By Caleb Winebrenner
I find it interesting that when people focus on inclusivity in the arts, it’s always on including differently-abled youth. Don’t misunderstand me — that’s a critical conversation to have. If the arts can’t be inclusive then they lose a lot of their transformational potency.
But when I talk about the transformational potency of being involved in theatre, of having “the theatre bug,” I’m not just talking about what I have witnessed in my work as a teaching artist. I’m also talking about a younger version of myself. You see, I have cerebral palsy. This means that I use two canes to get around, and I walk with a gait. As I said a moment ago, I’m also a teaching artist. For me, my belief in the necessity of the theatre being inclusive, and my conviction about what that can do for young people, lacks professional distance. I don’t say those things because it is a conversation that should be had, but because it’s a conversation I live in.
I recently had a phone interview for a teaching position. In it I was asked, “How do you handle people’s reactions to your disability?” I told him that first, I make sure I communicate well: make eye contact, gesture, modulate tone and pitch. In a word, be relatable. The first step to including someone in something is relating to them, plain and simple. I also told him that I encourage questions. In my current work, I interact with students from 5-14 years old throughout a given week. The older ones will maybe ask a question about me or my disability, but that is rare. The younger ones, though, bring their energy and curiosity for everything under the sun into learning what being differently-abled means. They ask me (often), “Why do you walk like that?” “What are these things for?” pointing to my canes, or one of my favorites, “Is that why you love to tell stories?”
Somewhere along the line an association is made in our culture, that to be a performer is to be able-bodied. Certainly that doesn’t hold true across the board, but hear me out a little further. That question above from a six-year-old, “Is that why you love to tell stories?” isn’t too far off from a question I got from a surprised adult who asked, “Oh, you’re a mime?” Well, yes, I am. But why should that be surprising? How is it that, in people talking and thinking about these issues, a child’s curiosity is replaced by adult surprise?
So if we want to shift the tone of the conversations around inclusivity, and we’re wondering how to do that, the answer I think is fairly simple. Make sure that able-bodied people see differently-abled people. Show them that being differently-abled doesn’t mean that you can’t do something (like be a performer), it just means you do it differently. And show them that by making curiosity into a virtue again. Don’t ask, “How can we include these people?” but rather, “How can I be curious about, and relatable to, him, and her, and him, and her?” Make each young person, differently-abled or not, be visible to you. Be curious about them. Finally, realize that curiosity is something you role model. So include artists with disabilities too, and make your work be an example of the more relatable and curiosity-inspired world you hope for. One young person in your audience might think, “I want to do that!” and fifteen years later be a teaching artist.