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Pop!Tech – Bill Shannon gets around

Bill Shannon takes the stage on crutches, though he can clearly walk on two legs. It’s disconcerting to see him – is he walking on crutches to make an artistic statement? To explore a four-legged dance style? Because he’s faking?

He knows you’re asking this question, so starts his talk with medical validation, “Until I validate, you won’t really be looking at me. I have to tell you why I’m using crutches.” Shannnon has a bilateral hip deformity – his hips aren’t round, and puting pressure on them creates swelling. It’s possble to have hip surgery, but that requires new surgeries every ten years. Instead, Shannon has raised walking on crutches to an amazing art form.

He demonstrates what club dancing looks like on his rocker bottom crutches. As people in the club watch him, some end up saying, “I think he might be faking it.” His response, he tells us, is “the faker squared, faking to the second power, faking faking to show my reality.” He demonstrates, taking a big step on crutches, then four baby steps with his feed on the ground, so that people can say, I knew he was faking, man – busted!”

Shannon’s art form requires an amazing range of technique. He shows us the basics of a rocker-bottom crutch. With the crutch tops in his armpits, he’s “in saddle”. But he’s capable of a “highbar thread”, where he moves his weight onto a midbar support, which allows him to reach the floor. A “lowmid” involves the armpit supported by those middle suports. Moving through these positions, he’s able to move between standing up and working on the floor. But “you can have all the technique in the world, but if you ain’t got style…”

Shannon’s got style. He started using them at age five, and as a result, he considers them an extension of his body, something he thought was very cool when he was a kid. He got off them in his teens and took up skateboaring, but came back to them in his mid-twenties. But his fluidity and style are a product of years of experience and years of non-crutch movement as well.

Lately, Shannon has been performing publicly, challenging images of disability through performance art. He explains that people don’t rush in to rescue a skater who’s trying a trick and blows it. People watching him perform on crutches initially respond by seeing him “as a poor, crippled guy”. Over time, they start seeing him as “a crippled guy who’s having too much fun.”

People project narratives, he tells us – “this guy is in trouble, I’m here to save him.” This good samaritanism can be an obstacle. So Shannon performs his “disability-based utilitarianism” in public, doing amazing things like picking up bottles while being fully upright on the crutches. It’s important, he tells us to “retain neutral pallette” so he can see people’s authentic reactionsa to his movement.

Some of Shannon’s most amazing movement is on a skateboard – he uses one for mobility purposes, moving long distances through airports, for instance. “A skater’s relationship to architecture is different from the average pedestrian.” These surfaces of the urban environment can be pushed off of, tricked on. There are tricks Shannon can do that are impossible for conventional skaters because he’s capable of making one foot weightless with the crutches. He describes his style not as “extreme”, but as “extremely laidback skating.” Watch the video above and judge for yourself.

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