“Freak” is not a dirty word in the personal vocabulary of circus performer Sarah Houbolt.
Houbolt has an incredibly rare syndrome known as Hallermann-Streiff, which affects her bones and limits her sight.
But the former Paralympian swimmer and Cirque du Soleil cast member said it wasn’t her condition that was “disabling” as much as aspects of our society.
“It’s really interesting to look at how the society is disabling, the stairs not being level or the windows not being frosted...or people’s attitudes to my body, and that’s the disabling thing,” she said.
“I think we’ve got a long way to go to ensure our environments are comfortable for everyone. You want to be able to walk into a room and feel welcome...you want to be able to have the same employment opportunities as everyone else.”
Houbolt is in Ballarat this weekend to launch the inaugural Snap Arts and Disability Festival, during which she will pay tribute to the famed 1800s “freak show” artist, Koo Koo the Bird Girl.
“I’m really inspired by the old freak show performers because they were people who were a bit different, they were people with disabilities, and they performed,” she said.
“Some people think it was exploitative and exhibitionist, but they were rock stars of their time.
“A lot of people think they were abused in the freak shows, but a lot of the research shows they weren’t. I think it’s really important that we tell our history correctly. Why not celebrate our rock stars of the past?”
Houbolt said using the word “freak” was a way of reclaiming a slur as a word of empowerment.
“You neutralise it, you take away its negative weight and you give it some positive entertainment value.”
She said many people with disabilities wanted a chance to shine on stage, screen and other forms of performance.
“We have a critical mass of artists with disabilities at the moment saying we want representation on our screens. It’s cool, it’s an exciting time,” she said.
“It’s really avant-garde.”
Houbolt will perform at the Ballarat Mining Exchange on Saturday at 2pm. She will also give a hula hoop workshop at 11am. All welcome to attend and bring their own hoop. Both events free.
For more details about the 10-day festival, see Snap Arts and Disability Festival on Facebook.