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Disability and Management

Nicole Kelly and Jenn Poret are two examples of leaders with disabilities. They are both arts managers who also wear a variety of hats in other aspects of their lives. Nicole is a former Miss Iowa, podcast host, educational lecturer, and limb-difference awareness advocate, while Jenn is a freelance stage manager, swimmer, and a founding member of a health and wellness group in her community called Geese Revolution. In this article, Jenn and Nicole brainstorm and discuss the various ways their disability identities intersect with their roles as managers, as well as the advantages and challenges that come with the territory.

Getting started in theatre management

Jenn: I majored in theatre, and then, fourteen and a half years ago, I became the booking coordinator at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (MVCPA), where the responsibilities are similar to those of theatre management. While I do not oversee or manage any employees directly, I am the unofficial stage manager of the office, keeping everyone on schedule and knowing a little bit of what everyone does so I can answer clients’ questions. I am the first point of contact for anyone who wishes to book the MVCPA, and I also oversee our visual arts program, which places art in our lobby. On top of this, I started a sensory-friendly program for some of the performances.

I also work as a stage manager for local productions on the side, and I enjoy being the person everyone comes to with questions for how things are going in the various departments. I like watching a production grow from the first meeting all the way to closing, helping maintain someone else’s artistic vision along the way—which is nice since I do not consider myself very creative.

Nicole: I studied directing and theatre management in college. I knew I wanted to be part of the theatre world professionally but was unsure how I fit into it. I was born missing my left hand, and I never saw people like me onstage. I decided to explore the management side of the industry. Turns out I love organization and Excel spreadsheets—I am a complete checklist geek. I feel great purpose when I am allowed to organize people and things, and it’s even better when the thing I am organizing has heart and meaning. Theatre is the perfect place for that.

a person speaking in front of an audience

Nikki at a speaking engagement at the University of Missouri.

The most accessible parts of my job 

Jenn: My job requires me to sit at a desk for the majority of the day. As a Little Person (my type of dwarfism is called Pseudoachondroplasia), sitting allows me to keep my joints happy by not overtasking them with a lot of walking or standing. The days I do need to walk around a lot, my coworkers have been very supportive. If they see me sitting down when I “shouldn’t” be, they will ask how they can help. They are also always willing to help reach high things for me, and my employer has been great about allowing me to stash stepstools in various spaces so that I do not have to carry one with me everywhere I go. Over the years, I have had several people higher up in the organization ask about ways they could help make my job more comfortable, including offering me a desk that moves up and down, lower chairs, and more stepstools. They’ve also expressed interest in exploring ways our patrons could have easier access to the theatre.

Suddenly adding something like technology to your body takes a very strange emotional toll.

Nicole: In my adult life, prosthetics have gone through big advancements. Many people who grew up without using them are now giving them a try, and those who had written them off in the past are turning to them again. Given that technology is approaching Star Wars–esque levels, two years ago I decided I wanted to try wearing a prosthetic again, integrating a very cool, very advanced bionic hand into my life. My coworkers have mostly been very supportive of my transition into using a prosthetic arm.

Suddenly adding something like technology to your body takes a very strange emotional toll. While the change is usually a good thing, some days it’s hard. Having supportive friends and coworkers who don’t make a big deal out of the days I do or do not wear a prosthetic has made my transition into using one much easier. Also, people like to help me carry things, and I never refuse. With a robot hand or not, I always graciously accept the help of my two-handed friends.

The least accessible parts of my job

Jenn: The MVCPA is a division of the Community Services Department for the City of Mountain View, California, and therefore part of the services the City provides to the community. Working at a government entity, processes seem to move at a slower pace. Making changes requires time to ensure that the change is really the best option for everyone, including those potentially involved later on. I don’t know that this is an accessibility issue more than an all-people issue, but it can be frustrating when you want a project done now.

Nicole: I work in a corporate setting, so there is a demand for high performance and there is never grace when it comes to needing or taking time off for appointments. The process to get a prosthetic requires many visits to a prosthetist’s office and being there for long days, as prosthetics are custom-fit to each person. This requires a lot of time and a lot of special attention. Going to visit my prosthetist is a very time-consuming process and one that happens over several months. I have to use my vacation time for these appointments, even though they are a completely necessary part of my life.

Day-to-day accommodations

Jenn: I have two stepstools at my desk, one for computer work and one for desk work with clients. I also need to make sure everything under both desks is clear since I need to pull myself in very close to the computer keyboard to accommodate my short arms. There are stepstools in other City buildings as well, so I have a footrest at meetings without having to carry one with me, which frees my hands up for documents or supplies.

Nicole: I always need to have lotion on me. Depending on my task, I take my hand on and off throughout the day. I have to have lotion in order to put my hand back on, so you will find mini bottles tucked into the corners of any space I occupy.

I want anyone who has a disability to know that they can do the work, and they shouldn’t hold back just because they don’t currently see someone who is like them in their dream role.

The disability advantage

Jenn: My disability makes me a better manager; I am memorable and can sometimes bring in business because someone remembers seeing me at another event in the community. Many times the clients I’ve worked with have never collaborated with a Little Person, and I like representing my community in that way because I can help educate others that Little People can do everything average-height people can. I am also used to multitasking—whether it’s managing my pain, planning my workout schedule, getting to and from meetings, or organizing my email inbox, I know how to focus and get things done, one way or another.

Nicole: I am memorable, too! Hopefully for the right reasons. When I was younger, I didn’t want to be known for my limb difference, but the older I get, the more I realize how the different parts of myself are all intertwined. Being a good advocate, a good educational lecturer, and a good manager are all connected, and they all use the same skills. I wish I had embraced my own disability identity earlier, proudly claiming my limb difference. Asking for what I need has made me a better employee and a better human.

a person standing in front of a gateway

Nikki before a speaking engagement at the University of Northern Iowa.

The future of accessible theatre management

Jenn: I want anyone who has a disability to know that they can do the work, and they shouldn’t hold back just because they don’t currently see someone who is like them in their dream role. Go after your dream; be that person for someone else. Share the love of theatre with all! Help to make it inclusive from the top down so that is part of the norm, not just a “diversity” box to tick for companies.

Nicole: I cannot wait for a standardized “accessibility checklist” to be released for theatrical spaces—and for this to be the norm. I image this checklist to include ways to make performances in theatres accessible: having CART options, interpreters, touch tours, and sensory-friendly performances. But also I imagine this checklist to include education and resources for employees, as well as encourage companies to offer ramps in the workspace, push doors, and parking spaces with appropriate accessibility! I also cannot wait for attitudes to change around the idea of taking extra time and energy to care for disability needs. Tools we use are not a luxury, and I want others to understand that.

Thoughts from the curators

Accessible and inclusive theatre is not new. Nevertheless, more often than not, theatre companies today that are striving to include the disability community do so by welcoming disabled actors to their stages and disabled audiences to their performances. Yet there are dozens of jobs, on stage and off, beyond performers and patrons. In this series, a variety of disabled theatre artists: managers, designers, producers, and dramaturgs, will share how they do their work, as well as their vision for an accessible future in professional theatre. This series is curated by National Disability Theatre, which believes disabled artists and artisans are an asset to any theatrical process or production.

The Future of Theatre is Accessible

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