Imagine sitting in an audience in a theatre, waiting for a musical to start. The lights go up and a cheerful song starts playing. Actors cluster onto the stage, and you notice something rather unusual. Some of the performers are in wheelchairs, some are using other aids, and some are only using sign language. You look around at the audience and notice them beaming, wiping tears of happiness and trying to copy the signs of the song lyrics. This unique form of theatre has not stolen any of the magic of live performance, and I am happy to tell you this picture exists outside your imagination. I am one of the actors that has seen it firsthand.
The moment I described was created by ShedHelsinki, an inclusive theatre organization in Finland inspired by Chickenshed from London, England. During my years with ShedHelsinki, I vividly remember hearing the phrase “this is not disability theatre.” This was the first time for many of my peers to be included and treated as equals both on stage and in rehearsals. What ultimately breaks my heart is knowing that for many of these individuals, it will be one of the very few — if not the only time — they experience that, despite their passion for theatre. They will face substantially more obstacles than their able-bodied peers in creating a career in performing arts due to a lack of inclusivity and accessibility. Disabled people deserve better.
Disabled Actors Exist, Stop Ignoring Them
Currently, disability representation in performing arts is minimal. One in four American adults has a disability of some kind, making them the largest minority in the country, yet they are also the least represented in the performing arts field: Ninety-five percent of disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors. A vast number of actors and actresses have won an Oscar for portraying a character with a disability, but only two actors with the same disabilities as their characters have been awarded.
Broadway’s recent productions of “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” “Richard III,” “The Miracle Worker,” and “The Elephant Man” all casted able-bodied actors to play the main character who has a physical disability. Further, many of these actors are celebrities. “Wicked,” during its 15-year run, has not cast an actress with physical disabilities to play Nessarose, who uses a wheelchair to get around. Similarly, “Newsies” character Crutchie, who uses a crutch for his limping, has never been played by an actor with the same condition. Paying more attention to casting a disabled actor for these roles whenever possible would not only level the playing field for the currently overlooked group, but also make the character portrayal in those works more credible.
At the very least, disabled actors should be offered the opportunity to play characters with the same condition. However, we shouldn’t reduce their options to just these roles. Teal Sherer, an actress and wheelchair user, discussed in an interview with the HPR how disabled people should be considered for roles other than those that are disability-specific: “Why can’t I play the mother, the lawyer or the teacher, because those are all things that I could be in real life? We’re often not seen for those roles because they feel like we’re gonna play a character to that character, and how that character has to revolve around their disability or has to be explained.” It is important that disabled actors are not overlooked in the casting process of disabled characters, and that disabled actors have the opportunity to explore various roles based on criteria other than solely whether the character was written with a disability in mind.
Disability should be considered an important perspective in the artwork, but also recognize that the disabled individuals have more to give than their disability. Filmmaker, theatremaker and disability arts advocate Emily Dash shared in an interview with the HPR that although her disability will always impact her work, there needs to be more opportunities for disabled artists to experience and produce art from a wider perspective. In addition, she recognizes the importance of intersectional identities: “[Experiences of] queer disabled people, black disabled people, trans disabled people and others deserve to be authentically represented in the performing arts.” Dash noted that, despite being the most underrepresented group in performing arts, disabled people are statistically more likely to engage in the field. Thus, ableism in the arts field cuts off a range of individuals keen on engaging with it. There is a lot of talent offered by disabled artists, which audiences will never be able to see as long as disabled people are deprived of their opportunities to present their work.
The prevalence of ableist ideology is especially problematic in theater. Disabled characters are too often portrayed in the narrative of villainy, where disabilities are depicted as something that needs to be cured in order to give a story a happy ending. Disability is seen from a negative perspective and many stories of disabled people are told by those around them and focus on the “burden” the disabled person gives them. Another typical way to use disabled characters in works of art is for inspiration porn, where disabled people are not seen as equal, but serve solely as inspiration and a reminder for the able-bodied to be grateful for their abilities. Disabled people are pitied and treated as “heroes” for merely completing everyday life tasks on their own. This current prevalent ideology disallows disabled people to be viewed as equally competent artists as their able-bodied colleagues. We need to not only have disabled artists on stage, but also include them equally.
In an interview with the HPR, Louise Perry, managing director of Chickenshed discussed inclusion practices: “It’s not okay for just someone to be in the room, but they have to have a genuine sense and realization of achievement. Once you have reached those people, what are you going to do to make sure that the processes and the policies and the practice that they’re involved in is as effective of all their abilities as it should be if you’re going to go down the route of diversity to stop it just be a box-ticking exercise?” Including disabled people in plays just as tokens and for inspiration porn happens far too often. This needs to be acknowledged and action must be taken so that managers and directors will learn how to avoid the situation.
