Wheelchair Ramp to Your Heart
Living with an Invisible Disability in the Arts
I am really happy that with the advent of Spring Awakening on Broadway we are having a much needed conversation about how performers with disabilities are excluded from the arts. As an artist with a disability, I feel that it is vital. But for a good chunk of the disabled population, it still may not be enough. I have three “invisible disabilities,” which are exactly what they sound like. They are disabilities that debilitate someone, but aren’t really apparent to the outside world. I was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome (TS), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). What I found is that people who you would never think of denying a job to a theatre artist in a wheelchair, can commit discrimination against an artist with an invisible disability without even knowing it.
Why does this happen? Well for the most part, they don’t even know they have such a person standing right in front of them. That’s where the invisible half of the term comes into play. So if the disability is invisible how could someone possibly discriminate against it? They see the symptoms, but think it's something else. A lot of the body tics, vocalizations, and behaviors my TS and other disorders make me perform don’t look like I have a disorder. They look like everyday behaviors or actions that occur frequently, or at weird times.
Accommodations for most performers with disabilities come in the form of renovations to a physical structure. Accommodations for people with invisible disabilities require a change to an internal people structure.
My worst offender is a throat-clearing tic I've had since high school that makes it sound like I’m laughing. This tic is all well and good if you think I’m a guy with a great sense of humor, but what if I was making this sound onstage during a time that calls for quiet? What would you do? The very first backstage job I had in a high school play I was replaced because my theatre teacher told me that she could hear me from the audience and that could be distracting. She told me that because of my Tourette’s I most likely was never going to get a position backstage again. So then I started auditioning for shows onstage. Then, she started talking about my nervous energy (read “body tics making my hands and legs shake.”) I had one role with her and she told me that unless I could control my vocal tics so that she couldn’t hear them, she would have to cut me from the show.
In my first two years of college, I would get a lot of remarks about how I would look nervous or that I stammered on a line in auditions. I spent a lot of extra time in the studio doing movement exercises to hone my skills, but it was a struggle. While working tech for a show, I was often told to turn my headset off because of my “heavy breathing” (read: throat clearing tics). It was always more convenient for people throughout my entire career to believe that maybe I just didn’t have the talent for what was required of me, or that I was being a jerk; most of the time I didn’t bother to tell them any different.
So, why didn’t I just sit people down and let them know that I had a disorder and that these things weren’t my fault? Most of the people that I did tell at first would just shrug their shoulders and wonder what that had to do with them. My theatre teacher in high school, an expat from off-off Broadway in New York with her husband, was way more interested in making professional level theatre than working with me. Also most people with disorders like this come from a background of bullying, or people thinking that we’re making it up. We’re usually too scared to speak up.
At the end of my undergrad career, I gave a speech in front of a mixed crowd of students and professors about this very issue. In that speech, I said that I was determined not to call in sick because of my disorders, or to ask for any accommodations. I believed that either no one would believe me, or that I was just putting a target on my back. One of my professors approached me and told me that she was hurt that I felt that way. She wanted to assure me that if I had come to them from the beginning I would not have had so much of a struggle. I told her that I had never seen any reason why they would when so many other students I had seen with mild cases of autism, problems fitting in, or ADHD not even getting as far as I did. They had an office of disability affairs at the school to help you with class work, and an elevator, and wheelchair ramps all over the building, but I had never seen anything from them that made me think that they would make their programs more accessible for me and people like me.
I spent my entire undergrad career trying to act as “normal” as possible and not ask for help. Accommodations for most performers with disabilities come in the form of renovations to a physical structure. Accommodations for people with invisible disabilities require a change to an internal people structure. I need a wheelchair ramp into your heart and mind. I can sense the moment I walk into a room if you are willing to see past my tics and body and see the brain and talent that built the resume that I have. Accessibility for someone like me can be as simple as believing that I have a problem doing something that you think is normal. It could be as simple as knowing that even though it takes me a long time to say something, I actually have something important to say. And to remember, most importantly, that I may not really be laughing.