Mike Ervin – Playwright & Disability Rights Activist (2002)

In 1992, I was hired by Remains Theatre in Chicago to coordinate the Access Project, an ambitious, comprehensive undertaking to make our performances accessible to all people with disabilities. Remains received a $450,000 grant from the Lila Wallace Readers Digest Foundation as part of a national initiative to lure in new audiences.

A few months later we attended a conference of all grantees. To my surprise, we were the only one who chose people with disabilities as the target population of our outreach.  Before I analyze this, let me tell you what the project is and where it is today. Remains folded in 1995, but the project found a new home at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, which won the Tony Award for best regional theater in 2001. We call the Access Project a comprehensive effort to make theater accessible for all people with all disabilities. For audience members who are deaf, we offer not only sign language interpretation but captioning, where the text of the play is projected onto a screen above stage. For blind people we have audio description, where a specially-trained narrator describes visual elements of a play via headphones. Show programs are available in Braille and large print. And of course our facility is wheelchair accessible.

But we also encourage active participation. We conduct a free playwright’s workshop for writers with and without disabilities. Work from this group has made it to the stage in various forms. We have done four full productions of plays by writers with disabilities.

We are not the only ones making these efforts. Theaters like Arena Stage in Washington D.C. have offered similar access amenities for audience members for years. The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles has the Other Voices Project, which has developed and presented a lot of fine work by playwrights with disabilities.

But the revelation I had at that conference 10 years ago was that despite the millions of dollars being spent to cultivate cultural diversity, little thought had been given to the fact that people with disabilities are part of that great spectrum.

Have things changed? I can best judge by my local experience. Obviously, as with the rest of the environment since the Americans with Disabilities Act has taken hold, arts and cultural organizations are much more accessible. But many people with mobility disabilities, and most deaf and blind people, are still left out of numerous events because the effort is not put forth to provide the accommodations that make them feel welcome.

Expense, of course, is an issue. Interpreters, projectors etc cost money. But our experience has been that money follows commitment. When you resolve to do what it takes to provide access, you find undiscovered sources of support. And new sources pop up too. Many among your present and future supporters have had their lives affected by a disability. They’re grateful to see a long overdue acknowledgement of the value of their experience.

The environment is somewhat more welcoming today for artists with disabilities too. I’ve been fortunate enough to have two of my plays produced in seven American cities.

But some of the worst stories of job discrimination I hear come from actors with disabilities. They’re frequently not considered for roles unless the character has a similar disability. But why can’t someone who’s blind or in a wheelchair play the downstairs neighbor, the mooching brother-in-law or the other woman?

This exclusion is artistically short-sighted. The disability experience makes for a great artist’s education. It’s full of frustration, defeat, victory, humor, conniving, anger, joy and satisfaction. People with disabilities consider themselves to be part of a culture that isn’t marked by geography or bloodlines. The strongest bond of that culture is the common experience of struggle to escape the external definitions of others and the limitations they place upon us.

Artistic diversity is celebrated more and more these days because the excitement of art is in the discovery of new perspectives. The disability perspective can tell everyone a lot about who we are.

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