ are often
interrelated as a result of social and political conditions, providing deeper insight into
how these categories are experienced. The stage offers a platform to rearticulate
meanings of stigmatised groups and promote social change. The theatre serves as a
space to challenge stereotypes, through presenting an alternative representation. It also
allows for the reclamation of ‘the gaze’ by providing a space for the audience to engage
in a critical, reflective process on the construction of meaning and social factors that
foster stigmatization of certain groups.
The show closes with Amy performing a monologue. She stands alone onstage,
reciting movie quotes. The last few quotes remind the audience of the discrimination
and abuse that individuals living with a disability continue to face, not because of the
disability itself, but because of stigma which significantly impacts one’s sense of self-
worth. She recites the following:
I’m a human being, goddamnit.
MY LIFE HAS VALUE.
You don’t understand.
I coulda been a contender.
I coulda been somebody.
I coulda been somebody.
I coulda been somebody.
I coulda been somebody.
The lines she quotes beg the question ‒ what would life be like without the stigma
and abuse associated with disability? A few years back, the question may have been ‒
Setting the Stage for Bridging Disability and Trauma Studies: Reclaiming Narrative in Amy and the Orphans 145
what would life have been like without disability? But Amy’s story is told from her
perspective and thus her performance is a reclamation of agency in the representation
narrative, one that reveals the intersection between disability, trauma, and stigma
without the loss of personal or political aspects of identity.
Closing Thoughts as the Curtain Closes
Until now, critical trauma studies and disability studies have remained largely mutually
exclusive and disengaged from one another, despite both fields’ examination of similar
populations through different theoretical frames (TWD, 577; DII, 584). An analysis of
the theatrical representation of the disability and trauma narrative in Amy and the
Orphans illustrates that disability and trauma not only coexist but often intertwine. The
portrayal of the integration of disability and trauma in the theatrical representation
warrants a fusion of theories rooted in disability and trauma studies. An intersectional,
interdisciplinary approach broadens the scope of understanding the oppressive forces
contributing to systemic abuse and, therefore, advancing disability rights and social
This article sought to deconstruct the symbolic boundaries that create trauma and
disability as separate categories. By challenging the separation of disability and trauma,
the analysis shifts the perspective to enable identification of what social forces are at
play that determine the meaning and hierarchy of trauma, explicitly revealing the
importance of visibility of a marked body in determining the value and labelling of
disability. Understanding narratives of traumatised bodies as also disabled is
instrumental in increasing solidarity and strengthening collective identities.
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Pregătirea scenei pentru întâlnirea dintre studii ale
dizabilității și studii ale traumei. Revalorificarea
narațiunii din Amy and the Orphans
Studiile dizabilității și studiile critice despre traumă sunt ambele angajate profund în construcția
socială a înțelesului și a identității. Însă, aceste discipline rămân adesea în afara unui dialog,
neglijându-și reciproc modul în care abordează mecanismele pe care le folosesc în mod comun
pentru a analiza opresiunea care produce stigmatizarea. Acest articol explorează o posibilă nouă
descriere a dizabilității și a traumei în piesa de teatru Amy and the Orphans scrisă de Lindsey
Ferrentino. Amy, un personaj care suferă de sindrom Down, revendică stereotipiile studiilor
dizabilităților prin exercitarea unei autonomii, definindu-se nu doar prin dizabilitatea sa, ci și
prin experiența sa trăită în urma unor abuzuri. Narațiunea teatrală este atât una a dizabilității cât
și una a traumei, încurajând o reflecție nuanțată asupra originii stigmatizării și revelând faptul
că teatrul poate fi folosit ca mijloc de rezistență care revendică mijlocirea acestuia prin
intermediul spectacolului și care provoacă stereotipiile convenționale despre ,,dizabilitate”.