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What does it really mean? How did it develop as a term used today? Why is disability a taboo subject?

The term taboo is of Polynesian origin. It 'derives from the Tongan 'tabu' which came to notice towards the end of the eighteenth century' (Allan and Burridge, 2006, p. 2). The term taboo was first brought to England by the British explorer and navigator James Cook on his voyage to Tonga. Cook describes the meaning of taboo in Polynesia as ‘anything is forbidden to be eaten, or made use of’ (Cook, 1821, p, 462). He goes on to state that taboo as a ‘word has a very comprehensive meaning; but, in general, signifies that a thing is forbidden’ (p.348).


Taboo can have different meanings in different cultures and societies, but in general can be said to 'arise out of social constraints on the individuals behaviour where it can cause discomfort, harm, or injury' (Allan and Burridge, 2006, p.1). Predominantly, taboo subjects are difficult to talk about. They can cover a wide context including; 'restrictions on sexual activities, like incest, animal-human sex, necrophilia, and adult-child sex' (Fershtman et al. 2011, p. 140), as well as being linked to 'dietary restrictions like Halal and kosher diets for Muslims and Jewish people, or cannibalism in most societies (p.140) and other topics such as death and illness. Taboos, as well as the importance of them, may change over time; they ‘may weaken or even disappear, while others may become stronger and more dominant’ (p.139), for example the recent development of the LGBT movement, it use to be taboo but now is less so.


In today's society, taboo is a term that is used in various contexts, but for the purpose of this project I will be focusing on disability as a taboo subject. From my personal experience, I have seen how talking about people with disabilities is still something that is tiptoed around. People do not always know how to approach the topic, or feel at ease around disabled people; ‘many able-bodied people patronise or avoid disabled people in order to deal with the guilt, fear and uncertainty they feel in the presence of disabled people’ (Marks, 1997, p. 86). Therefore; ‘disabled people may become ‘taboo’ objects because they are difficult to categorize, and are thus positioned as ‘liminal’ (p.86). This can produce silence in certain cultures and societies which leads onto exclusion for people with disabilities.


Throughout history, disability has been seen as a taboo subject but ‘the varied experiences of disabled people have been hidden from history and have only recently become a subject for sustained and critical social scientific analysis’ (Saraga, 1998, p.45). Within the media today, disability is perceived through ‘tales of tragedy or heroism by exceptional individuals or the often dramatic representations in charity advertisements’ (p. 45) and in order for this to be normalised ‘disabled people must use charm, intimidation, ardor, deference, humour, or entertainment to relieve non-disabled people of their discomfort’(Thomson, 2017, p.13) and prevent disability arising as an awkward topic or taboo. This will hopefully allow disabled people to neutralize the initial stigma of disability and develop more sustained and deeper relationships (Thompson, 2017). 


MyPlus (2019) is an organisation that provides support for progressive employers and disabled students to gain confidence and insight to get jobs and create new possibilities. Recent research by MyPlus found that there are 7.6 million disabled people of working age in Britain. 51.1% are in employment compared to 81.7% of non disabled people, suggesting much work still needs to be done for disabled people to be equally accepted in society. 


MyPlus also found that in order for employers to ‘successfully recruit and retain disabled individuals, disabled people must want to work, and realise that they can work and can contribute. Far too often, disabled people do not want to work or do not realise they can’ (2018). This would suggest that work needs to be done to raise the aspirations and motivations of disabled people to work and achieve and to change the taboo stigma.


Another piece of research carried out by MyPlus concluded that 75% of respondents were concerned about being open about their disability, with the greatest concern being the fear of being discriminated against (MyPlus, 2015). However 57% recognised that being open about their disability with their employers led to them gaining more support. In 2018, MyPlus hosted an event called ‘Breaking the disability taboo: encouraging openness from the off’. Part of the workshop included asking the participants at the event why they think people are reluctant to be open about their disabilities. Responses included discrimination, being seen as a nuisance, being treated differently to others, asking for adjustments that cost money, and concerns for how their information will be shared or used.


During the event, undergraduates shared their experience and concerns which included being seen in some ways ‘lesser’ than non-disabled candidates. This highlights the tension between whether or not to share information about disability and whether the benefits in doing so outweigh the concerns and possible negative responses. 


Blogger Herbst (2017) wrote in his ‘Why I break the taboo of talking about disability’, ‘it’s up to us as disabled people to teach our peers about the different struggles we face in our everyday lives. We need disabled leaders in our community just as much as we need to be accepted in society. Once this happens, then people can truly start learning. With this ideology more people will identify disability as an everyday occurrence and simply part of society, not a taboo or something that needs to be tiptoed around and hidden. 


With regards to this project, I intended for the taboo around disability to be broken down through the performance of Much Taboo About Nothing; ‘for musical performers with disabilities it becomes imperative to find a way of presenting their disability in a nonthreatening way—to neutralize it for their audience’ (Straus, 2011a, p. 128)and therefore make disability less of a taboo subject. 


The title of this project, ‘Much Taboo About Nothing’ is a play on Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, which when taken literally, simply means that a great fuss (much ado) is made about something insignificant (nothing). With this in mind, the swap of ‘ado’ for ‘taboo’ emphasises that a great fuss of taboo; in this case, disability taboo, is projected in society today. However, it should not be highlighted within society, there should not be a fuss over disability, it should just be accepted and understood, hence the title – Much Taboo About Nothing.   


Throughout the show Much Taboo About Nothing, it was about highlighting the ability of the performers and their talents – regardless of disability- and emphasise us being seen for what we can do, not what we cannot do.  

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