Disability Stage Right: A Podcast

This past summer I applied for, and got, a Canada Council for the Arts Digital Originals grant; these grants were designed to help live performance artists pivot their practice to a digital form, in the face of the pandemic.

For me, it offered an opportunity to engage with artists with disabilities, and record and share their experiences, advice and hopes–and importantly, pay them to do so.

And, so, Disability Stage Right Podcast was born.

We’ll be linking all the episodes, and our social media, on Disability Stage Right Podcast Page which you can find by clicking anywhere on this coloured sentence.

Disability Stage Right (DSR) is a podcast about putting artists, access and disability on stage, right. DSR examines access to, and the barriers faced in, training, physical spaces and attitudes in theatre and performance through interviews and discussions with incredible Canadian artists with disabilities. It is fun, informative and covers a range of topics through conversation with from artists across Canada.
Season One guests include:
Debbie Patterson
James Sanders
Prince Amponsah
Isaac Vint and Trish Cooper
Christa Couture

Andrew Gurza (who is also our podcast mentor)

Bear Witness Day

What is Bear Witness Day?

From the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society Website:

“May 10 is Spirit Bear’s birthday and an important date in the history of Jordan’s Principle* at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. The Tribunal’s first non-compliance order called for Canada to fully implement Jordan’s Principle by May 10, 2016. Unfortunately, it took several more years and many non-compliance orders (September 2016May 2017, November 2017) against Canada before any real progress was made.

Jordan’s Principle (www.jordansprinciple.ca) is a child first principle and legal rule named in memory of Jordan River Anderson. It ensures First Nations children receive the services and supports they need when they need them.”

Bear Witness Day seems like a fitting day to finally truly recommit to this blog, with a slightly adjusted focus (and explain where my time and attention has been that has taken my focus away from the topics I originally created this blog to address).  In brief, I have been doing a lot of OT work with Jordan’s Principle over the last 3 years, and have been wanting to return to blogging with a slightly adjusted focus because of this work (while still also addressing issues related to inclusion and accessibility in Canadian theatre)

I did, in fact, write a post in that vein today, but I feel like it needs another while to sit, so for now I’m going to just post this as a commitment that I’m going to be back here soon–to resume writing on topics related to inclusion, accessibility and theatre (the original purpose of this blog), and one day to write about Jordan’s Principle (which has deep meaning for me).

But for now, since it is still Bear Witness Day here, I’ll end with this picture of my beloved teddy bear Heinz (trusty companion since 1983!), holding my phone, on which is a picture of my fingers holding a picture of Jordan River Anderson (from Alanis Obomsawin’s 2019 documentary Jordan River Anderson: The Messenger). An old brown and beige teddy bear, holding an iPhone, on which is a picture of fingers holding a picture of a dark haired boy in a blue chair playing with a toy sitting on a red table.

A Christmas Carol at Royal MTC: inclusive casting in action

We all want to see ourselves reflected in the art that we consume: this is just one reason that representation of people with disabilities* is important. Don’t just take it from me: what we see on stage, on TV, in books and movies informs what we imagine ourselves able to do in the future and our feelings of belonging (or not).

Right now  there is a show playing in Winnipeg that is an example of “Inclusion-in-Action”; it’s a show I was involved with, and for some reason I was not sure whether I should write about it while it was still running…until several wise friends talked sense into me!

Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre is one week into its run of A Christmas Carol. That in itself is not newsworthy; judging from my Facebook feed, there are very few cities in Canada that do not have a production of A Christmas Carol running or starting soon.

What is newsworthy, is that one of their child cast members is a boy with a disability*.

Why do I consider that newsworthy?

First of all, because I believe what I wrote in my opening line of my opening blog:
“If you are a Canadian with a disability*, there is a very tiny chance you will see yourself reflected on stage when you go to the theatre”.

Unfortunately, that is not something I just made up: it is still rare to see a disabled person–and especially a person with a lifelong disability–on a professional stage in Canada.

So, when it happens part of me really, really wants to shout it from the rooftops!

Of course, another part of me wants to be all cool and blasé about it, you know:

“Nothing to shout about here, this is just how it should be. Talented, adorable child who happens to use a wheelchair to get around most of the time has equal opportunity to get into a show as the other talented, adorable children do. This is how we roll here in our utopian society where physical impairments are not inherently disabling”.

But, honestly, we don’t live in that utopian society. Inclusion is still not something that disabled people* can take for granted. And it’s not something that people get to see very often, and if you live with physical impairments, getting to see someone who is ‘like you’, even a little bit, can be pretty important, as Myles Taylor describes in this interview with CBC from last spring.

So, I not only find this newsworthy, I find it laudable. It gives me hope for the increasing inclusiveness in our society, especially because the casting was not done to fulfill some previous vision–ie: there was no script requirement for a child with a physical impairment, and the director did not seek out a disabled child* to be in the show.

