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'I'd never not want to be disabled'

'CLAIRE is disabled,' states the promotional material for the dance show Guide Gods.

"Is it the will of a higher power? Is she paying for the mistakes of a past life? Is it a test for her, or a punishment for her parents? Could she, should she, be healed?"

These are big questions; shocking questions; the sort of politically sensitive notions that many would shrink from. But they make for exactly the kind of "ridiculously huge subject" that the innovative, multidisciplinary disabled performer, Claire Cunningham is drawn to. (Last year she created Pink Mists, a show based around landmine survivors and deminers, and she hopes soon to make a work revolving around the "huge topic" of maternal guilt.)

The first time Cunningham came across the idea that disability might be a kind of karmic punishment for bad things done in a past life was back in 1999, when Glenn Hoddle was famously sacked as England football coach after a statement in which he said, in relation to disability: "What you sow, you have to reap."

Cunningham was 21 years old then and had been living with osteoporosis and arthrogryposis (a condition affecting joints) since birth. She had used crutches since the age of 14 and recalls that the comments made her "upset for about a week".

"I'd never thought of a previous life before," she says now. "I thought what could I have done that was so bad that it deserved this?"

She first started thinking about the role faith plays in our attitudes towards disability when she was in Cambodia researching her landmines show, Pink Mists.

There, she met with a teacher who had been disabled by polio. Named Mr Rong, he told her he had briefly been a Buddhist monk, but that strictly speaking, this wasn't allowed since he was disabled. "He attributed his disability to having done something bad in a previous life," says Cunningham. "He accounted for it through karma." (Many Buddhists, she notes, don't hold this view.)

Though her instinct was to argue against this, instead she tried to listen and understand. What Rong said made her think about her own society, the one she grown up in, the one that had brought her "to a place of being quite comfortable in my identity now as a disabled person". When she arrived home, she began to research the different beliefs and superstitions that exist around disability, and to conduct interviews with people of different faiths. All of this fed into her show Guide Gods, now being staged as part of the Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme.

In her mid-20s, Cunningham had another upsetting faith-related encounter, this time with a Christian in rural Ireland. There, she had been approached by a woman who offered her something called a "miraculous medal". This meant, her Irish friends told her, that the woman wanted to say a prayer for her. But Cunningham didn't want the medal. She didn't want a prayer. "I was quite polite. I said, 'No thank you. I appreciate your offer'." But the woman wouldn't take no for answer. "Eventually after three times saying 'I appreciate it but no thank you', I took it," Cunningham says. She felt she had compromised her own beliefs for this woman's. "I didn't want her prayers and I was upset by the fact that she thought because I was on crutches and disabled, I needed prayed for."

In her research, she came across many different views on disability. Muslims she met viewed it "as a test". Many Christians saw the disabled as in need of healing and saving by God. Cunningham herself takes a more scientific view, seeing her osteoporosis as a matter of genetics: of biology and chemistry.

It is partly a view she inherited from her parents. They weren't frequent churchgoers (though Cunningham recalls being taken to Church of Scotland Sunday school) and religion didn't particularly affect their feelings around their daughter's disability. Nevertheless, as Cunningham points out "Parents always carry guilt in situations like that, even when there is absolutely nothing that they did wrong. My mother always thinks, 'Oh, did I do something when I was pregnant?' Which is absolutely wrong, but I can't get her to stop thinking it."

Cunningham is now a successful and highly acclaimed artist. Her disability is at the heart of her work, and it would be impossible to imagine her breakthrough shows, Mobile Evolution and Menage A Trois, without her extraordinary, imaginative, humorous and skilful use of the crutches she knows so well. Could it be said that her disability is a gift from God?

In fact, Cunningham does not view it as a gift - though she has come to appreciate it. In a speech at London's Southbank centre last year, she made the declaration: "I would now never not want to be disabled." But she hasn't always felt like this. Indeed, through her teenage years, she lived in a state of denial of her condition. "I think I always thought it would change, that it was a phase and my body was still changing and growing, that I would get off crutches and in a year I wouldn't need them. I lived in a fantasy."

It was only when she went to York University to study classical music (Cunningham started out as a singer) that she began to acknowledge herself as disabled and joined the university Access group. "Until that point I was just as ignorant, biased and negative around disabled people as a lot of non-disabled people have been."

Cunningham now sees her disability as "a positive state". "It's natural," she says. "Disability is not actually abnormal. It is part of the natural progression of human beings: it's what happens to everybody as they get older.''

For an artist, it also provides "a different perspective" on the world. Her own disability, she says, has shaped not only the way she moves through the world, but also her dry, puncturing humour.

One crucial moment in her personal journey was seeing Bill Shannon, the internationally famous hip hop and skateboard performer who integrated his crutches into his dance. "It was," she says, "an extraordinary experience. I guess he was the first disabled artist I saw that had made something that was so specifically his, and so specifically created around his impairment."

To begin with it didn't occur to her to want to do that - she saw herself as a singer - though she did start to pursue more physical forms of performance, starting with taiko drumming. But it was when she worked with choreographer Jess Curtis that she finally saw the way in which she could be a dance performer. Curtis taught her that she had her own very special skills, honed over several years, with a set of tools: her crutches.

Cunningham approaches her disability with little superstition. Rather, she just sees it matter-of-factly as one part of the person she is. At the same time, she is sanguine about the faith-based views of others. Partly based on interviews with religious leaders, academics and the deaf and disabled on these issues, her new show is a kind of enquiry through song and dance, using crutch-based movement and expression.

The process of creating Guide Gods has made her wary of the tendency to take beliefs and ideas out of context. When she first heard Rong's story, she says she found the karmic view on disability offensive. "But I started recently to think, well if I don't believe in a past life how can I be offended by that perspective? If I didn't have a past life then I can't worry that I did something bad in it."

Guide Gods is at various venues from June 12-20. See glasgow2014.com/culture or clairecunningham.co.uk

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