(Picture above is Stephanie Strugar, Founder of Difinity Dance Studio & Productions)
CREATING A MORE INCLUSIVE DANCE SPACE FOR PERFORMERS WITH A DISABILITY
(For the purpose of this article, we are going to focus mainly on how you can create a more inclusive dance space for performer's with a disability)
Dancing as a person with a disability, what does this all entail? Simply put, dancing as person with a disability is no more difficult than for a person without a disability. However, as we work to create a more inclusive dance space we as choreographers, dance educators, and arts administrators must work to remove all pre-conceived limitations. If we can learn to understand the definitions of disabilities not as labels but as guiding principles to empower dancers with disabilities, we can create more opportunities to become inclusive.
In this article I hope to show you just how easy that can actually be to do. Although working to create a more in inclusive dance space for dancers with a disability may never be a perfect process, steps in the right direction that are not cumbersome can be made today.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nor am I an expert in disability studies, however as a person with a disability who is a dance educator, choreographer, and arts director, I hope to shed some light and practical tools to create a more inclusive dance space nationally within Canada.
Lets start with looking at some definitions of Intellectual Disability, Learning Disability, Physical Disability, Serious Medical Condition as they are NOT one in the same........
What constitutes a disability? (Dictionary Definition)
- a physical or mental condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities.
synonyms:handicap, disablement, incapacity, impairment, infirmity, defect, abnormality; a disadvantage or handicap, especially one imposed or recognized by the law.
- "he had to quit his job and go on disability
- Another definition: 1.Disability, inability imply a lack of power or ability. A disability is some disqualifying deprivation or loss of power, physical or other: excused because of a physical disability; a temporary disability. Inability is a lack of ability, usually because of an inherent lack of talent, power, etc.: inability to talk, to do well in higher mathematics.
- Definition As A Person With A Disability: A stigma attached to a label that society does not always understand and sometimes limits our ability to be fully inclusive within it.
Definition of Serious Health Condition
“Serious health condition” means an illness, injury, impairment or physical or mental condition that involves:
- any period of incapacity or treatment connected with inpatient care (i.e., an overnight stay) in a hospital, hospice or residential medical care facility; or
- period of incapacity of more than three consecutive, full calendar • days from work, school or other regular daily activities that also involves continuing treatment by a health care provider twice, or once with a continuing regimen of treatment; or
- any period of incapacity related to pregnancy or for prenatal care; or
- any period of incapacity or treatment for a chronic serious health condition (e.g., asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, etc.); or
- a period of incapacity for permanent or long-term conditions for which treatment may not be effective (e.g., Alzheimer’s, stroke, terminal diseases, etc.); or
- any period of incapacity to receive multiple treatments (including recovery from those treatments) for restorative surgery, or for a condition which would likely result in an incapacity of more than three consecutive, full calendar days absent medical treatment (e.g., chemotherapy, physical therapy, dialysis, etc.).
noun: learning disability; plural noun: learning disabilities
- a condition giving rise to difficulties in acquiring knowledge and skills to the level expected of those of the same age, especially when not associated with a physical handicap.
Definition of Intellectual Disability
Intellectual disability is a disability characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, which covers many everyday social and practical skills. This disability originates before the age of 18.
Definition of Chronic Health Condition
A chronic condition is a human health condition or disease that is persistent or otherwise long-lasting in its effects or a disease that comes with time. The term chronic is often applied when the course of the disease lasts for more than three months.
CANADA COUNCIL- Definition of MAD Artist
A person may or may not have a combination of a physical, intellectual disability to health condition that is short term or long term. Many times in conversations with performance artists or arts administrators with or without any of the above disabilities or health conditions I have found that the focus has been on disabilities as a singular aspect of a person. When we focus on disability as a broad term we unintentionally create accessibility barriers by putting people in a box by over generalizing, or stereotyping them with a label. This is why it is so important to look at people as individuals with different needs, and make getting their honest feedback your top priority.
Although most dance choreographers, artistic directors, educators, etc may not be doctors, physical therapists, or fitness educators, they can work in partnership with these professionals to ensure they are inclusive. Consent with the performer and collaboration with medical professionals is recommended, however it is not a requirement. There are many amazing resources online, and organisations that are more than willing to share information with you to improve your accessibility. Simply put gathering research and putting together a basic policies and procedures accessibility manual for your staff and volunteers to be trained in, and doing basic renovations to your performance/ rehearsal/ education space can make a huge difference. Many people who struggle with disabilities and or health conditions do not want to be treated as a burden, and may be uncomfortable to as or even bother to ask for accommodations to work with you. This is why you must take the lead and provide as much accessibility information to the public on your website and social media platforms, train your staff/ volunteers/performers/ and students about accessibility. All you need to remember is "know where you stand", evaluate your organisation and teaching methods and learn where you compare to other similar organisations and performance artists locally and internationally.