Rather, Isaac Vint–an adorable, outgoing and energetic seven year old, who happens to have Spina Bifida–happened to audition for the role.

Isaac Vint sizes up his shot: sitting in his wheelchair, holding a basketball,
Isaac Vint, photo courtesy of MB Wheelchair Sport Association

Isaac was given the same shot as everyone else, and was ultimately chosen as one of two young actors playing Tiny Tim and 3 other roles (as often happens in theatre, the child roles are double cast, with the shows being split evenly between the two casts).

In real life, Isaac uses a wheelchair to get around much of the time, though he’s also positively speedy on his hands and knees. He plays basketball and sledge hockey, and has all of the exhausting and delightful energy of any physically motivated seven year old…he just expresses his without walking or running.

After casting Isaac, MTC hired me as an accessibility consultant, to help figure out the logistics of accessibility in their not-built-to-be-universally-accessible mid-20th century building, as well as to enable the artistic team to tell the story of A Christmas Carol in the way they wanted to.

They also gave me a chance to expound on my beliefs about how well A Christmas Carol fits into the social model of understanding disability.

As the social model of disability describes, people with physical (or other) impairments face constant obstacles and barriers (attitudinal, physical, socioeconomic and otherwise), and it’s those conditions (not the physical impairment itself) which can often be the most disabling.

If you know the story of A Christmas Carol you can probably see quite quickly that it is actually a great example of the social model of disability in action: how socioeconomic factors are disabling (or potentially lethal) to Tiny Tim; Scrooge’s financial intervention is able to make a difference to that, and in fact remove or mitigate Tiny Tim’s disability.

Although in Dickens’ original story the improvement in Tiny Tim’s lot was demonstrated through his no longer needing a crutch, for people with non-fictional physical impairments, the real life-improvements don’t come from no longer needing an assistive device, but from having access to better assistive devices.

I’m proud to say that I not only got to talk with people at MTC about this way of looking at things, and they listened, and acted! I’m thrilled with the way that the artistic team embraced the core message of the Dickens’ story, and how it might look for a Tiny Tim with a permanent physical impairment (such as the Tiny Tim played by Isaac Vint).

So, although I am impressed that–even with the great push for diversity that currently exists among public funders—Royal MTC has been absolutely silent about it (as far as I can tell) in any publicity, press releases, etc, I still want to talk about it, because I do find it newsworthy.

If we don’t highlight and reward companies when they do behave inclusively, do we risk their not continuing the behaviour in the future?

And why wouldn’t we want to trumpet  the opportunity to see this kind of inclusion in action far and near?

And if we don’t acknowledge the steps taken towards inclusion, do we risk losing the momentum that could build towards creating lasting change in theatres across the country?

As Tourette’s Hero–aka Jess Thom–writes most eloquently in this excellent post  about language and the social model of disability:

It’s only if barriers are acknowledged that can they be overcome, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to get involved in removing them. It’s not a task we can ever complete – it’s a process that we should all engage in every day.

Royal MTC is actively engaged in the process of inclusion right now–such seamless, beautiful inclusion that it may not even be visible from the stage (on opening night several people wondered what my role was in the show; one person thought it was to help a typically abled child appear to have a physical disability!!)–and I for one am pretty thrilled about it, and feel it needs to be talked about, and rewarded.

And, even more importantly than rewarding the company for doing the right thing, I think the friends who talked sense into me are right: those of us who know this is going on have a duty to get the word out to those for whom seeing a person with a physical impairment represented on stage will be meaningful or important.

I have not asked Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s permission to write this post, and all the opinions and beliefs in this post are mine alone.

But just as it’s important to speak up when you see disclusion or discrimination taking place, I think it’s important to also highlight the opposite. So I am.

A Christmas Carol, adapted by Bruce McManus and directed by Steven Schipper, runs at Royal MTC in Winnipeg, Manitoba until December 16th.

*One of the things I had actually intended to write this second blog post about was how to talk about disability including the topic of whether (or when) to use “person first” language (eg:  “Person with a disability”, as I did here), or “Identity First language” (eg: Disabled person). Although I put that off as the central post for this week, here is an excellent compendium-of-personal-opinions post, and here is an excellent, scholarly blog post complete with geographical and historical facts (on one of my new favourite blogs), for those who’d like to explore the topic.

The Cratchit Family sitting around their table, Martha hiding (Cast of A Christmas Carol, Royal MTC) Photo by Dylan Hewlett Set design by Gillian Gallow, Costume design by Judith Bowden, Lighting design by Scott Henderson
The Cratchit Family; A Christmas Carol, Royal MTC 2017
L-R: Kevin Klassen, Cherissa Richards, Keenan Lehmann, Robyn Pooley, Isabel Haderer, Isaac Vint Photo by Dylan Hewlett
Set design by Gillian Gallow, Costume design by Judith Bowden, Lighting design by Scott Henderson

Welcome to Enabling Theatrics (Blog Post 1)

If you are a Canadian with a disability*, there is a very tiny chance you will see yourself reflected on stage when you go to the theatre.

