Yes, the Penguin Project Is Ableist.

This Fall, the Penguin Project is coming to Muskegon. Local children and young adults with disabilities will be cast in a production of the musical “Annie, Jr.” that will run October 14 and 15, 2017 at the Frauenthal.

The Penguin Project describes itself as follows:

“The Penguin Project is a musical theater production that casts children and young adults with disabilities in all roles. All will sing, dance and act in the show. Those individuals (Artists) will get assistance from on-stage peers (Mentors). Who can participate? Artists are children and young adults (ages 10-22) with disabilities. Including (but not limited to) Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, visual impairment, hearing impairment and neurological disorders. Mentors are children and young adults (ages 10-22) who do not have disabilities. They will be matched with an artist of similar age and the two will work side-by-side.”

What is the reason that a person with a disability cannot be a mentor?

The disabled actors will be matched with “mentors,” who are specifically defined as non-disabled people. There is only one reason that people with disabilities cannot be a mentor: ableism.

The Penguin Project defeats its own goal by teaching children with disabilities that non-disabled people are their superiors, not their equals. They are being allowed to participate in an activity as long as they accept their role as a recipient of charity needing to be mentored by non-disabled people. That’s not what we want our kids to learn.

Exactly what is the goal of matching disabled people with non-disabled “mentors”? What do non-disabled people have to offer in this context? If this were a reciprocal relationship meant to decrease segregation, it would be described as a peer-to-peer relationship. What qualifies the non-disabled mentor? Not professional theater experience. Not experience successfully navigating the world with a disability. Simply the virtue of being non-disabled.

Text: It's called the Penguin Project because penguins can’t fly. Get it? Image: A confused penguin with a speech bubble that says "I use my wings for swimming and diving. I don’t need to change to meet your arbitrary definition of success.” #saynotoableismFurthermore, the Penguin Project employs ableist messaging to achieve its goal. It’s called the Penguin Project because, “Our penguins may not be able to fly, but that does not prevent their spirits from soaring.” That’s the kind of stuff that makes the disability community want to puke.

Why are children and young adults with disabilities who wish to participate in theater not being served in integrated programs?

We must stop using people with disabilities as props for charity and inspiration porn. The hallmark of these activities is that they are performed for the benefit of the “helper,” not the recipient, and always treat the disabled person as a prop.

Our youth, both with and without disabilities, are absorbing these messages:

  • people with disabilities are inferior to non-disabled people
  • disabled people belong in segregated programs
  • people with disabilities need charity
  • disabled people “have very few friends and limited social opportunities” (per penguinproject.org)

The Penguin Project is brought to us by No More Sidelines, which also engages in segregated programs that rely heavily on ableist stereotypes. We urge everyone who supports disability rights to end support for segregated programming and embrace full integration of people with disabilities in our community.

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