Ask yourself this question: "Am I truly doing all I can do?"
If not, ask yourself: "How can I change this?"
Look for Information Online: You dont need to be a HR Expert, Architect, Disability Studies Major, Doctor, or Fitness Expert to understand Accessibility Issues in Performance Arts. However, you can find for free or low cost e-books, articles, research books, and teaching books on accessibility online.
People with disabilities and health conditions exist on a spectrum just like a rainbow. They can be obvious and visible or be completely invisible to someone at a glance. Not all disabilities come in the same package, even if they look similar to someone. A person's ability to adapt to their life's challenges means that not all disabilities affect a person with a disabilities life the same way. Most people with a disability that desire to be more involved in dance or the performance arts scene are eager to give feedback on how accessible you are, and want to see improvement in this area for themselves and their community.
My Bio, Story, and Why I Have A Passion For Creating A More Inclusive Dance Space For All Performers
I was on employment insurance assistance in my twenties after years of struggling in school and in my career due to my physical and learning disability that was invisible at a GLANCE. Many Educators and people I had come in contact with in my youth had very little, or no real understanding of how to adapt their teaching methods so I could learn well. However, after a lot of self education and seeking out professionals online, I finally learned how to manage and improve my abilities within my challenges. These painful scars of misconceptions, and misunderstandings, and the feeling of being "left out", or "not good enough" is what ultimately led me to found Difinity Dance in 2008, and pursue post secondary disability studies education.
Why we need to understand disability as a broader term, and remove labels when it applies to dance?
By making the requirements to constitute a disability specific, you are creating a barrier for person with a disability. Applying labels is disclusive by nature, as your assuming you fully understand and can predict the capabilities of that disabled artist based on pre-conceived notions. Even when we do this with good intent, it is important to remember, that not one individual is the same, and just because you have not seen a person surpass limitations you think someone like them have, does not mean they are not capable of more. When focusing on only providing performance and education opportunities to specific types of disabilities we are not truly providing an even playing field for dancers to be seen where they could, should, and can.
This is important, because what we put on stage, or in the classroom in terms of disabled performers and educators is what the students and audience will perceive is being the only type of disability. Dancers should not have to meet a physical exam pass to perform as a disabled artist. I do agree that as a Choreographer, Fitness and Dance Educator one should have studied exercise sciences to prevent injuries to disabled dancers,and to teach them well, but this should not be a requirement. Otherwise it will take forever to create a more inclusive dance space. Being inclusive is really as easy as caring enough to ask to learn more about a person.
Dancers should be able to display their work, and work with dancers they choose (whether disabled or not) without having to give full, specific disclosure of what their disability is. When putting a call for submission and asking for a person to disclose their type of disability to attempt to be more inclusive, it should only be to learn more about the performer with the ultimate goal of accepting them for the call based on their potential as an artist or student, not based on what they "CANT DO".
The only time the specific challenges of a person's disability should ever be taken into consideration is for:
1.Physical Fitness/ Athleticism competency to finish the said production
2. To provide appropriate/ inclusive level of choreography,
3. To provide inclusive/ appropriate teaching materials/ equipment/ resources to the performer/ student
4. To understand the dancers disability to protect them throughout the production process from injury, and to ensure proper accommodations are provided when the dancer is rehearsing and performing. Such accommodations include: ASL Interpreters, lights on the stage for someone blind or deaf, wheelchair ramp and lights so no one falls off stage, good sound systems so the deaf can hear the vibrations from the music, etc.
5. For the Wardrobe/ Costume Designer to find or create inclusive costumes or dancewear for the performer with a disability
6. Budgetary Considerations for Accessibility Accommodations: Such as ASL Interpreters, etc
(The above considerations should NEVER be a reason to discriminate a student or performer with a disability. Being inclusive, and providing accessibility should only be seen as a reasonable challenge, and not an unreasonable impossibility. I always like to say, if there is a will there is a way.)