If, like me, you are a person whose life includes people with disabilities*, you are equally unlikely to see the fullness of your community represented on stage (or behind the scenes, for that matter).

Why is that?

The simple answer is that people with disabilities* are greatly under-represented in professional Canadian theatre and other performance arts.

But why is that?
What can be done about it?
Why is it important for people with disabilities* to be represented on our stages and behind our scenes?
If I don’t have a disability myself, why am I writing about this?

Those are the kinds questions I want to talk and write and think about on this blog.

Besides my own take on things, I’m also excited to share blogs and news articles, and other people’s excellent ideas that are relevant to these topics (which you’ll find here).

I also hope it will become a conversation: if you are reading this and have responses, or ideas for things you’d like written about, I hope you’ll let me know.

I want to start by introducing who I am and why this all interests me.

My name is Stefanie, and I am both an occupational therapist and an actor (and writer and producer). I’ve been an OT for most of my adult life, so the theories and culture of OT itself have had a major shaping influence on me, including the way I see and experience theatre.

So, what is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational Therapy (OT) is one of the branches of medical rehabilitation. An occupational therapist’s job is to enable people to do the occupations that they want to do, need to do, or are expected to be able to do.**

When OTs talk about occupation, we mean:“…everything people do to occupy themselves, including looking after themselves (self-care), enjoying life (leisure), and contributing to the social and economic fabric of their communities (productivity)” (1, p 377).

I firmly believe—steeped in the culture of OT as I am—that each person’s ability to engage in meaningful occupations is key to making that person a happy, healthy human being.

What makes an occupation meaningful to any given person is highly personal, and idiosyncratic, and may defy logic to an outside observer as a road to health or happiness…which brings me back to my love of theatre work.

Over the years of pursuing these careers in parallel, I’ve been aware of a very uncomfortable reality: theatre is chock full of pretty daunting obstacles for people with a wide variety of disabilities* and sensory differences (including visual impairments and Deafness).

Barriers abound—from theatrical cultural traditions, to issues of physical accessibility, to the way that a theatrical education can (not) be accessed—that make it nearly impossible for a young person with a disability to get into professional theatre (more on all of this in an upcoming blog).

But what could I personally do about this? Beyond having (fruitless) conversations with people who might be in positions to influence decisions about things such as whether backstage spaces are renovated to become more accessible, I was at a bit of a loss. For years.

And then, just this past spring, I was handed just about the best gift an actor-occupational therapist could be given: the opportunity to be the accessibility consultant and backstage aide on Royal MTC’s production of Brad Fraser’s Kill Me Now, directed by Sarah Garton Stanley.

The play is about a young man with a very specific disability, and was played (for the first time ever) by an actor with a physical disability (Myles Taylor). We toured to the NAC Studio in Ottawa after playing in Winnipeg, and while we were in Ottawa, Myles and I were interviewed by Ottawa’s CBC Morning show:

Click here to listen to Myles and me talk about the experience, and related topics (it’s well worth the 7 minutes, if I do say so myself):

That experience was the beginning of a journey that included a trip to “The Republic of Inclusion” in Ottawa this June (which I will write about more in the future), and has now brought me to finally publishing my first blog post.

I say finally, because, well, I’ve been procrastinating on this for months. Truth be told…I’ve been scared to actually publish this first post, and commit to publishing more:

What if I say something wrong? Or put something in an insensitive or callous way? Or make some other mistake?

I guess the worst thing that could happen (from blogging, as opposed to just continuing this conversation in my own head) is that anyone else who reads this will know about mistakes I make, or stupid things I say.

That doesn’t sound so bad.

It would be a small price to pay for the opportunity to open a conversation about how to increase inclusion of people with disabilities in professional theatre.

In the end, for me, it all comes back to this:

I want the kids I work with as an OT to have role models on our stages, and I want people with disabilities* to have the same opportunity to pursue meaningful occupations that I do (even if that pursuit is in the often hopeless-feeling, rejection-filled–but dotted with moments of such joy!–life of contract theatre work).

Thanks for reading.

And if you have any comments, please leave them below.

Next week, I think I plan to talk about words, including: Just what does disability mean anyway? And how about able-bodied… 

Or I might start with more about environments and barriers in theatre…

Check back, or click on the follow button to get notified when a new post is added.

*For the purposes of this inaugural blog post, I am using the World Health Organization (WHO) definition of disability/disabilities:

“Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.”

Follow this link to read the entire WHO disabilities statement.

**I used to have a longer description of what OT is here…but accepted that not everyone may find it as fascinating as I do. And it kind of interrupted the flow. So I’ve moved it to its own page, which you can find here

1) Townsend, Elizabeth A., and Polatajko, Helene J. Enabling Occupation II: Advancing an Occupational Therapy Vision for Health, Well-Being and Justice through Occupation. Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists, 2013.