Mia Hannula: Disability Day Art & Action Festival showcased the new creative potential of disabled artists

DiDa – Disability Day Art & Action Festival on December 1st at Maijansali, Oodi.

Four dancers from Blue Flamenco Megafon perform flamenco movements in colorful flamenco skirts.
Blue Flamenco Megafon.

In celebration of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (December 3rd), the annual DiDa – Disability Day Art & Action Festival promotes the diversity of art and culture. This year’s theme was nature, and the festival’s performances reflected a multifaceted understanding of the concept.

Initially, my attention was drawn to the English term “disability” used in the festival’s name and its somewhat more limited Finnish translation “vammaisuus” (disability). The different emphasis in terminologies plays a role in determining who is considered part of the disability community and who perceives themselves as belonging to it. The understanding of the Finnish term “vammaisuus” remains more narrow, and its definition varies depending on the context and the individual’s perspective. The World Health Organization defines the term “disabled” more broadly, encompassing neurodivergency, mental health challenges, trauma experiences and chronic illnesses.

Journalist Sofia Tawast, in her article (in Finnish) “Tiedostava kansalainen tsekkaa etuoikeutensa, mutta harvoin siihen kuuluu sana ’vammaton’ – Milloin on vammaisten vuoro?” (“Conscious citizens check their privileges, but rarely does it include the word ‘able-bodied’ – When is it the turn of the disabled?”), highlights the challenges of defining disability, making it difficult to advocate for the world’s largest globally recognized minority. Tawast identifies disability as a factor that is collectively defined by societal ableism, discrimination based on assumed abilities. Disability is culturally defined, and Tawast calls for a fundamental shift in how we think about disability, acknowledging that everyone has different capabilities throughout life. In anti-ableist thinking, this is a neutral and natural aspect of human diversity.

The guide “Disability and Journalism” (available as a PDF on the Kynnys ry website, in Finnish) authored by Amu Urhonen, Heini Saraste, and Sanni Purhonen in 2022, further clarifies the nuances of terminology. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities uses the term “person with a disability,” emphasizing disability as an individual characteristic. In European disability studies, the term “disabled person” is preferred, highlighting disability as a political and socially constructed phenomenon. However, the focus should be on whether the rights, equality, and non-discrimination of disabled individuals are being realized, rather than on terminology.

DiDa Festival shakes up, challenges, and refreshes cultural perceptions in a vibrant way. The program, including awards and performances, covers various forms of art, featuring artists and enthusiasts at different stages of their careers. However, due to limited time for each ensemble and solo performer, the audience gets only glimpses of larger artistic works. Therefore, I highlight here the themes brought forth by the artists in their works.

Whimsical encounters and empowering art

“The most blind comedian” in Finland Tommi Vänni, the event’s host, opened the festival with a stand-up performance, sharing his experiences in the sighted world. The performance prompts reflection on ways to interact with differently sensing, perceiving, and acting fellow human beings. The biggest barrier to natural interaction is often the lack of knowledge and understanding of each other’s realities. Humor becomes a suitable tool to address easily absurd interactions and foster more inclusive communication.

Art has its own potential and mission to create visibility and to empower. The dance group Blue Flamenco Megafon, performing at DiDa, writes that they aim to amplify the voices of people with developmental disabilities through the power and charm of flamenco. They successfully manifest this in their performance. Siiri Tiilikka’s solo performance Birdsong explores the personal significance of dance as a facilitator of emotional processing. The work moves from lyrical expression to dismantling darkness and embracing free expression. The dancer invites the audience to join in dancing, either on stage or in the audience, emphasizing the message in the music’s lyrics: “Open your corporeality / It’s an opportunity to find your own truth / The path of creativity is open when given time / I will channel pure magic from within.”

Five dancers in colorful aerobic outfits in energetic movement.
Tribute to Terttu.

Empowering fun is at the heart of the Sign Language choir Hand Maid Talents. Their debut performance Tribute to Terttu, dedicated to the rhythm gymnastics instructor Terttu Martola, merges traditional Sign Language choir singing with Finnish folk music and rhythmic dance. This performance allows even those without Sign Language skills to partake in the joy, although only partially. In this way the work challenges assumptions about abilities – each individual has ther strengths and limitations, and diversity is enriching.

Renewing language and human image

Art addressing the experiences of disabled people also participates in the discussion in the society and even takes a stand. However, in art, disability is just one factor or trait and often remains entirely invisible externally.

Sanni Purhonen, a poet, journalist, critic, translator, and Kynnys ry’s publicist, introduced her poetry collection Jos vain muuttuisin toiseksi (WSOY 2022). In her work, Purhonen addresses the cultural images of women, bodies considered unfit for those images, the artificiality of these visual images, and violence. The different dimensions of violence, particularly in terms of definition, emerge prominently in my reading experience.

The poet creatively utilizes various sources, such as art, fairy tales, history, journalism, law, and medicine, and critically comments on the othering narratives found in these sources. Diagnostic and medical language can also include elements of the (ab)use of power. Purhonen, in her blog post “Sanasta vammaista, sarvesta härkää” on the Culture for All Service’s website, eloquently describes how artists belonging to minorities can reclaim words to align their meanings with reality.

