Theatre-ing While Disabled
As a thought exercise, I recently tallied up the theatrical hats I’ve worn in my adult life, and I came up with a whopping twenty distinct job titles. It’s possible there are some I can’t recall at the moment. (“Telemarketing Representative” was the most recent addition to the list. I may have blocked that memory.) My early professional experience was as an actor, and my latter work has mostly been as an administrator. In between, I’ve worked front-of-house, back-of-house, in the audience as an industry-awards adjudicator, from home as a playwright and dramaturg, and from the bar as an audience engagement specialist.
In this series, I’ll give you the run-down of some of these job titles, ranking them on a scale of zero to five canes for their level of disability awesomeness. My criterion is, 'How likely am I to recommend this position to a cane-walking friend?'
In each of these assignments, I was participating in the theatre as a person with a disability. For the bulk of my career, I was not “out” as disabled, did not usually appear to have any physical difficulties, and rarely, if ever, asked for an accommodation. In later positions, I started walking with a cane and became a more vocal advocate for accessibility. I have a unique perspective as someone who’s not only worked in almost every area of the theatre, in organizations big and small, but as someone who’s worked on both sides of visible disability.
In this series, I’ll give you the run-down of some of these job titles, ranking them on a scale of zero to five canes for their level of disability awesomeness. My criterion is, “How likely am I to recommend this position to a cane-walking friend?” Ideally, the series will be useful for anyone who wants to make our industry more inclusive or to get the best work out of their employees.
Some positions had artificial barriers to success, and some had necessary obstacles. Some jobs had no barriers at all. In all of these positions, I’ve gained a clear sense of what I would like to see us change as a theatre community. I’ve also got insider information on what positions my non-disabled counterparts should look for on the day when their knees inevitably go out. I can speak to the high level of anxiety that comes with trying to “pass” as physically-able, or worrying about whether I’ll be able to do the job I’ve been tasked with doing, or worrying about the perception that I won’t be able to do a job I’m perfectly capable of.
I have a mobility disability as well as a neurological/pain disorder, so my experience is necessarily limited to this perspective. I don’t want to pretend to be aware of the experience of the rest of the disability community. There are some experiences, such as implicit bias, which likely affect everyone with a disability to some degree. There are other experiences where I’ll have no overlap with other groups of theatre artists with disabilities unless we happen to share a diagnosis.
I bring this up not to invalidate my expertise on the topic of Theatre-ing While Disabled, but to acknowledge that people with disabilities vary wildly as individuals. I find HowlRound readers to be more thoughtful than most about avoiding generalizations and stereotypes, so, yes, you already know this. But I do find it interesting that people with disabilities are sometimes the only person like them that they know. “Disability Community” is a thing that you kind of have to find and/or build, rather than the place you might be from. In contrast, as an Irish-American (née McDermott), I have kinfolk with whom to lament the state of my huge Irish head and the difficult task of finding a properly fitting hat. (Generalizations! Seriously though, hats are a challenge.) But there’s no one else from my origin story with whom I can talk about where to find a stylish cane. (The answer to that struggle, by the way, is Top & Derby. I have The Chatfield in blue.) To find community, I have to either go to the Internet or wait for my non-disabled friends to get diagnosed with MS.
I also want to acknowledge that I experience disability with a ton of social privilege. I’m a youngish, super-white, straight-presenting, cis-gendered, minimally disabled-looking lady. There is a bucketful of regular challenges faced by disabled people of color that I don’t personally encounter. Further, I have received the dubious compliment that I’m not “the scary kind of disabled.” I’m still not totally sure what that means, but it seems important if we’re going to aim for a meaningful conversation about obstacles for success for theatre practitioners with disabilities. I get a lot of well-intended “I don’t even consider you disabled!” I’m not sure what this one means either, but it also seems like an important data point.
In short, I can’t speak on behalf of all Disabled America, but I can tell you the some good stories about one white lady with a spine thing.
I hope you enjoy the forthcoming recounting of my adventures, obstacles, and elements of the absurd I’ve encountered as I’ve made a life for myself in the theatre. And I hope that if your experience varies wildly from mine, you’ll write about it.