Theatre ac­cess is al­ways a com­pro­mise for those of us with a dis­abil­ity

The mes­sage is that, at best, we are a nui­sance; at worst, we are not wel­come

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health Lifestyle - ros­aleen McDon­agh A weekly col­umn by writ­ers with a dis­abil­ity

As wheel­chair users we had to make a de­ci­sion. Ei­ther to go in the back en­trance of the Gate or go in the main en­trance of the Abbey. Both op­tions means be­ing seated away ei­ther side of the au­di­to­rium.

Not sit­ting to­gether – no hand hold­ing. Feels an­ti­quated; the fall­out of seg­re­ga­tion.

The in­fer­ence be­ing that your com­pan­ion will be a non-wheel­chair user is telling in terms of stigma and as­so­ci­a­tion. Hold­ing my face close to his while we were sit­ting out­side the Gate Theatre in Dublin city cen­tre, he whis­pered: “Side or back en­tries: as a black man, us­ing a wheel­chair, it’s not who I am.” Both of us acutely aware of the mixed race fe­male ac­tor on the poster for Ham­let hang­ing be­hind us.

Theatre is my love. Ac­cess is al­ways a com­pro­mise and the an­tic­i­pated re­sponse is al­ways ap­pease­ment and grat­i­tude. Hav­ing a com­pan­ion who is set­tled or non-dis­abled in these en­vi­ron­ments in­creases de­pen­dency and en­cour­ages the op­tics of in­fan­til­i­sa­tion.

There have been mo­ments when col­lu­sion with dis­crim­i­na­tion felt like the only ac­cess route in. The phrase “change from within” is trite. Di­ver­sity of­ten seems like a dirty word; a con­cept for some­thing be­yond a post-mod­ern in­sti­tu­tional group-think mind­set. The in­fra­struc­ture of the arts sec­tor in Ire­land has a way of un­du­lat­ing the per­sonal and the po­lit­i­cal.

The jus­ti­fi­ca­tion re­gard­ing in­her­ited pro­tected build­ings was fol­lowed by the state­ment, “are they pay­ing homage to bad ar­chi­tec­tural struc­tures that con­tinue to give ac­cess to priv­i­lege?”

Years of be­ing pla­cated and tol­er­ated had made me re­peat the rhetoric of the op­pres­sors. In an ef­fort to de­fend my pro­fes­sion, I high­lighted the fact that both the­atres claim to have ac­cess poli­cies. In 2018, the Abbey re­ceived ¤6.8 mil­lion fund­ing with an ad­di­tional tour­ing fund of ¤200,000. And ¤80 mil­lion is al­lo­cated for the new na­tional theatre.

Tear­ing down old struc­tures

This will be housed on the same site where the Abbey cur­rently sits. Tear­ing down old struc­tures gives rise to new op­por­tu­ni­ties and pos­si­bil­i­ties. The ques­tion of par­tic­i­pa­tion needs to be framed by way of re­con­noitring one di­men­sional. Aes­thet­ics. Re­frac­tive re­flec­tions of our­selves must be more than a pas­sive repos­i­tory of lim­ited au­di­ence mem­ber­ship which is per­pet­u­ated by car­i­ca­tur­ing.

The Gate Theatre’s core fund­ing from the Arts Coun­cil was ¤960,000 in the same year. We sat in si­lence for a long time. Him the ac­tor, and me the play­wright, con­tem­plat­ing how these venues put their ac­cess pol­icy into prac­tice.

In an ef­fort to be part of a move to­ward change, my in­volve­ment in the judg­ing panel for the Abbey’s 5x5 pro­gram was fruit­ful. This pro­gramme fa­cil­i­tated five un­der­rep­re­sented groups to de­velop a project of their choice and to build a re­la­tion­ship with their Na­tional Theatre.

Un­der new man­age­ment the Abbey is ac­knowl­edg­ing ac­cess is­sues. How­ever, the ques­tion of the pub­lic sec­tor re­spon­si­bil­ity as de­fined by the Ir­ish Hu­man Rights and Equal­ity Com­mis­sion Act 2014 needs to be at play in this par­tic­u­lar con­text. The “rea­son­able ac­com­mo­da­tion” clause, as my friend pointed out, is dis­crim­i­na­tory and there­fore is un­rea­son­able and some­what re­dun­dant. Fi­nally, at my in­sis­tence we booked tick­ets for a show at The Project Arts Cen­tre. The blue build­ing, which was de­vel­oped more than 50 years ago by an artist col­lec­tive, gives me a great sense of pride at be­ing one of the pre­sent board mem­bers.

The Project re­ceives ¤718,000 in Venues Fund­ing from the Arts Coun­cil and ¤27,000 in Rev­enue Fund­ing from Dublin City Coun­cil Arts Of­fice. We had a pre-show drink. We sat close to­gether dur­ing the per­for­mance. In 2018, the Project has be­gun to deepen the part­ner­ship with Arts & Dis­abil­ity Ire­land on a number of ini­tia­tives – in­clud­ing the de­vel­op­ment of the Re­alise Pro­duc­tion Award.

New per­for­mance work

This is a ma­jor com­mis­sion to an artist with a dis­abil­ity to cre­ate a new per­for­mance work which will be pre­sented as part of Project’s 2019/2020 sea­son. The Arts Coun­cil should en­cour­age a sim­i­lar ini­tia­tive for Trav­ellers, Roma, black, and other eth­nic mi­nor­ity groups. There is, how­ever, a need for a par­a­digm shift in all ar­eas of Ir­ish life re­lated to plat­forms and rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

My coun­try is my home. Con­tex­tu­al­is­ing his­to­ries of abuse, dis­crim­i­na­tion, racism, and ex­clu­sion is fu­tile. That pro­found awk­ward ig­nominy of in­tro­duc­ing some­one new to your cul­tural cap­i­tal is ex­cru­ci­at­ing. He comes from a place where univer­sal ac­cess and af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion is the norm.

Re­flect­ing on the piece we both saw in The Project, As­sisted Solo by Com­pany Philip Con­naughton, the words of the play­wright James Bald­win kept re­ver­ber­at­ing: “Not ev­ery­thing that is faced can be changed. But noth­ing can be changed un­til it is faced.”

‘Theatre is my love. Ac­cess is al­ways a com­pro­mise and the an­tic­i­pated re­sponse is al­ways ap­pease­ment and grat­i­tude.’

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