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 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?
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.
*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.