Photo: Bill Frederking
“Prejudice is the only true disability.”
As “Marie Benson, HR Manager,” Alana Wallace maneuvers her wheelchair around a scenario right out of The Office. She gently pokes fun at coworkers who are “fashion-deficient” and “copy-machine incapable.” Then, after several of them forcefully spit out their mugs of joe, Wallace confesses her own “disability”: “coffee-making impaired.” The national television spot is part of a campaign from Health and Disability Advocates that urges employers to “Think Beyond the Label.” The role perfectly suits Wallace, who has taken a consistently positive approach to her fulfilling careers in the arts and activism for people with disabilities.
“These types of ads are usually a pity party,” says Wallace, who earned a B.F.A. in Theater and Music from Columbia College in 1985. “But this campaign can be just as powerful using humor.”
The actress-singer, who contracted polio at the age of five, calls her wheelchair “a beautiful accessory.” As a child recovering from painful orthopedic surgeries, Wallace found inspiration by singing along to her father’s Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Billie Holiday records. At Columbia, the late William Russo, who was the music department chair and founder of the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, cast her in her first vocal performance, Ellington Sacred Works, at the Getz Theatre. This opportunity and the encouragement of her instructors gave Wallace “the confidence to seriously pursue a career in the arts.”
She established Dance>Detour, Chicago’s first professional “physically integrated” dance company, in 1995, proving that her wheelchair can transform her into an ethereally gliding presence, like an ice dancer. By joining together artists of mixed abilities, Dance>Detour’s stage portraits take on another level of grace and athletic virtuosity. The company has toured the country, recently performing at a convention for the Council for Disabilities Rights in Rochester, New York.
There can be no question that Wallace lives a full and productive life. She has collaborated with the Joffrey Ballet; was featured in the 1998 PBS documentary Dance from the Heart, narrated by Ben Vereen; and in 2008 was named Ms. Wheelchair America.
This spring, Wallace debuted her one-woman show, Men-o-Pause, at Chicago’s Prop Theater. The show carries a universal message about how many of us, at very young ages, are conditioned to hide certain aspects of ourselves (whether it’s a birthmark or a high IQ). Wallace, for instance, covers up her legs by wearing pants or long skirts, and even when she was a child, her crutches were not included in family portraits. Men-o-Pause offers a witty and balanced take on body image and the familiar “look-away” mentality often applied to those with disabilities.
By putting herself literally front and center on stage, Wallace delivers a strong message about capabilities, without playing the sympathy card. Though she still believes society has a long way to go in the areas of accessible housing and employment opportunities, she also encourages persons with disabilities to work to constantly raise awareness. As an actress, Wallace regularly auditions for television roles that do not call for a wheelchair. “We don’t always have to play accident victims,” she stresses. “We can be the mother, the judge, the lover.”
After all, she says, “We have to believe in ourselves and claim something.”
—By Lucia Mauro
Think Beyond the Label, a television spot featuring Alana Wallace as "Marie Benson, HR Manager."