Jodi-Alissa Bickerton explains how drama can be a force for change and inclusion in our schools and beyond
As drama teachers and practitioners, it’s our job to challenge the often cited perception that drama is not for everyone. Of course, we don’t all want to be out front and centre stage, but there are many roles we can play in this unique team environment. That drama is being reduced or completely cut in schools is shocking to those of us who have gained so much from practicing it and who know its immense power. Many school drama teachers leave a mark on the young people they teach and I still remember the encouragement given to me in the place where I felt safe.
Without disabled role models it was sometimes hard to imagine where I’d end up, but we all need to have our misconceptions challenged and our expectations raised. We all need nurture and support in our creative endeavours and to be given the space to discover, and tell, the truth.
One sad truth is that young disabled people often have to work harder to be seen as equals. It’s not fair and it’s a constant fight, but teachers and parents can play a major role as allies in the lives of young disabled people.
I stopped wanting to be an actor when I was 24. I couldn’t handle the rejection, what I experienced as a superficial industry, and that some directors thought I couldn’t be believable in a role as a disabled person with my “aesthetic”. My comeback was to make change from behind the scenes, joining many before and alongside me to turn the tables and find lots of disabled people to make art and tell stories. We would create space to learn, fail, discover, triumph and develop confidence and ambition. From there, I imagined us all doing a sort of Mission Impossible-like bungee jump from above, landing like avengers onto creative platforms where no-one would be given the chance to reject us. We are getting there, but we still have quite some way to go to be recognised alongside our non-disabled peers.
In 2012, I started working with eight young people, all wheelchair users, who’d never met a disabled actor or director. It was then that I began to reflect on my own education and the lack of disabled drama leaders in my life. Young disabled people rarely see themselves reflected back on stage or screen. If they do, it’s often in a side story about bullying, or being socially saved by a non-disabled person who becomes their best friend or teaches them to walk again! Even then, it’s rare for these characters to be played by disabled actors. So where do we expect young disabled people to find their role models?
A great drama education shows young people there is more to drama than performing and that it’s not just for extroverts. Drama can develop quiet, effective leaders, inventors and designers, and it builds resilience, creativity and the confidence to understand the changing world around us.
In drama we can make sense of our identities, present others’ perspectives and develop our humanity and empathy. On the flip side, drama can also reflect some of the biggest barriers to inclusion, rooted in traditional texts, teachings, representations and approaches.
When making our drama programmes accessible, we need to consider both our intentions and the outcomes we want to achieve, then be creative and accessible in terms of how we get there. We should examine the “how” without losing the heart – the thrill and challenge of achieving our goal. We need direct conversations with young disabled people, and to acknowledge that access is a shared responsibility; the whole group should be engaged in creative processes, with accessibility for everyone at the core.
As a disabled drama practitioner, there is a safety in arriving on the first day in a class of disabled students. The fear of being laughed at and memories of being bullied dissipate. You are connecting with people who share your experiences. Sometimes you talk about it and make a play about it, but the knowing is often enough to lay a foundation of understanding to propel you straight into the artistic heart of what you will create together.
The eight young people I met in 2012 were responsible for creating the first young company and youth programme at the theatre company I work for – connecting families, young people and schools with creativity, accessibility and social change. They are now young adults with various interests and ambitions in the arts and further afield. I trust they are preparing to ask my cohort to move over, so they can sit in our places as they become leaders in their own right.
Even though the UK is more progressive than many other countries in terms of disability and education, the argument that drama in education can develop transferrable skills still seems to be lost on many in government circles. So it is important that educators and practitioners who collaborate with disabled young people continue to increase the presence of professional disabled role models for the next generation.
Those of us working in education and the arts should continue to work closely with our local communities, and to facilitate collaboration across all schools, to build relationships and model truly accessible education; by doing this we can help to ensure young disabled people are not shut away and denied artistic experiences and the opportunities to develop invaluable life skills.
About the author
Jodi-Alissa Bickerton is a disabled drama practitioner and the Creative Learning Director at Graeae Theatre Company.