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A Touch of RADA - Caroline Cardus introduces herself with a tale of how early experiences of impairment shaped her career / 19 July 2010

Two magazine images hung on fine thread casting shadows on a wall on a wall

Voice from the Shadows, paper, thread and light © Caroline Cardus

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I was always a somewhat clumsy, socially awkward child.  In the early 70’s, you generally were or you weren’t, without many of the labels kids with invisible impairments are given today.

When I fell over in the playground at the age of four, I screamed my head off. Probably, as it was the end of the day, I also irritated the hell out of my teachers. 

Despite my wild screaming, they could find no bruises or cuts on the ankle I claimed to have hurt so badly. Even then I was aware of the sense of bemusement with which my parents took me to hospital. After examining me and x-raying my left leg, the doctor pronounced the diagnosis as ‘a touch of RADA’ - this being an acronym for the ‘Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts’.

It was a witty and concise remark, so my parents remembered it down the years. Little did we know back then, I had a genetic disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS). It had affected the shape of my bones and caused my connective tissue to be fragile and stretchy, allowing joints to dislocate easily. 

At the age of four it was hiding in my body, surfacing occasionally in little tumbles and minor accidents and then disappearing with little sign of ever being there, waiting to weave its way into my life and shape my perspective on many things outside of having the impairment itself.

Looking back, I have to laugh at some bits of it, although as I got older I laughed less. Roller skates eventually did for me when I was twelve. If you’re naturally clumsy, skating backwards down a concrete ramp is a bad idea anyway, and for me, the funny pains I’d been getting in my joints suddenly arrived with such force, and did not cease, that I knew whatever had been stalking me since I started toddling had finally made a definitive appearance as a dislocated knee.

Yet that touch of RADA tag stayed firmly stuck, and I stayed undercover as that awkward kid with glasses who fell over on her roller skates. Over the years I was to find out that not many doctors knew about EDS - apart from one guy who spotted I was very hyper-mobile and told me that it wasn’t a problem - I was stretchy enough to be a contortionist, ha ha!  His suggestion that I stop fussing and run away to join the circus was made without a hint of the irony with which I view it today.

Why am I telling you all this? Why am I sharing these medical details? At the time when I was studying to be an artist, finally gaining understanding of my experiences going back to early childhood, influenced my artwork forever. I began to question how my situation had been handled more than why I had what I had. It’s because the journey it took me on has been ridiculous at times, dark at others, and as a result, made me feel deeply about how people are listened to, assisted and most importantly, empowered and accepted.

Little did I know when I was at university there was such a thing as the Disability Arts Movement at all, although by the time I got there the Disability Rights Movement had been going for around 25 years. Why isn’t Disability Art part of our society’s history yet?  THAT’S a drama well worth making a fuss about… 

In this blog I’ll be charting my path from being called a goggled-eyed crip in the playground to being an artist who makes work about the experience of disability.  I’ll also be writing about art projects I’m involved in, particularly R:Evolving with Tanya Raabe, where she questions what a disabled nude is and what our perceptions of it are. 

How does this concept take into account visible and invisible impairment?  I hope people reading will join in the debate between mine and Tanya’s blogs on this subject soon.

Keywords: access issues,circus,disability art,discrimination,invisible disabled people,labelling,misc