It was a square, yellow, vinyl sticker with red lettering. My friend Ariana’s mom purchased it from Mimi and Joe Kessler at Rare Cargo on Front Street when we were about 12 years old. The red lettering read: “Attitudes are the real disability.” Ariana’s mom put it on the front door of their house. One of the younger siblings in the family had Down Syndrome, and Mom actively advocated for his needs and quality of life in a world that wasn’t always quick to recognize them.
Every few months the phrase tapped at my psyche a little. Of late it has tap-tapped and rap-rapped with a rhythm that would do Edgar Allan Poe proud.
Last week, when writing about the segregation of libraries, I made an observation about the blinding power of white privilege: the privilege to not notice how half the population of where one lives does not have the same opportunities. As it happens, that statement has been rattling around in my brain ever since, and of course, my own failings in this department have been glaring at me in ways that are painful at best.
One of the privileges I have that causes a sense of blindness is to live a largely non-disabled life. I don’t think about ramps, sounds and accessibility the way families who have a member in need of additional accommodations do. It is a privilege but it is also a hindrance: I miss out on a lot of life because I don’t take the time to stop and think my way through this more often and carefully. It is my loss.
In 2010, when Jock and I made our pilgrimage to Arlo Guthrie’s church and to see Pete Seeger at the Clearwater Festival, Ariana’s mom’s sticker came back to haunt me. We arrived first in the field where Pete Seeger would take the stage, and I staked out a front row spot hours in advance. Shortly before the start of the concert, the space between me and the stage filled with people in electric wheelchairs—not aisle seats off to the side, not in the back, but the very front row. When someone beside me grumbled about having their view obstructed, the person next to me commented the grumbler should try going through life in a wheelchair and maybe should just shut up for one day and let someone else have the best view.
Part of what I have been trying to articulate from my experience (and several more in a similar vein) is how a full life isn’t just the bare minimum. For a community to not fully embrace all its members is the community’s loss. Part of the limiting attitude is, quite frankly, people who are differently abled should just be grateful to be there at all. The quality of any experience they might have is secondary, if even considered.
So, a few months ago, Selina Harvey gave me another good tap, tap, tapping. For anyone who doesn’t know Selina, well, let me start by saying she is one of the most talented artists I have ever had the privilege of knowing in real life. I wish I had one-tenth of the talent she has in her little finger. Folks will recognize her work from local theatre, specifically her costumes for Opera House Theatre Company. Selina also has worked on national tours of puppeteering shows, and if she can visualize it, she can make it real in a three-dimensional world. Or two dimensional, as the case may be; she also has made a living as a sign-maker at times.
So Selina dropped by the book store to chat and mentioned she was working with a different kind of sign: sign-language interpreter work. Cape Fear Community College (CFCC) offers the program, and after completing the course work, Selina will work with CFCC’s Wilson Center to ensure interpretation is available for patrons at every live theatre event.
Anyone who has never seen two or more interpreters sign for a live stage production, let me tell you, you are missing out. The addition of signing to theatre is not a completely alien concept—incorporating sign language with dance does not need to be beyond the scope of possibility. Indeed, Deaf West Theatre and The National Theatre of the Deaf both have cultivated distinguished production histories, and have bridged the deaf and hearing communities with art.
Wilson Center’s artistic and executive director, Shane Fernando, made sure to offer more inclusive theatre last spring by hosting “Black Deaf Comediennes: Wit & Wisdom.” “People drove from across the state to come to this comedy show!” he enthuses. “Some were deaf, some were blind, so we had both interpreters there. It’s like, ‘Wow, there’s truly a hunger and a need in our state and in our region for this type of access.’”
The Wilson Center offers sign interpreters for all programming they host. Though, they do request advance notice to arrange to have interpreters available (910-362-7895 or firstname.lastname@example.org). “This is one major reason we’re doing the BD Wong project because of the connection to the ASL community,” Fernando cites. Wong is developing a script for a musical of “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and has been workshopping the production at The Wilson Center. Opera House Theatre Company is collaborating with Wong as the script evolves. Fernando mentions one of the principal characters, Mr. Holland’s son, Cole, who communicates with American Sign Language throughout the show—upping the ante on what communication and art appreciation are and look like.
“The performance quality, that is something I know there is a need for more,” Fernando observes.“It is the ethical thing to have there; I feel very strongly about the accessibility.”
Though Fernando is excited about the sign interpreters, he stresses how Wilson Center is committed to making the building accessible to everyone regardless of physical needs. “Our accessibility program [is] truly from curbside service to the seat and back and whatever in between is needed,” he states. The wonderful volunteer corps make the service possible. “Now that’s mobility, but all forms of accessibility—we’re constantly learning and improving—that’s more of a journey than a destination in terms of the arts,” he adds.
Perhaps one of the tools for improving accessibility options is something called “Audimance.” Fernando discovered it through Alice Sheppard of Kinetic Light, a dance company composed of two dancers in wheelchairs and a tech director who also utilizes a chair. “She and her collaborator for the piece are developing an app for the phone so visually impaired can enjoy described dance,” Fernando explains. “Alice is all about accessibility but also the aesthetic around that accessibility.”
Personally, I was unaware there was an audio description tool for visually impaired people to experience dance. It’s not part of legal compliance for disabled access. According to Fernando, many of the description tools are not exactly enticing.
“A lot of the descriptions are: ‘dancer one has entered from stage left, turned and is sitting on the ground.’ They’re very officious and horrible—who would pay to go the theatre to listen to this . . . But that fulfills the legal requirement for that disability. Is it the right way to fulfill it? Probably not.”
Fernando is very excited about Audimance, though. It requires neither user nor venue to invest in special devices. It is a downloadable app that anyone with a smartphone can utilize.
“This automatically makes it more accessible!” he exclaims. The multi-tracked experience comes with multiple microphones. “So you have an audio description, you have spoken-word poetry, you have microphones on the ground recording the sound of the wheels or the dancers’ feet on the floor, you have a soundscape . . . you have recordings of the dancers’ breathing, so you have microphones to hear their vocalizations, and you can layer all of these tracks and listen to it all at once. One thing [Sheppard] explained, while it is intense to us who have this sense, to those who are used to interpreting their world audibly, it is nothing.”
Kinetic Light brings their work “Descent” to the Wilson Center on Friday November 15, 7:30 p.m. The Audimance app will be available as part of its beta testing. Fernando is excited about the possibilities of the app—not just for enlarging the experience of the arts but transforming it. Sheppard is adamant she is aiming for “equity, not inclusion,” as noted on the Kinetic Light website.
“I want to experience this performance through this,” Fernando adds. “When something becomes more accessible and makes anyone want to use it, I think they’ve unlocked that experience.”