Theater is for Everyone!

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For the first 30 years of my life I never thought much about disability. I hadn’t been born with one, and only occasionally saw people who had any kind of noticeable disability. It wasn’t until children in my family were experiencing difficulties that affected their ability to learn that I became aware of the inequities in education–and in life–experienced by people who don’t fit the increasingly narrow box we consider to be the “norm”.

School personnel were quick to assert that children who fall ‘outside the box’ of norms be placed in special classes. Later I learned that the state’s “funding formula” for schools was constructed in such a way as to reward districts for placing children in “self contained classes”.

Besides being stigmatizing, corralling children into groups in this way prevents them from the opportunities they need to model social behaviors and makes them feel–and others to view them–as “different”. And as we know from our own experiences in middle school, different is death, at least socially, for all but the cutting edge fashionista, musically gifted or socially flexible.

What wasn’t clear to me right away was that school personnel saw my child as “other”; not as a “typical” kid, but as a person who had less than full personhood. The sudden awareness of my child’s ‘less than’ full personhood status–as being defined by his learning disability–rattled me to my core. I realized only then that his teachers’ focus was his disability, not his abilities, his weaknesses, not his strengths, and if there is one thing I’ve learned in life it’s that what you pay attention to, grows. Instead of developing the significant strengths he possessed,  my son spent most of his day doing tasks he found extremely difficult and he was becoming more and more frustrated. It was no wonder he hated school.

But while this seemed obvious to me, it wasn’t obvious to school personnel who viewed his behaviors as something to be manipulated in order for them to get him to conform with his education plan so he would “achieve” his goals (actually their goals for him). It never even occurred to them that some of his goals should involve developing his strengths.

This remains a common experience among people–including gifted and talented people–who have significant differences in one or more areas of education curriculum.

Such is the state of “special” education, even today. I spent years working as an education advocate at a not for profit agency, assisting parents in obtaining appropriate–and inclusive–education for their children. And it always was a battle. Despite the fact that the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) specifically states that children be placed in the “Least Restrictive Environment”, and only be moved to a less restrictive setting when the child can’t progress even with the provision of numerous supports and services, school personnel are quick to develop one-size-fits-all “special” classes that meet the needs of “most” students who fall “outside the norms”. They want to “fit the student to the available education” instead of tailoring the education plan to meet the individual and unique needs of the child.

And many if not most parents don’t know what to do when this happens to their child. Many are too intimidated even to question what their school administrators and teachers recommend even if they know intuitively something isn’t quite right.

And so, many children go through school having their right to full inclusion denied. Often they are not even offered the opportunity to participate in arts programs–music, visual art, drama, and the fact is that these are the students who would benefit most from the arts! Students who are involved in arts programs do significantly better in academics and other spheres than students who don’t have access to such programs.

Today, the bottom line is this: the adult systems have changed their focus from separate housing to full community inclusion. Instead of “Sheltered Workshops”, adults with even developmental disabilities are expected to leave the k-21 school system “work ready”, or at the very least ready to continue their vocational education through state and federal programs set up to solidify skills that will enable them to earn a salary even if they continue to receive government benefits. And this means that whether they’ve had the experience of being “included” or not, they are going to be working in an inclusive world. Maybe the world won’t be welcoming at all times, but they are going to be working with people who don’t have disabilities. And they need to be prepared for that.

Furthermore, if people who have never been exposed to the arts, they will have been missing a huge piece of what most of us would consider to be a fully rounded education. They may be completely unaware of the stories that help us all to realize we are not unique, that human beings all have the same emotions, dreams, desires, and the need to connect with  others. They will come out of 12 plus years of school without having the shared experiences that would have made them feel connected to, and an integral part of, the larger school community and therefor will have considerably more difficulty integrating themselves into their communities as adults.

Certainly, trying to make up for this huge deficit is phenomenally intimidating, even for those  who don’t experience disability, but just haven’t had the time, resources or other limitation that prevented them from having experiences in the arts as children. Try to imagine how difficult it is for people who went through school with a disability!

What is needed is a truly inclusive place for them to experiment. A place that isn’t the same old “this is where people with disabilities can go to feel safe” but a place where people can be part of a full spectrum of humanity–from people who don’t experience significant challenges to people who are extraordinarily challenged in some areas. A place in which everyone is accepted just as they are, where they are, without judgement. That is the only environment in which people can grow–especially people who have been traumatized by their previous  experiences in school.

Furthermore, theater is a competitive field. It’s expensive to put together and stage a play. Theater managers must make the most expeditious use of their time and their budgets and simply don’t have the resources to devote to helping people gain the experience they need or even to accommodate for differences, a necessary item for many of those who need such accommodations in order to participate.

Many people, when given a level playing field through the use of appropriate accommodations, would be able to expand their talent and their skills and even grow in their capacity to socialize with an ever increasing circle of acquaintances.

Inclusive theaters such as this–such as ITOWNY— benefit the larger community also. When Congress wrote the IDEA, they accompanied the Act with a statement that reads in part, “..disability is a normal part of the human experience”. They did so because according to statistics, MOST of us will experience disability at some time in our lives. Whether temporary or permanent, MOST of us will at some point experience the limiting effect of an impairment. What kind of world will you want when YOU are the person who experiences the barriers that only those with disabilities are familiar?

This is why Aimée Levesque and I have established Inclusive Theater of WNY. This is why we work so hard at giving people the best teachers, classes and theater experiences in the GENERAL environment.

And THIS is why we are asking for your support. If you are shopping for Mother’s Day, or a buying a gift for a new graduate, I can think of no better way to celebrate than supporting ITOWNY! Through Bravelets, for 30 days you can purchase a bracelet of necklace with the engraving: ‘…be brave’ on it, and 25 % of the purchase price will go directly to Inclusive Theater of WNY. PLEASE take a look by using this link: Bravelets

Please share this with everyone you know! We are ever so grateful for anything you can do to help us realize our vision of full inclusion in the arts–and in the world!

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