Leslie Cannold: Writer, Commentator, Ethicist, Researcher
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Feel Good, Do Good - The Merry Makers

OK, I admit it. I cry easily. My eldest’s grade 6 graduation ceremony provoked a flood. Even k.d. lang’s version of Hallelujah can do it. When the face of the little fella in the Worksafe Victoria ad lights up because his Dad is safe and home, I break down in sobs.

But this week was a first. This week I saw a documentary so moving that even now, days later, the thought of it brings tears to my eyes. Reviewing the trailer in preparation for writing this column, I broke down again. Pushing my keyboard aside I put my head on the desk, and bawled.

The Music in Me, presented by that national treasure Andrew Denton, features the Merry Makers, a troupe of intellectually and physically disabled performers aged six to 56, and the two wonderful women-mother and daughter team, Janet and Lucinda, who have dedicated their lives to putting these dancers on stage.

When the credits rolled I found myself pondering, tissue-box in lap, why the Merry Makes tale is so inspiring. While articulate about all other aspects of the troupe, neither Lucinda nor Janet could explain why-in Janet’s words-a Merry Makers’ performance “just generates love and joy and happiness, and no one wants to go home.”

I think I know. Firstly, is because the Merry Makers replace disgrace with pride. The film is unflinching in its exploration of the shame parents feel, or are made to feel by others, when a disabled child-one with Down’s syndrome or Fragile X or cerebral palsy-is born. “I felt sick. My legs went to jelly. This can’t be happening to me, she’s too beautiful,” recalls one mother. Another was told by her grandfather, as the rest of her assembled family silently examined the new arrival, “nothing like this ever happened in our family.”

But the Merry Makers is about celebrating ability, not disability. In doing so, it allows the parents of special children to experience what the rest of us take for granted: set-piece moments where we are permitted to glory and gloat in our children’s accomplishments, and accept the admiration of others for what they have achieved.

The climax of The Music in Me is the Merry Makers’ 2005 performance in the Sydney Entertainment Centre alongside Marcia Hines, Todd McKenney and John Paul Young.

When the Merry Makers take their bows to rapturous applause, you get the feeling that this may be the first time in these people’s lives where they are the object of honest admiration and praise. When the camera follows Merry Makers into the audience where they are hugged and congratulated by ecstatic family members, you wonder if this is the first time these parents have been given permission to publicly revel in their child’s accomplishments.

A Merry Makers performance offers something unique to audiences, too. We live in a world designed to make people with disabilities and those who care for them invisible. When we do see the disabled and their carers, it is usually because something is wrong. Disabled people abused in specialized accommodation or carers who lack respite care or are having their allowances slashed.

This near-exclusive representation of the disabled in the wider community as those in plight, deserving our pity and rescue (and, in the event we fail to provide either, our guilt) put paid to the “love, joy and happiness” offered by the Merry-Makers.

Feel good, do good. It works for the Merry Makers and, so it seems for us, too.

Publication History

Feel Good, Do Good - The Merry Makers, Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)
15 Jun 2008

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