Andrew Tubbs: Scholar, musician, disability advocate, comedian

Authored on:

Mar 27, 2019
Andrew Tubbs

Andrew Tubbs would like to see more researchers recognize the influence that disability has on their work—no matter the field of study.

“It’s beneficial for researchers to understand that disability inherently intersects with their work,” Tubbs says. “Being able to come at issues, research questions, and problems from a disability perspective helps nuance arguments.”

The University of Iowa graduate student’s own research looks at the intersection of disability studies and music in film. The Des Moines, Iowa, native will earn his master’s degree in musicology from the UI in May.

“I tell people musicology is exactly like biology,” Tubbs says. “Just take off the ‘bio’ and add ‘music.’ It’s the study of music, why it matters, and how it affects people in cultures. I look at how the disabled body is represented musically on stage and on screen, and how that fits into contemporary notions of disability.”

Tubbs’ research interests are deeply personal. He has long loved studying and making music, primarily as a vocalist and percussionist. He earned his BA in music from Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.

He also has thrombocytopenia-absent radius (TAR), a rare genetic disorder characterized by low levels of platelets in the blood and the absence of the radius bone in the arms. But the fatigue, abnormal bleeding, and shortened arms caused by TAR have not slowed Tubbs down.

“It’s stereotypical but true: It’s finding out how to live in your body and becoming ever more secure in a disabled identity,” Tubbs says.

Tubbs wants more people to understand the perspective of disabled people in their community, and points to accessibility on campus as an example.

“I tell people that when it comes to accessibility, you don’t know what to look for until you’ve already seen it,” Tubbs says. “You may think a space is accommodating when in reality it isn’t. For example, many automatic doors on campus are not great. The only way an individual can get in through the automatic doors is if they have the ability to apply pressure with their hand to a specific point, as opposed to maybe using their chair to open the door. So even though that’s ‘accessible,’ it’s still limiting to a number of individuals.”

Tubbs uses his experiences to advocate for other disabled people—on the UI campus and in the wider community. He does this as a UI Graduate and Professional Student Government delegate, artistic director for Combined Efforts—a visual and performing arts company for artists with and without disabilities—and in April as a panelist for the 2019 Obermann Humanities Symposium Misfitting: Disability Broadly Considered.

The symposium will consider the often-unnoticed influence of disability on and in the performing, visual, and literary arts, in philosophy and religion, in political and economic life, and in everyday language. Tubbs will be a panelist in an Early Career Scholars Roundtable: The Future of Critical Disability Studies. He hopes a variety of people attend the symposium’s events, but he especially would like to see one segment of the campus community.

“I’d love to see people from the west side of the river, the hard sciences, come because for years the disabled body has been a medical body that needs to be fixed,” Tubbs says. “We need to reconfigure that so individuals treat the disabled body not just as a body, but as a person.”

Tubbs became involved in the symposium partly because of his research, but also through his involvement with Combined Efforts, a local visual and performing arts company composed of a theater company, dance company, choir, visual arts group, writers’ group, and an experimental musical ensemble called Ulterior Motifs.

“For some odd reason, arts organizations often feel it is difficult to integrate disabled performers into main-stage shows,” Tubbs says. “They’re more than happy to bring animals on stage. There are Broadway shows that have had elephants on stage, but the first person in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway was just a couple years ago with Ali Stroker in Deaf West’s revival of Spring Awakening.”

Tubbs says people don’t realize the amazing work being done by similar groups across the country. In fact, the most groundbreaking work he says he’s ever seen was a production of Cabaret by Phamaly Theatre Company, which is based in Denver, Colorado, and is composed entirely of people with disabilities. Tubbs interned with the company, working in the front office with the director and production staff. He also performed in Cabaret.

“It’s a musical about the Holocaust, and if you do a show like that with disabled actors, you need to talk about disability in the Holocaust, which is an often-overlooked component,” Tubbs says. “Having disabled bodies on stage in a show like that inherently changes the narrative and forces the audience to see narratives in new perspectives. That’s something you don’t get from a traditional theater.”

Since he was in high school, Tubbs has used another outlet for his creativity and disability advocacy: stand-up comedy. It started during a high school show choir rehearsal when the choreographer told the group he wanted jazz hands, not T. rex arms.

“From the back, I asked if that was a short arms joke, which made people laugh,” Tubbs says. “I realized that as a comedian, I have an immense amount of power to use the disability in a way that is confrontational but also allows individuals space to talk about disability, especially when they feel uncomfortable about it.”

Graduate school doesn’t leave much time to perform stand-up, but Tubbs will get on stage during the Obermann symposium to open for author and stuttering comedian Nina G.

Tubbs admits he is an “Iowa boy through and through.” He says the UI has proven a great fit and that he has a wonderful adviser in Nathan Platte, associate professor in the School of Music who studies film music. He plans to pursue his PhD after graduation in May and is in the process of applying to schools, including the UI. In the meantime, his research continues to focus on two case studies: Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men and Jud Fry from Oklahoma!

“Lennie is this childlike figure and it’s a tragedy that he is dead. And then there is Jud, who even though he is the same size, same intelligence, comes from the same socioeconomic class, and is just as equal a threat, he is inherently villainized,” Tubbs says. “Even though we react to these two disabled bodies very differently, the musical material used to personify them is very similar. There is a lot of repetition—the music gets stuck because the musical body is not intelligent enough to form a beautiful musical idea.”

No matter where Tubbs ends up, he says he’ll work to support and give people with disabilities a platform to share their voice, whether it’s through his research, leadership in the arts, or by making people laugh.

With thanks to writer Emily Nelson and Iowa Now for this article.