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Film shares tale of Pittsburgh man who turned disability into career

Ben Schmitt
| Sunday, July 5, 2015, 10:27 p.m.
Bill 'Crutch' Shannon strikes a pose in his Point Breeze studio Thursday, July 2, 2015. He has a disability that has kept him on crutches most of his life. 'Crutch' is the subject of a documentary for his performance arts as he works through his degenerative condition known as Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Bill 'Crutch' Shannon strikes a pose in his Point Breeze studio Thursday, July 2, 2015. He has a disability that has kept him on crutches most of his life. 'Crutch' is the subject of a documentary for his performance arts as he works through his degenerative condition known as Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease.
Bill 'Crutch' Shannon strikes a pose in his Point Breeze studio Thursday, July 2, 2015. He has a disability that has kept him on crutches most of his life. 'Crutch' is the subject of a documentary for his performance arts as he works through his degenerative condition known as Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Bill 'Crutch' Shannon strikes a pose in his Point Breeze studio Thursday, July 2, 2015. He has a disability that has kept him on crutches most of his life. 'Crutch' is the subject of a documentary for his performance arts as he works through his degenerative condition known as Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease.
Bill 'Crutch' Shannon strikes a pose in his Point Breeze studio Thursday, July 2, 2015. He has a disability that has kept him on crutches most of his life. 'Crutch' is the subject of a documentary for his performance arts as he works through his degenerative condition known as Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Bill 'Crutch' Shannon strikes a pose in his Point Breeze studio Thursday, July 2, 2015. He has a disability that has kept him on crutches most of his life. 'Crutch' is the subject of a documentary for his performance arts as he works through his degenerative condition known as Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease.
Bill 'Crutch' Shannon strikes a pose in his Point Breeze studio Thursday, July 2, 2015. He has a disability that has kept him on crutches most of his life. 'Crutch' is the subject of a documentary for his performance arts as he works through his degenerative condition known as Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Bill 'Crutch' Shannon strikes a pose in his Point Breeze studio Thursday, July 2, 2015. He has a disability that has kept him on crutches most of his life. 'Crutch' is the subject of a documentary for his performance arts as he works through his degenerative condition known as Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease.

Bill Shannon is brash. He's bold. And he's on crutches, probably for life.

That's never really stopped him. When his grade school friends played soccer behind Fulton Elementary School in Highland Park, Shannon improvised and jumped in the game with his crutches. When his younger brother Ben became a skateboard trickster, Shannon found a way to join him.

Through years of such improvisation, Shannon has evolved into an internationally renowned performance artist by inventing his own form of crutch-assisted break dancing and skateboarding moves.

Now, he's the subject of a documentary, “Crutch,” co-directed by Sachi Cunningham, a Pittsburgh native and assistant professor of multimedia journalism at San Francisco State University.

“Dancing on crutches and looking cool on a skateboard is one thing, and that comes across very well,” Shannon, 45, of Stanton Heights said recently. “The other thing is the politics of disability and the ambiguity that accompanies my condition.

“I am disabled, but I am not severely disabled. Still, I can't dance without my crutches.”

The film focuses on Shannon's degenerative condition, Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, a childhood affliction of the hips.

Even after more than a decade, the film is not finished. The producers of “Crutch” placed the project on the crowdfunding Kickstarter website June 17 with the hope of receiving $100,000 in 30 days to pay for a final edit. If they don't reach their financial goal, they won't get any money. As of Friday, they needed about $23,000.

Cunningham and co-director Chandler Evans followed Shannon all over the world for more than 14 years, shooting 500 hours of footage to make an intimate examination of his life, his art and people's reaction to his performances and disability.

“I have found that people want you to fit into their projected narrative of what it means to be disabled,” said Shannon, who has performed at the Sydney Opera House in Australia and the John F. Kennedy Center For Performing Arts and once was hired to choreograph dances for Cirque du Soleil.

Emily Smith Beitiks, a professor and associate director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State, advised Cunningham about ways to avoid cliches during the filmmaking. The institute is a think tank dedicated to changing perceptions about disabilities.

“Part of the challenge is overcoming the way most people think about medical devices, like crutches, that are deeply stigmatized,” Beitiks said. “The story being told is more along the lines of how Bill took a crutch and made it his own — almost like an item of clothing. He is doing all of these tricks and dance moves out of inspiration of his disability and creativity.”

“Crutch” was filmed in Pittsburgh, New York City, Los Angeles, Japan, France, England, Finland and Australia.

“Pittsburgh plays a big role,” said Cunningham, a Peabody High School graduate. “We take great pride in our Pittsburgh roots, and Bill still lives there. We want Pittsburgh to get behind this, and we want Pittsburgh to be proud of it.”

Ben Schmitt is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or bschmitt@tribweb.com.

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