Open the Spaces
In addition to lack of representation, physical accessibility poses a problem for disabled actors. As always, it is imperative to remember that disability is not a monolith. Even people within the same disability category may seek different accommodations. For instance, not all deaf individuals want subtitles in theatre shows, and wheelchair users have different levels of motion abilities. Mental disorders like autism are spectrums, meaning that symptoms vary vastly within the individuals and they can even manifest as polar opposites in different individuals on the spectrum. In addition to having an inclusive attitude, the performing arts field should rely on experts in order to best accommodate differing needs and make their spaces welcoming.
At the moment, disabled artists have fewer performance options due to accessibility concerns. Dash commented, “I can make theatre work but my options in which to tour outside of its original creation are more limited than a non-disabled person’s simply because a lot of smaller independent venues are not accessible.”
Similarly, Sherer shared her experiences of having had to audition in places like alleyways and parking lots with trucks driving by when the casting offices have not been accessible. Older theater buildings especially have frequent accessibility issues, and spaces like backstage, bathrooms, dressing room and access to enter the stage often present difficulties for disabled performers.
Even audience access is limited in many theaters., the spaces for the audience are often more accessible than for the performers, there are still accessibility issues. Dash noted that “if we can’t experience arts as consumers fully then how can we ever hope to properly be represented in it.” Many smaller venues still lack adequate seats for wheelchair users, and many performances lack captioning or other required aid for deaf members of the audience. With current technology, solutions can be created, but this issue needs to be acknowledged and prioritized for that to happen.
What To Do Next
While there is still work to be done, there have been many positive changes that can guide future development. When Sherer was starring in the Canadian premiere of “Cost of Living” by Martyna Majok, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, an accessibility consultant was hired. The assistance of this consultant allowed Sherer to focus on her performance without worrying about accessibility. Further, while more recently built spaces are often more accessible, Sherer told the HPR that before performing in Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, the theatre received a grant for accessible renovations. Sherer has also noticed more audition postings including an encouragement note for disabled actors to audition and notify the company for accessibility requirements: “Knowing that people are open and willing to include you is huge, because as an actor with a disability it is nerve racking [when] you see a posting for an audition and think whether the theatre accessible and the audition phase are going to be accessible, and whether they are going to be open to it.”
In addition to the accessibility consultant, “Cost of Living” has been showing other signs of change. Two of the four characters are disabled, and in the beginning of the script Majok requested casting actors with the same disabilities for those roles. Sherer says that these kinds of statements are a major step since disabled actors are rarely acknowledged in casting processes. This example shows that there are indeed feasible solutions for the problem of underrepresentation and inaccessibility. They just need to be adopted by more people and organizations in the arts field.
Dash added that it is crucial to make sure that attitudes are inclusive in creating opportunities for artists with disabilities: “valuing those [artists] and creating leadership roles [for them] and making sure people are valued accordingly to their work which means things like paid employment, but also things like work being reviewed to the same standards of an equitable non-disabled performance.” Disabled artists don’t only deserve to have some space to work on, but to be held to the same standard as their able-bodied colleagues.
According to Perry, Chickenshed’s policies are seeking to ensure that participation is active and that the mission is spread by positive means: “We have a lot of young people who have experienced discrimination in social justice that come to us, and through their performances on our self-advocacy platform to go back into their communities and demonstrate what making good and strong choices can do in changing the minds of other young people like them.” Giving a platform and showing value for those who may have lacked that in the past is a powerful tool in changemaking: “We are able to demonstrate the causative of ‘look what you’re missing if you don’t allow inclusion to really be embraced by everyone within the community.’” By following Chickenshed’s example of providing more inclusive spaces in performing arts, artists are given room for effective self-advocacy which can create major changes in the field.
As such, there are multiple solutions already invented to make performing arts more accessible and diverse which must be more widely promoted than they are now. We need theatre buildings that are accessible for both audiences and actors, we need disabled characters played by disabled actors and even more importantly, we need disabled actors to be able to expand their horizons and play any other character as well. We need performing arts to be a field where everyone has value, and when we do that, we send a bigger message to society as a whole to alter current injustices.
There has been a huge movement towards more diversity, but disability is often too much overlooked. Disability can affect anyone at any point of their lives, so it is beneficial to everyone to have performing arts as a field of inclusion. Art has compelling power and the field offers a major platform for presenting impactful work. When we allow disabled artists to strive for excellence and succeed on the field, they are finally able to tell their own stories with their own voices, thus becoming a natural part of performing arts and discouraging the current view of their inferiority in society.