Sanni Purhonen sits in black clothes in a wheelchair, speaking into a microphone while looking at a computer screen on a nearby table. Her expression is almost laughing. In the background, a sign language interpreter interprets.
Sanni Purhonen performing.

Art challenges cultural norms in a refreshing way. The debut work Growth (2021) from the cooperative Ursa Minor, representing art and culture in Sign Language, aims to shake up norms in performing arts. In Theatre Info Finland TINFO’s interview Noora Karjalainen, the ensemble’s artistic director and the director of the work, emphasizes the need for the renewal of theater towards a modern, inclusive, and intersectional human image: “Theater arts should acknowledge the diversity of both its creators and audience and strive to reflect the various realities.” By focusing on the sensory and experiential world of the deaf, the artist challenges norms created by the auditory world.

According to the description, Growth is an artistic manifesto. It struggles to break free from normative performance traditions and an othering understanding of humanity where deafness is alien and unknown. The process is likened to reclaiming nature and ecological succession, where an organism’s members induce changes in the environment. In the excerpt witnessed at the event, the dynamics of the performers circling, restraining, erupting, and exercising control transformed into organic togetherness. The full work can be seen in January at the Turku City Theatre.

Clarity of spatial thinking and straightforward advocacy

Dancer Fri Nilas Lindell’s kinetic poetry work Nunatak (2022) explores the formation of various mental and physical spaces, associated norms, and the expansion of space through creative means. Starting from the audience and gradually transitioning to the stage, the dancer uses movement to shape and create space. The performer constructs, delineates, and expands space using tools such as a diabolo and mirrors, along with poetic expression. Spatial thinking is multilayered, constantly shaping the relationship between the body and its surroundings.

The title of the work refers to a rocky ridge or mountaintop protruding from a glacier. I interpret it metaphorically as connecting to the experience of separateness expressed in the performance and, on the other hand, to the possibility of creating connections that become a counterforce.

Fri Nilas on the floor in a half-sitting position. His body is reflected in three surrounding mirrors.
Fri Nilas Lindell in Nunatak.

The band Kaiunsäde, playing world music, creates diverse connections in their compositions by combining lyrical folk music with jazz and entertainment music.

The artists also took directly stand at the festival. Hannele Cantell researchers and writes on environmental education and our relationships with nature. She emphasized the importance of making nature accessible to all and stated that kindergartens and schools, in particular, play a crucial role in making outdoor learning equal for everyone. Access to nature and participation in activities should be a universal right.

Cantell has addressed life changes due to illness in her novel Sekunnit ennen kaatumista (2022). The work expands personal experiences into a universally human experience while also taking a stand on the position of those who are ill and disabled. Disability and illness affects not only certain individuals and their families but also the society as a whole. All of us.

The stage adaptation of the book premiered in November at the Finnish Comedy Theater in Helsinki and will continue its tour in spring 2024. At the event, Cantell, along with actress Irina Pulkka, read an excerpt from the book’s chapter Lehtikasat, discussing the relationship with nature. The importance of caring for the environment, even with more limited resources than before falling ill, is crystallized in the chapter’s conclusion: “[E]very rake stroke meant hope. Clearing of the mind. Achievement. Continuation of tradition. Meaningfulness of nature.”

The DiDa festival is an excellent opportunity to get acquainted with artists and art enthusiasts who often work in the margins and whose art remains on the periphery of broader public awareness. Disability culture thrives, but the work and activities of disabled artists should be showcased as part of the larger art scene, without the need for prefixes related to disability. However, as Sari Salovaara, a senior specialist, succinctly puts it in her blog post “Miksi taidetta?” on the website of the project “Vammaisaktivismia tekemässä” (“Engaged in Disability Activism”), mainstreaming disability in the arts and culture sector will not happen as long as accessibility and inclusivity in practicing, studying, and entering the different professions in the arts are not realized. Dismantling built-in norms in the arts is crucial for individuals with different abilities to work in the field, allowing the true diversity to unfold in the arts.


Mia Hannula

The author is an art historian and critic.

DiDa festival’s homepage

DiDa festival on Facebook

Photos: Nurminenphotography Jasmin Nurminen

Mia Hannula: Disability Day Art & Action Festival showcased the new creative potential of disabled artists
Tribute to Terttu

3 Comments on “Mia Hannula: Disability Day Art & Action Festival showcased the new creative potential of disabled artists

  1. I appreciate your website, however I think you might check the spelling of a few of your postings. Even though I find it quite difficult to tell the truth because so many of them have spelling errors, I will most certainly return.

  2. Simply desire to say your article is as surprising The clearness in your post is simply excellent and i could assume you are an expert on this subject Fine with your permission let me to grab your feed to keep up to date with forthcoming post Thanks a million and please carry on the gratifying work

  3. you are in reality a just right webmaster The site loading velocity is incredible It seems that you are doing any unique trick In addition The contents are masterwork you have performed a wonderful task on this topic

Leave a Reply