No One Can Do It Alone: How Working with “Disability” Enabled a New Artistic Ability and Approach

This is the first story about work coming from the PLACE (People, Land, Arts, Culture and Engagement) Initiative of the Tucson Pima Arts Council. Read Executive Director Roberto Bedoya’s introduction here.

Stories that Soar! is a theater company, composed of multi-talented adult performers who invite young people to write stories about whatever their imaginative minds can come up with. The troupe then selects stories to bring to the stage through live theater productions, each time witnessing the transformative power of imagination and collaboration.

As with any theatrical adaptation, bringing children’s original stories to the stage requires us—as actors and directors—to respond to various details, events, emotions, and tension in our surroundings and scripts. Children’s stories are wonderfully imaginative and colorful, but we often have to bring the hidden meanings behind a child’s expression to light to reveal larger universal themes. Through a child’s retelling of a family fight, for example, we can create a framework for presenting a young person’s attempt to break the cycle of domestic violence.

A descriptive account of a visit to an incarcerated father provides a starting point for a larger, multifaceted story of unconditional love. Through this process, we have learned to read between the lines and listen for what is asking to be shared.

This adaptability has served us well. In 2011–2012, we set out to create a documentary film about a live production based on stories written by students at the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and Blind (ASDB). By creating a show accessible to people of all abilities, our intention was to increase cross-cultural awareness between people with sensory limitations and the general population. The process led to unexpected collaborations and new priorities and responsibilities for us as artists, actors, and producers.

The process of including multisensory and multicultural perspectives stretched us as artists, expanding our notions of possibility. As a character study exercise, we visited a classroom for blind students and consulted with experts about deaf ethos and etiquette. We learned to reconsider the issues of pacing on stage, shifting the focus of action to creatively incorporate American Sign Language for the deaf, while still keeping the blind engaged through sound. We augmented physical comedy with sounds, created dance moves that could be heard, and clarified movements to communicate the emotionality of music. We experimented with tactile elements and offered olfactory associations to support characters, concepts, and props. While these new strategies helped create a show that deaf and blind audiences could easily access, we soon realized they would also enhance our range as performing artists in all future productions.

As the film documented our process, we realized we also needed to make the film accessible to deaf and blind communities. Closed captions, audio description services, and Braille marketing materials would be essential, despite the fact that adding them would considerably increase the project’s budget and timeline. We also needed to find a theater to screen the film that could properly accommodate our diverse audience.

To do this, we sought help from organizations and experts in the field of disability justice. We learned to shift our language in order to acknowledge particular needs without identifying people based on those needs. We became aware that standard physical spaces are unintentionally designed to magnify people’s limitations, ultimately creating “disability” for people with physical and/or sensory limitations. Most importantly, we learned that creating more equitable experiences in the arts and in society requires collaboration from elected officials, academics, community activists, architects, and artists—no one can do it alone.

These lessons in disability justice helped contextualize our work. We soon realized that our project had transformed from one addressing the basic human desire to share stories to one addressing the basic civil right of having access to the stories we wish to see and hear. Our film, Hear Me, See Me, reveals this transformation.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibits discrimination based on disability, which it defines as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.” Despite the ADA, we still do not live in a fully accessible America. A common form of “discrimination” recognized by the ADA, for example, is a “failure to remove architectural barriers in existing facilities.”

This project invited me to reflect deeply on the idea of “barriers”— architectural, artistic, perceptual, habitual — and on the many ways we fail to remove them. As an artist making work that seeks to reflect and define our culture, I have learned to ask, “How accessible is our work to people of different abilities?” And, “What are the ways we can adapt our art, keeping in mind the multitude of ways information is taken in and processed?”

More personally, as a storyteller to whom thousands of children a year entrust stories, I have emerged transformed, with a broader view of culture, committed to making accessibility an integral part of my work. I have discovered that by considering the more obvious barriers, such as sensory and physical barriers, I can be more successful at reaching people whose limitations may not be as apparent but who are still cut off from an equitable experience. I have learned that by slowing down the pace and enriching our performances with multiple artistic messaging, our work becomes more inclusive.

Through the trust we have built with our collaborators—from the children to the partnering organizations and stakeholders—we are better equipped to take on more cultural and artistic challenges, prizing a new sensitivity to the many ways people express and experience art.