Invisible Disability in Theatre
Why I May Not Want to Tell You I Have a Disability
Working in the theatre with an invisible disability can be challenging. While most buildings have a ramp to allow a person who uses a wheelchair to get into the building and there may be handrails in the bathroom for patrons with mobility challenges, an artist with an invisible disability like my Tourettes Syndrome (TS) or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) doesn’t need a change to a physical structure. Instead I need accessibility into people’s minds. However since my disabilities are “invisible,” how are theatre administrators or directors supposed to know that I have a disability or the kinds of accommodations that I need? The simple answer is that I have to tell them. This means that the minute I’m hired or brought into a project it would be ideal to have a discussion with all of the producers about my symptoms, my limitations, and the types of accommodations that I need. That meeting is the scariest meeting that someone like me will ever have with a superior, though. Disclosing my disability can be one of the most dangerous things I do professionally, and could cause me discrimination that I may have never have gotten otherwise. There is always the temptation to not tell anyone the type of disorder that I have and go on as if I’m perfectly “normal.” There are some very big reasons why I would be afraid to disclose my disability to any theatre administrator.
Disclosing my disability can be one of the most dangerous things I do professionally, and could cause me discrimination that I may have never have gotten otherwise.
First, there really is no recourse for any administrator or director who refuses a job to an artist with an invisible disability. There is a law against discrimination, but it's very hard to prove. A lot of decisions in the theatre are artistic decisions and the majority of artistic decisions are subjective, relying solely on the tastes of the director or producer. It's perfectly acceptable to judge by someone's looks if they’re right for a role. As a designer or playwright, you have to submit work to see if it matches the theatre company’s aesthetic. That foundational unwritten rule of the business means that any decision not to hire someone can be justified as “not fitting the aesthetic” of the company or production. For a theatre artist with a disability it means that if I disclose in an interview or audition that I have TS I have no guarantees that the director won’t throw my resume away immediately. I would never be able to prove that I was discriminated against because all the director has to say is that I just “wasn’t right for the role.”
Even if I get past the audition or interview stage, I still have reason to be afraid to disclose. It could lead to undue harassment or exclusion on the job. The worst part is that that harassment is often disguised as concern for me. The easiest example is my vocal tics. My TS makes me swear and use racial epithets involuntarily on top of other loud noises unless I take my medication to suppress it. If I tell a director or producer that I take medication for this, that could give them free reign to say, “Did you take your medicine?” after any moderate to loud noise I make. Am I nervous and jittery about a project? Did I trip over something and am mad that it was left in the middle of the hallway? Instead of having legitimate emotions, I could be written off because someone thinks I’m “off my meds.” Even if you’re legitimately concerned, know that artists with invisible disabilities come with personality quirks, too. Medication doesn’t stop me from being human.
That concern can keep me from doing my job in other ways. As a theatre artist I often have to come into contact with patrons or be within earshot of the audience. If I disclose to you that I have TS or let you know that my OCD gives me anxiety around people, you may feel the need to keep me away from patrons as much as possible. You may be afraid that my TS will make me say the wrong thing and offend a patron. You may want to save me from my anxiety. Both of those things keep me from doing my job that you hired me to do. If I am a professional who has been dealing with my disorders for years, I have learned several coping mechanisms for how to get over my anxiety to get my job done. If I didn’t think that I could do this job, I wouldn’t have applied.
The best accommodation you could give me is trust. Trust me that I know my limits and responsibilities. Include me in everything, and know that my first line of defense against discrimination is you. I would have no problem talking with administrators about my disability if they had a proven track record of rewarding artists who do their job no matter what their disability. They also need to back that up in public by defending their staff members with disabilities to patrons who take offense. Accessibility starts at the top of the chain. I want to know that when I’m doing my job, you’ll support me. Let’s do what it takes to trust each other and start the discussion.