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Working in the Arts as an Amputee
Recovering from an amputation can be a long and challenging process, but it does not have to mean the end of the way you lived your life prior to surgery. It also does not have to stand in the way of you taking up a new hobby or embarking on a new career.
There is a great deal of emphasis focused on people with disability becoming involved in sports, but we wanted to showcase the many other opportunities open to amputees, so we decided to investigate how amputees can become involved in the arts.
We spoke to dancer and filmmaker Kathleen Hawkins and model Nancy Harris about their experience of working in the arts, asking them to share their stories, advice and top tips for others looking to break into the industry.
Kathleen Hawkins - dancer and filmmaker
- Double below-knee amputee
- Her amputations took place in 2008, when she was 19, following meningitis B that turned into septicaemia
Working in the Arts
“I work as a dance artist, filmmaker, and writer. After I had my legs amputated, I no longer thought dance was for me. And so I put it to one side, and tried to forget about it. This meant I explored other career options and, for me, journalism, documentary making and presenting became an enjoyable substitute.
“Through this work, including five years at the BBC, I came to realise that although I was making films in an artistic way, I really just wanted to dance again. And so I got in touch with Candoco Dance Company.
“With Candoco I work as a dancer, going through research and development with a choreographer, practising for long days and then sometimes performing at the end of the process. Two of these performances have been in live exhibition spaces - the Wellcome Collection and Kettle’s Yard - and I really enjoy doing this, being a piece of art among many, and watching the audience change in this environment is really fun.
“I also work with other dancer friends and on my own to practice and think of ways of using dance in films. As a filmmaker, I’ve mostly made short documentaries, but I’m currently writing some scripted pieces exploring a woman’s identity and her changing body, bringing in my own experiences of becoming an amputee.”
“When I first started thinking about returning to dance, I struggled to find anywhere that felt accessible. I think one of my main barriers was myself, because my confidence had taken a real knock, but then it was about dance schools not having any accessible classes, or teachers not knowing how to work with my body.
“It wasn’t until I started finding out more about contemporary dance that I started to feel more confident, and Candoco was the place where I really started to feel genuinely a part of the industry.”
How Amputation Impacts My Artistic Work
“My amputations has massively impacted the work I create because it affected my outlook on the world.
“As a documentary maker, it made me interested in different stories, and gave me a different way of speaking to contributors about their own experiences. I became much more interested in the human body and how it works and I think that fascination is something I’ve really enjoyed working with in dance.
“If we can approach dance from the viewpoint of ‘all bodies are interesting and important and the way they move changes and adapts’ then everything can shift to a completely different mindset and view on disability or impairment.
“My amputations also impacted what I do physically, and for a long time, I struggled with this because I would just compare my body before and what I was able to do then. Which is why I shut off dance for so long. But now I can work with my legs off, or on, and different legs, or crutches to elongate my body and create different shapes.”
How to Get Involved
“Firstly, it’s a cliche but be confident. For years and years, I tried to hide my amputations, didn’t talk out about it, just plodded on. But the arts world needs different people, different experiences, different ways of making, and all art can be important.
“Track down other artists you admire and contact them. I started messaging photographers on Instagram and we would meet up - it was a really great way for me to meet other artists and begin to have inspiring conversations about what we were working on, whether it was rubbish or not. Just talk to people.”
“I’m working on a short film about dance in nature, what it means and how people witness dance in unexpected places.
“I’m also developing a photo series about dance with a disability, but in very traditional settings, and I’m doing a project for BBC Africa - eight videos about African women ‘history makers’; women who should really be in school textbooks whose stories are incredible but rarely heard in the Western world.
“I’m also going to be presenting a series on mental health for BBC Stories in the coming months.”
Advice for People Who Are About to Have, or Have Recently had an Amputation
“Firstly, you can and will be ok, there is a whole community of badass people here who are also amputees if you’re not, and we’ll help.
“And then I would say don’t put pressure on everything happening straight away, take your time. I thought I would be up and walking on beautiful, realistic-looking prosthetics within the month, but your body, and prosthetics don’t work like this. Set some goals like ‘I’m going to massage my stump for half an hour today’ - this helps get used to it, helps with phantom pain, and with getting to know and love your body again. Little things like this are huge things in the long run.”
Nancy Harris - model
- Cross femoral, above right knee amputee
- Her amputation took place in 1997, when she was 30, due to complications and infections following a broken tibia plateau in 1995
Working in the Arts
“I signed up to Zebedee Management, a specialist model and talent agency that works with, and for, people with disabilities and difficulties. So far, I have taken part in an Everybody Beautiful Campaign photoshoot in beachwear and evening wear to promote body positivity.
“I have also been in a short film created for International Women's Day 2018 in collaboration with a group of passionate creative folk from the industry - #adpology. In the pipeline, I have a photographic art exhibition and magazine editorial shoots.”
“My career highlight so far was dancing to George Michael’s Faith whilst walking down a catwalk in my bikini as part of the Everybody Beautiful Campaign. I lost my leg 21 years ago and never thought I’d be brave enough to do this. I walk with a limp and am not as graceful as I used to be but I didn’t mind.
“I have accepted my body for all that it can still allow me to do and I wanted to represent all women, disabled or not. We should love our bodies and not be forced to feel any less beautiful just because we don’t fit society’s fashion stereotypes.”
How to Get Involved
“I embrace the fact I am an amputee and show it off. I am modelling because of my amputation so it has had a positive impact.
“Get yourself in as strong a place mentally that you can and just grab any opportunity. The time is right to be heard and seen. There will be some people who stare and pass judgement but I no longer worry about what others think of me.”
“I have been signed up as consultant counsellor/agony aunt for an inclusive teenage magazine and the first draft is due to go out very soon.”
Advice for People Who are About to Have, or Have Recently had an Amputation
“Your life will be very different but it’s not over. Find some time to grieve for the old you but also welcome in the new you. Life will be hard and you’ll get tired, upset, frustrated and angry but things will improve.
“Legs are so much more improved since I had my first one and you’ll probably go through many until the day you’re happy, but don’t settle. If the socket doesn’t fit and it rubs, even if only a tiny bit, don’t accept it and get it remade. You can have the most expensive, highly technological knee/ankle joint but if the socket doesn’t fit, you just won’t wear it. Comfort of socket is number one priority.
“Check out all options with your prosthetics team about your new legs. I didn’t realise I could have had a colourful socket years ago, if only I had asked. There are also different knee joints and ankle joints and you can change the heel height, have skins or show metal - lots of variations but just ask. It’s your leg after all!
“Your number two priority - as soon as you are well enough - should be to get to the gym, or do it at home, and work on your glutes, core and lower back. The stronger they are the easier you’ll find it to walk and not end up with a sideways leaning gait like me. The legs are heavy and you’ll get tired very easily but strengthen the rest of your body and that will really help.
“Finally, be kind to you and have lots of treats. Get as much support as you possibly can and embrace the new you. Find new things to do and you’ll be surprised.”
Talk to Us
If you have undergone an amputation as a result of an injury that was not your fault, the personal injury solicitors at JMW can answer any questions you may have about making a compensation claim. Call us on 0800 054 6570 to find out more.