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Invisible no more 

Celebrated New York director Ping Chong turns his spotlight on six locals with disabilities

They call him "the physicist."

Eleven years ago, at the age of 31, Kevin Pettit was the envy of those around him. He had a Ph.D. A loving wife working on her own Ph.D. A 2-year-old son.

With an IBM research job on his résumé, Pettit was one year into a challenging career as a physics professor at Minnesota's Carleton College. And then one morning in late October 1998, a pickup truck, going 65 mph in a 40-mph zone, T-boned the passenger side of his wife's station wagon — where Pettit was sitting.

His wife endured a punctured lung. His son Andrew, tucked into a child seat in the back, was unharmed.

As for Pettit: "It took them three hours to extract my body from the car."

He spent 11 days in a coma with an extensive list of broken and shattered bones. The bones could be repaired; however, the brain damage was a different story.

Today, Pettit lives in Boulder with a traumatic brain injury — and without his wife (she divorced him) and professorship (after going back for a brief stint, he was told "it wasn't working anymore").

"There are 54 million Americans living with a disability," says Randy Dipner, founder and director of Meeting the Challenge, a local disability information services company. "And it's the only minority group all of us have a chance to join."

Advance man

Pettit's story is one of six that will be interwoven into an upcoming performance at UCCS' TheatreWorks, the result of an idea that Dipner had been developing for some time.

As the head of an organization that disseminates information and answers questions about the Americans with Disabilities Act, Dipner felt the 19-year-old law would never be fully implemented "until people with disability become a part of life." He was searching for a way to reach the greater population of Colorado Springs and saw an opening.

"I believe the arts provide an opportunity that you don't get in some other ways," he says.

Since Dipner sits on TheatreWorks' advisory board, he approached artistic director Murray Ross, who led him to a stack of plays about people with disabilities. But none of them felt right.

In June 2008, at an arts conference in Denver, Dipner heard about New York City's Ping Chong & Company. He was enamored with the way the nonprofit experimental arts organization tackled tough subjects. Dipner pauses now when he thinks back.

"Had I Googled Ping Chong before I called," he says, "I probably never would have called him."

A quick search explains why. Ping Chong is a theater director, choreographer and video installation artist. At 62, he has earned two Obie awards (one for sustained achievement), six National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Playwrights USA award and a Guggenheim fellowship.

In 1992, he started the Undesirable Elements "story-theater" series, of which Colorado Springs' Invisible Voices: New Perspectives on Disability will be production No. 41. Former productions have included inner-city teens, children who have survived war in other countries, and Native Americans.

"Whether we do it in Tokyo, which we have, or Holland, or Germany, it's about being 'other' in those places or being marginalized in those places and giving voice to people who are marginalized," Chong says. "That's really the essence of the project."

The first-generation immigrant says he began this journey because he, personally, felt like an outsider. But this theme of otherness, he says, "has become a universalized theme for me.

"It's about me, but it's ironically a gift, because it allows me to empower others. Doing this project is about empowering others to speak. And speaking of your own essence is very healing."

Anticipated debut

About 100 individuals with disabilities applied to be a part of Chong's local project. And after a series of extensive interviews, six — four of whom are Colorado Springs residents — were selected to share their stories in Invisible Voices.

Sandy Lahmann is one, and when she tells her story, you can sense a bit of frustration.

"My disability is recent," the 47-year-old Springs resident says. "It's been about five years since I've gotten [multiple sclerosis], but previous to my MS, I was a teacher, well-respected in my profession. But it's like as soon as I got MS, somehow everything changed. I was seen as, 'Oh, you poor person who needs help.'"

Lahmann taught special education, and the MS wouldn't let her work the 60-hour weeks she felt were necessary. She had to figure out what to do next.

"I was told over and over, 'Oh, well, you could work in a call center. You could make cold sales calls.' And I'm like, 'OK, I have a college degree, I was a team leader of a group of master's- and doctoral-level professionals, and you think a call center's the best choice?'

"It's the Wal-Mart greeter syndrome," Lahmann adds. "A person with a disability, their choice is being a Wal-Mart greeter or collecting Social Security. I really had to work hard to get past that."

Lahmann now works with Dipner at Meeting the Challenge, using her teaching skills to train and assist others in understanding the ADA, or even in more basic skills, such as using "people first" language (think "those with disabilities" versus "disabled persons"). When Dipner approached his staff about the Invisible Voices project, she knew she had to apply.

"There are a lot of well-meaning people ... but they don't get it," she says. "They don't understand how much we are looking to be independent."

Kelly Tobin, a 40-year-old Colorado College graduate and mother of two, agrees. Joining this production has increased her desire to educate about the disability experience. Tobin lives with what she calls congenital limb anomalies — often labeled birth defects.

"I prefer not to use that term," she says. "I don't feel defective."

Comic relief

Chong and co-writer Sara Zatz use a chronological format in telling Invisible Voices, blending in the history of the disability rights movement with the tales of the performers' lives.

Lahmann says she worries people will assume the show is just for those with disabilities.

"Until people without disabilities really understand what's going on, people with disabilities aren't going to be fully included in the community."

So it'll be a good, solid, educational evening?

"This isn't just an academic exercise: 'OK, I better learn something about disabilities, so I'll go do my good duty and learn about disabilities,'" she says. "This is quality theater.

"Ping is bringing to the audience some really different stories, intense stories, but at the same time he's bringing a lot of humor. There's one section where Billy Allen, who's our deaf performer who uses sign language — "

Dipner cuts her off.

"Performer who's deaf."

Both laugh.

"Performer who's deaf," Lahmann repeats back with a grin. "You caught me."

kakens@csindy.com

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