Chicago’s first DisFest to celebrate performers with disabilities

“Disability is not the end of life; it’s the beginning of a new version of your life,” said Ladonna Freidheim, who is organizing the festival on Saturday at the Chicago Cultural Center.

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Ladonna Freidheim performs in a wheelchair in “CounterBalance.” Freidheim is organizing the city’s first DisFest, which celebrates performers with disabilities.

Ladonna Freidheim performs in a wheelchair in “CounterBalance.” Freidheim is organizing the city’s first DisFest, which celebrates performers with disabilities. The event will be Saturday at the Chicago Cultural Center in the Loop.

Marcela Rafea/ Courtesy of MOMENTA Dance Company via Ladonna Freidheim

Ladonna Freidheim has advocated for performers with disabilities for years.

Through her nonprofit, ReinventAbility, she’s taught people to dance in wheelchairs. She’s helped students, dancers and veterans, among others.

Her advocacy is now culminating in DisFest — an inaugural, free festival running this Saturday at the Chicago Cultural Center to celebrate performers with disabilities

She wants the public to learn that people with disabilities are less different than we think.

“It’s one thing to read [it] in a book, then there’s truly feeling in your heart that you know, no matter what happens, it’s really OK,” Freidheim said.

“Disability is not the end of life; it’s the beginning of a new version of your life,” she said.

Ladonna Freidheim

Ladonna Freidheim

Fay Pappas; courtesy of FreshLens via Ladonna Freidheim

The festival features family-friendly dance performances, exhibits by visual artists, music acts, theater games and short films.

In one interactive exhibit, guests cut medical X-ray films to pieces and assemble them into art. That can be “cathartic” because people with disabilities can sometimes feel “tortured” by the health industry, she said.

Freidheim founded ReinventAbility in 2014, and ran weekly dance classes and workshops at Hines Veterans Affairs Hospital. The group’s outreach then expanded to Chicago Public Schools, Columbia College Chicago, the Joffrey Academy and other institutions.

Freidheim, 55, was born in South Shore, went to grade school in Beverly and graduated from St. Ignatius College Prep. She lives in the South Loop and has a 16-year-old daughter.

Growing up, Freidheim danced as a ballerina. But a degenerative disease sent her to surgery at age 19. Doctors gave her leg braces, and she underwent rehab at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana with future Paralympic athletes.

She remembers walking down the street with her quadriplegic friend and hearing someone mutter, “If that happens to me, just kill me.” Freidheim was inspired.

“I don’t want people to think that,” she said. “I want people to see that inclusion is not hard and scary. Because, look, here it is, and it’s not hard and scary.”

When doctors gave her leg braces, she considered how she could return to dancing. Maybe she could take a low-level course and adapt to it, she thought. But the instructors told her she couldn’t dance.

“They said, no, it would be too depressing for the other dancers to see you so crippled,” she recalled.

Instead, she collaborated with athletes in rehab who wanted to dance at the club but didn’t know how to in a wheelchair. “They taught me wheelchair basketball and I taught them to dance in chairs,” she said.

After college, she worked as an occupational therapist in CPS, helping kids with disabilities.

A screenshot of the short dance film “A Memory Of Joy.”

Dance performances at DisFest will be similar to the one seen here, a screenshot of the short dance film “A Memory Of Joy.”

Courtesy of Liz Sung Productions via Ladonna Freideim

In 2006, Freidheim met her mentor, who inspired her to pick up dancing again. Alana Wallace ran a mixed-abilities dance company in Chicago, Dance>Detour, and recruited Freidheim as a stand-in.

“She taught me to dance in my wheelchair and that brought this joy of movement and freedom that I had not felt in a long time,” she said.

She hopes DisFest spreads that awareness.

“There are many people out there who just don’t know this exists,” Freidheim said. “For me, there was nowhere to go. I don’t want people to feel that isolated. When disability affects your life, your family, I want people to know we’re here.”

DisFest runs Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St. Live performances are scheduled from 1:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

July is Disability Pride Month.

Chicago’s Disability Pride Parade begins 11 a.m. Saturday at 401 S. Plymouth Ct. From there, the parade proceeds heads west on Van Buren, north on Dearborn, ending at Daley Plaza.

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