- Acting Access
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In some ways, all of us are disabled. Limited vision and wheelchair dependency are simply two of myriad ways in which an actor can experience delays between immediate reality and desired achievement. From this perspective, the integration of actors with motor, developmental, visual, auditory and emotional disabilities into theatre programs is attainable. Access is a basic human right. And it is now the law. 1
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires “reasonable accommodation,” which involves making existing facilities accessible as well as restructuring activities for full participation (Lathim ERC Lecture). Educational theatres delaying implementation may face serious legal reprisals by 1997, when a five-year “grace period” ends. 2 The ADA requires elimination of architectural, economic, and—perhaps most importantly—attitudinal discrimination. Once ramps, elevators, and wide doors are installed, the vital process of human integration begins.
At the 1995 ATHE conference, a session designed to prepare the uninitiated to incorporate students with disabilities was attended solely by those who already had experiences in such integration. Participants shared stories of significant disruption to their classes and rehearsals, due in part to a lack of resources and training. Most were seeking assistance for future encounters. The absence of those who had not yet experienced such challenges suggests a general lack of awareness regarding the impending need to integrate, respectfully and efficiently, a potentially significant number of disabled students who may soon enroll for acting training. The time for preparation is now.
An expert acting teacher may be a novice in the world of disability. Both the expert acting teacher and the theatre novice may be disturbed when a student with a disability, already integrated without incident into largely static lecture classes and campus organizational meetings, experiences difficulty in hyperactive acting classes and productions. Acting may involve more changes in activity, spatial configuration, and demands on the senses than any other campus context. Accommodation challenges abound in acting. [End Page 1]
The following information is offered to help educators move past fear and ignorance toward creative collaboration. The most beneficial assistance for this study came through interviews with the personnel of theatre programs working specifically with disability. Producing plays by, for, and about persons with disabilities is standard practice for the following founding directors and their companies: Access Theatre of Santa Barbara (Rod Lathim); CLIMB—Creative Learning Ideas for Mind and Body (Peg Wetli); National Theatre of the Deaf (David Hays and Mary Swizer); National Workshop of the Handicapped (Rick Curry); and Imagination Theatre (Warren Baumgart). All repeatedly prove Baumgart’s assertion that “imagination is never a disabled organ” (personal interview). 3
We approached the above resource persons, asking specifically for insights regarding educational theatre and the accommodation process. 4 In this essay, we will address the following issues: 1) Disability Myths—so many are accepted that initial steps involve simple awareness; 2) Disability Etiquette—preferred modes of learnable interaction define this community as sharply as any culture; 3) Space Specifications—handbooks provide guidelines for examining and altering the facility; 4) Training Seminars—issues can be confronted in advance through role playing; 5) Analysis Tools—seemingly insurmountable tasks can be broken down into workable, intention-based steps; 6) Networking—others sharing similar experiences can offer essential assistance; 7) Ensemble Building—ice-breaking activities prove particularly vital where participants are differently able-bodied; 8) Rehearsal and Performance—access perspectives are crucial to re-thinking the acting space and rehearsal process.
One of the most common disability myths is that the disabled person deeply envies and would give anything to join the able-bodied. Far more often, the coping process has involved cultivating pride in the uniqueness of the condition and a denial of the able-bodied as in any way superior (Paraquad 3).
Another myth involves the expectation that...