Disability in Theatre

Approaching Disability in Society and on Stage 

  • In my research I stumbled across a VSA Playwright Discovery Research Guide, which is aimed at playwrights writing about disability, but contains a lot of information about approaching the topic of disability in society and specifically in the theatre.  I excerpted several sections that I thought would be useful for a producing company- not only in approaching the text, but also to establish a working vocabulary for the rehearsal room.

Speaking with Awareness: People First Language

Language shapes the way those around us speak and act toward one another and conveys the respect we have for others. The use of appropriate language about people with disabilities can be an important tool in building a community that accepts all people.

Appropriate language is both sensitive and accurate. VSA promotes the use of People First language that puts the focus on the individual, rather than on a disability. People First language helps us remember that people are unique individuals and that their abilities or disabilities are only part of who they are.

Suggestions to Improve Access and Positive Interactions

• Avoid euphemisms such as “physically challenged,” “special needs,” “differently abled,” and “handi-capable.”

• Avoid discussing disability by using terms such as “afflicted with,” “suffers from,” or “crippled with.” These expressions are considered offensive and inaccurate to people with disabilities.

• When referring to people who use wheelchairs, avoid terms such as “wheelchair bound” or “confined to a wheelchair.”

• When writing or speaking about people with disabilities, emphasize abilities rather than limitations, focusing on a person’s accomplishments, creative talents, or skills. This guideline does not mean avoiding mention of a person’s disability, but doing so in a respectful manner and only when relevant to the situation.

Considering Physical Performance

When actors take on the persona or physical life of a character, they engage in a complex process of changing who they are to best represent someone totally different from them. Sometimes the characters speak or look differently, but the actor always searches for ways to become the character in a way that is respectful and true. Unlike people who perform to get a laugh or make fun of someone, actors seek to present the character as a full person. A strong actor knows that any movements or speech patterns that illustrate difference are not exaggerated or presented for entertainment. Instead, the gestures and language are based in true experiences and are rarely presented as large or broad gestures— like a clown. When considering how to perform a character with a disability, consider how the character resembles the actor and then begin to craft or shape their differences. Building a character slowly and with subtle gestures will allow for a truer, more realistic, less comic, or hurtful portrayal and performance.

The full VSA Playwright Discovery Research Guide be found here.

  • Another site worth exploring is Disability Arts Online– a repository of thousands of articles: blogs, news items, reviews, interviews, galleries and creative writing by artists and writers, writing on disability and the arts, which have been published since 2004.
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