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Disability and Theatre

For most people, theatre is a space of creation, community, and voice. Theatre means a neutral environment to pursue your love of creativity and finding identity. For people with disabilities, theatre is not a neutral place. There are still harmful stereotypes of disability and narrative prostheses lingering in theatre productions. 

Recently, theatres are being criticised regarding the persistent lack of representation in the industry. Even with an approach to making a shift in representation and taking action on diversity, the representation of people with disabilities is lacking, especially within an industry often focused on white, abled, neurotypical, and cis-gendered experiences. Even though these observations spark concerns about the lack of disability representation in theatre productions, the focus cannot be on representation alone. If companies don’t respond to the access needs of the artists that work with them and the issues regarding equality in the workplace, then the problem is still not even remotely solved. 

From the work of the set designers to the accessibility of the stage, theatre buildings, parking spaces, and restrooms: accessibility comes in all kinds of forms. Sound and light design shouldn’t debilitate hearing-impaired actors.  Costumes should be inclusive for people with sensory issues, and wheelchair users shouldn’t be facing any movement restrictions due to costumes. In the end, disability is a ‘social construct’ defined by the barriers our society builds for people with impairments in an ableist society. Our priority should be in removing these social barriers so actors with disabilities can just be excited about casting and not have to worry if there will be an accessible entrance. 

Graeae, a d/Deaf, and disabled-led UK theatre company, provides opportunities for performers with disabilities and educates, demystifies, and deconstructs common misconceptions regarding people with disabilities. The company was established in 1981 and has been pioneering in the integration of accessibility into art in terms of British Sign Language, Audio description, closed captioning, etc. since then. Graeae has been working with the Disability Arts movement and produced ‘The Disability And…Podcast.’ The podcast is available on all major Podcast channels and the transcripts for the episodes can be found on the Graeae website. 

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Another notable disabled-led company is the Birds of Paradise Theatre Company, Scotland’s first theatre company to actively employ both disabled and non-disabled actors. They’re the only disability-led professional Scottish company. Quiplash focuses on the promotion of access and inclusion in LGBTQI+ and pro-disabled spaces. The young company supports queer artists with disabilities and seeks to address the lack of access for people with disabilities and their erasure in queer spaces. Dark Horse is one of the leading theatre companies for learning disabilities in England. They provide vocational actor training for people with learning disabilities and tour original productions while being occasionally joined by non-learning disabled actors.

Inclusion is an ongoing process. Theatre companies need to start or continue implementing changes that make their productions welcoming and inclusive for all actors with disabilities and persevere in making theatre accessible to all. Theatres must actively address the needs of actors with disabilities, from changing the repertoire to incorporating these needs into the artistic process. No one should be denied access to theatre. 

Image ‘Daughter in her Wheelchair‘ by Glenn Beltz is licensed under CC BY 2.0.