How we can be more inclusive as an Audience/ Event Host:
Often disabled person's are not provided with minimum accessibility accommodations at a show, so how can we change that? How can we ensure that they do not feel isolated, or not fully apart of the viewing experience as an audience member? There are simple, low-cost ways to make your event accessible that is WORTH you investing in. Not all, but many person's with a disability may be already limited ergonomically or economically to attend a show in the first place due to transportation costs, tickets/ cover/ education costs, etc. If a person with a disability has chosen to invest in your show with a ticket, the least you can do as an Event Host is show them how extremely glad you are that they came. As the daily life of a person with a disability can be very isolating, you as a performer an Event Host have the power to provide a healing experience for those attending. Your show could be the one positive experience they have had in a long time. Here are ways you can provide accommodations without having to invest tons of money in renovations or restructuring of your facility;
Some things to keep in mind before undertaking the following "SUGGESTIONS". Never assume you know what a person's disability is or is not,or that we are all one size fits all people who require the same accommodations. Be mindful when speaking to them that you do it respectfully, humbly, and assume they have the same desires to have a good time as other audience members. Do not attach labels to them, and do not judge their outward appearance to assume their disability. Most importantly try not to make the conversation or providing assistance awkward or humilating. You should see a need, and try to fill that need. A person with a disability, or their care providers, friends, family, guests should not have to chase you down or just "endure" a bad experience at your show just because other venues are not taking those extra steps to ensure they have a STAR experience at your venue.
Assume you are not inclusive or accessible and try to prove that you are by evaluating all elements of accessibility to your venue. Depending on the the type of disability or health conditions a person has they may pre-scope out your venue and choose not to attend despite the quality of the show due to lack of public information such as photos not listed on your website or social media pages.
Here Are Some Basic Steps In The Right Direction To Always Give A STARE Experience
1. Deaf/ Hard of Hearing: Is your Audio Inclusive? Provide audio enhancers to deaf/ blind audience members through the use of head phones or enhanced stereo equipment such as heavy bass.
2. Blind/ Visually Impaired: Providing a VIP Guest Seater and VIP seating to blind persons to ensure they can fully capture the show with all their senses. Ensure the audio quality is good quality, and include narration via Emcee or pre recordings before each act, or a playbill with brail so the guest knows whats happening next.
3. Wheelchair User/ Person with Mobility Issues:
- Provide Flex seating, this can be done with having fold up chairs, stools, and other comfortable chairs that do not place a person in the isles or in an area where they cant see or hear the show well. Its up to you to work accessibility into your floor layout. The minimum you should try to have is 5 seats or more.
- Removable or permanent tracking grip on your aisle ways if they head downwards towards the stage.
- Add a simple plywood ramp that is removable or permanent at the front and back exits of your building, and into all areas that guests will be using. These can be cut to size and measurements for $5 to $10 per ramp at Home Depot.
- Moving Around:
5.Physical Disability/Health Conditions: Sometimes even something as simple as uncomfortable or painful seating can make it very hard for someone to enjoy your show. Having a storage closet where you hold various types of chairs such as an office chair on wheels, a chair that reclines, a rocking chair, a foot stool, stools, fold up chairs etc should ALWAYS be in your Arsenal. For some people, sitting in a particular position for to long can be painful, so keep in mind a person who struggles with chronic pain may need to stand up or move around in your venue during the show to "stretch" their ligaments/ muscles. If a person is doing this do not assume they need to be told to get back to their seating, and they should not have to justify or explain to you why they are doing this.
I have had to leave shows early or have left in pain not fullying enjoying the show do to something as simple as uncomfortable seating or just sitting in one position too long. If I felt that it would be to hard for me to sit in the type of seating a venue provided I would not attend at all. Usually I have my own comfortable fold up chair that I take with me too venues that I know I wont be comfortable in. However, those who made me feel awkward for doing this, or saw it as an un reasonable request for accessibility, I did not return too.
As we have an aging population who enjoys creative retirement, and knowing that a person can encounter a physical disability or health condition at any stage in their life, we should actively work to ensure we provide more options to these folks when attending our shows.
Basic Ways to Make Your Dance Classes More Accessible For a Person With A Disability
1. Provide comfortable seating
2. Encourage question asking
3. Provide adaptive dance movements and be open to teaching your techniques with different methods and learn how
4. Encourage your dance students and dance artists to actively create choreography that provides more opportunities for dancers with disabilities/ health conditions to do more solo performances.
5. Dont force a person with a disability/ health condition to train or perform in ways that they don't feel comfortable with. As much as they should learn your choreography, and techniques, you should listen to their ideas of the different things they can bring to the table and work it into your choreography.
6. Don't limit your ideas or their ideas for choreography. Try new ideas, experiment! See everything as an exciting adventure of "works in progress" you don't know what can't be done until you try.
7. In social dancing try to avoid pairing people based on what you assume their gender or disability to be, even when teaching traditional dance forms. Why can't a non disabled person learn how to move like a person with a disability, why must it always be the other way around?
In conclusion, these are simple ideas that will help you develop a more inclusive mindset with some fresh perspective. I do not speak for every person with a disability or health condition. I would also like to add that their are many venues, dance educators and choreographers that are doing amazing things for disability performance arts in Canada. Together we can accomplish many things by starting a conversation.
START yours TODAY :)
Written by Stephanie AE Strugar
Founder & Artistic Director of Difinity Dance Studios Productions