Disablility and Inclusion in the Arts

The arts in general and theatre in particular are built upon inclusiveness. The creative collaboration that goes into a show, and the requisite interest and attention of an audience to that show, form a symbiotic relationship – an artist cannot exist without an audience, nor without the inspiration and assistance of his or her fellow artists. As a result, inclusiveness for the dis-abled (or differently-abled, as is fast becoming the politically correct term) should follow naturally, and it can be achieved in many different ways. Unfortunately, the arts still have a ways to go.

Inclusion does not mean a harmony role in the back line of the chorus, a volunteer job at the box office counter, or a great view from the wheel-chair accessible portions of the auditorium. It can mean these things, of course, but for true inclusiveness mere accomodation is not enough. True inclusiveness means empowerment in the process, some measure of control over the form and content of what is being presented, and most importantly a voice that is expressed in the final product.

A revealing, shocking, graphic example of that voice can be found in David E. Freeman’s critically acclaimed Canadian play Creeps. Freeman has cerebral palsy, and the characters in the play have a similar condition – a physical impairment that could easily be mistaken for a mental one. It takes place in the bathroom of a publicly-funded shelter-workshop, where these men are suffocating under the “goodwill” of the Canadian social safety net.

The characters are at times rude, vulgar, foul-mouthed, macabre and violent. They are angry, depressed, and eager to lash out at the system that is ostensibly trying to help them, but in reality is just exacerbating their suffering and alienation from the rest of the world. It screams out for a new way forward – accommodation without isolation, assistance without the loss of self-respect, and genuine acceptance in the place of state-sponsored gestures of goodwill. Given that the play was written in the early 1970’s it seems reasonable, albeit a bit hopeful, to suggest that some improvement must have taken place since then.

His own experience was what one man with cerebral palsy chose to write about, when he was empowered with the voice to do it. Another differently-abled person might choose to give their voice to their own experience, or perhaps not. The medium of theatre has become one of only a few cross-cultural tools of empowerment that many diverse communities are using to make their voices heard: queer, feminist, aboriginal, immigrant and post-colonial. Why not the differently-abled as well?

Sadly the arts still have some catching up to on inclusiveness. Even university theatre programs are finding it a challenge to live up to “color-blind” casting policies, as they try to remove race from their audition criteria. How willing are they to cast a wheel-chair bound Hamlet, or Juliet who suffers from Turrets?

While there may be significant challenges involved in accommodation, and even more in empowerment, the rewards of doing so are tremendous. Think of how different our understanding of the universe would be if the legendary physicist Stephen Hawking had been relegated to a shelter workshop like the characters in Creeps – something that would have almost certainly been the case not too many years ago. The arts have only to embark on their quest for inclusivity with the same energy as the scientific community to open themselves up to new opportunities, new creative forces, and new rich, dynamic communities.

A few years ago a high school mounted a production of the stage version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. As usual, they were a little short on male actors at the auditions, and were forced to cast a student from their special education program in the role of Lionel Mueller, the village sherrif. Both the director and the rest of the cast were considerably worried about this student’s ability to remember his lines, maintain his concentration onstage, and deliver a solid performance. Admittedly, the boy was a bit shaky at the first few rehearsals. But then came March Break, and there were no rehearsals for over a week. At the first rehearsal back the rest of the cast looked rusty, but the boy was rock solid. Not only did he know his lines to the letter, he delivered them with greater polish and passion than anyone could even come close to. Much to the director’s delight, his blocking was also meticulously perfect – all the accommodation he had needed was a week’s vacation.

By opening night, when the rest of the cast was going crazy with their own personal dramas, he was still perfect, a rock of support for the entire production.