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Ali Stroker made history as the first person in a wheelchair to win a Tony for her performance as Ado Annie in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! And while we would hope a triumph for accessibility and inclusivity like this would have happened ages ago, the reality is that this happened for the first time in 2019. And while it’s most certainly a triumph, it’s also a wakeup call for creators around the world to work harder on combating ableism and creating an industry that’s inclusive to everyone.
As we approach the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (Dec. 3), On The Stage offers a few ideas on creating a more equitable, accessible, and inclusive theatre.
First, it’s important to know about the conscious or unconscious bias that needs addressing. Ableism is defined as “discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities, or who are perceived to be disabled. Ableism characterizes people as defined by their disabilities and inferior to the non-disabled.” Writer Nicola Griffith aptly describes ableism as “equating physical, psychological, or intellectual impairment with loss of personhood.” Instead, she reminds us that “people are people – period.”
Creating a more accessible theatre – and, in turn, fighting against ableism – can manifest in a variety of ways. While it may seem overwhelming, remember that any step forward in the effort is progress!
Did you know that 20% of the American population has a disability? (This makes people with disabilities the largest minority group in the United States!) Even more, according to the Ruderman Family Foundation, 95% of disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors. So, it goes without saying that people with disabilities don’t get a fraction of the representation they deserve.
Then, perhaps the most obvious way to combat ableism is to uplift art and shows that highlight people with disabilities and actively fight against ableism. Choose pieces that create visibility for people with disabilities – and work hard to find and cast those people, who have lived those experiences. Alongside casting, look for meaningful pieces of art that dig deeper into the issues surrounding ableism. Art, after all, has the power to change peoples’ perceptions.
Confirming that your theatre is ADA-compliant and accessible should be your first move before hosting any event. Does your theatre have seating for those with disabilities? How about accessible doors, elevators, ramps, and bathrooms? Alongside following rules and regulations as it pertains to the ADA, go further.
Ideas include offering closed captioning or American Sign Language interpretation at certain shows for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Touch tours for people with visual impairments before a show begins can more fully immerse guests with visual impairments, alongside audio descriptions.
It may be a hard truth, but money makes the world go ‘round, and the theatre industry is no exception. Make an effort to campaign and fight for arts funding at a state or federal level.
Efforts like that don’t go unnoticed, and more money being given to arts companies and programs around the country will equate to more visibility for actors with disabilities alongside more capital to better serve that community – like extra funds for the aforementioned ASL interpreters or audio descriptors!
If you find it hard to find the money to invest in more advanced accessibility options for your patrons, a low-budget alternative is leaning further into your streaming options. This way, people with disabilities (and people all around the world) can access your content from the comfort of home.
For streaming, ensure your closed captioning and audio descriptions are top-notch, alongside creating an easy-to-navigate website, so that each patron can fully enjoy your showcase.
No one knows how to better serve people with disabilities than, well, people with disabilities themselves. Make an effort to hire or consult with people with disabilities as you begin your efforts to further accessibility.
They will bring a much-needed perspective to your efforts, as well as invaluable insight into just how worthwhile the changes you’re making really are.
Relaxed performance – an approach to performance that challenges what have developed as strict expectations and codes for audience and performer engagement and behavior – is making theatre and other types of live performance more accessible for those with disabilities.
Consider offering a sensory friendly performance as well, which alters a show slightly to make it easier to enjoy for those with sensory processing disorders.
By forming strong relationships with local organizations, you have created an in-roads to forming relationships with people you want to hire or cast in your shows.
Becoming a familiar, friendly, and welcoming face to these organizations is a great way to ramp up inclusivity and gain insight into how you can better your program.
You cannot be a strong advocate or ally for people with disabilities unless you do the work to make it so. Consider offering sensitivity training or educational seminars to your employees about properly engaging in dialogue about ableism and/or persons with disabilities.
Embrace the fact that you will make mistakes along the road. But by making an effort to educate yourself and become a better ally, you, your employees, and your program will be better off.
It’s never too late to educate yourself about ableism, inclusivity, and how to better serve people with disabilities. We offer a few links to start on your research!
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990 and is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. The ADA National Network provides information, guidance, and training on how to implement the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in order to support the mission of the ADA to “assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”
National Disability Theatre employs professional theatre artists who create fully accessible, world-class theatre and storytelling; changes social policy and the nation’s narrative about disability culture; and provides a guiding model in accessibility for the arts and cultural sector.
AAPD is the largest, national, nonprofit, cross-disability member organization in the United States, dedicated to ensuring economic self-sufficiency and political empowerment for the more than 50 million Americans with disabilities. AAPD works in coalition with other disability organizations for the full implementation and enforcement of disability nondiscrimination laws, particularly the ADA of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Founded in 1967, NTD has a long and rich history as a national and international performing arts organization. NTD pioneered a dual language theatre concept, creating a hybrid of American Sign Language with spoken English that has been seen in all fifty states in the U.S., in thirty-three countries, and on all seven continents throughout the world. Over its 50+ years, NTD has appeared and performed on Broadway, the Disney Channel, on Sesame Street, at the White House, and before luminaries and dignitaries the world over.
Phamaly Theatre Company’s mission is to be a creative home for theatre artists with disabilities; to model a disability-affirmative theatrical process; and to upend conventional narratives by transforming individuals, audiences, and the world.
The bottom line is, we in the theatre world are known for our inclusivity – so it’s time to make good on that reputation. As you plan upcoming shows, work harder than ever to create a space that welcomes everyone.