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.