For these performers, accessibility isn't an afterthought — it's a creative opportunity

Disabled audiences were top of mind for the artists featured in Toronto's Crip Shorts as they created their pieces for the show.

Disabled audiences were top of mind for the artists featured in Crip Shorts as they created their pieces

Erin Ball. (Gilles Gelinas)

Most commonly, accessibility is an afterthought in the arts — if it's a thought at all. But producers in disability arts are working to make access part of the performance.

In Crip Shorts — part of the Cripping the Arts conference and festival in Toronto this month — the performers and producer have tried to build in access for audiences with an array of accessibility requirements. The show features performers in a variety of disciplines, from dance to poetry to circus arts, performing five short pieces around the theme of disability in the arts. The performance includes pieces by Indigenous dancers Justin Many Fingers and Brian Solomon, poetry by Deaf poet Tamyka Bullen, a piece by circus performer Erin Ball, an audio and multidisciplinary performance by Jessica Watkin and a comedic performance by British "stumpeteer" Jackie Hagan.

Creative producer Alex Bulmer, who has a background in theatre and is blind herself, uses what she calls "integrated access" in preparing the pieces for this performance. "Access" is often interpreted as adding something in at the end, she points out. But as she explains: "When I say integrated access, it's a creative process. You consider who your audience is going to be. If blind people are going to be in the audience, Deaf people, wheelchair users, people who have autism or any kind of sensory-stimulation needs — I want these people in my audience, therefore I'm going to think about that as I design and make my show."

For example, performer Erin Ball wanted to make her circus performance for Crip Shorts accessible to blind audiences. Traditionally, a performer might make a piece accessible to blind patrons by having an audio describer who describes the work through headsets handed out to those who require them. However, Ball wanted to do something more interactive — so she worked with Bulmer to create an audio script and narrated recording describing her movement, which will be played for the entire audience.

"What has to happen for [accessibility] techniques to work is one has to have a pretty solid understanding of how those audiences engage, whether it be through sound or through sight, and have a pretty solid understanding of the piece of art itself," Bulmer says. "It's an emerging field in Canada and it does require a certain level of artistic and access skill."

Brian Solomon. (Courtesy)

Justin Many Fingers (who also goes by his Blackfoot name Mii-Sum-In-Iskum) is performing a piece together with dancer Brian Solomon, who he connected with through the community at the Toronto Dance Theatre where they both studied. "We both had amniotic banding to our left hand, and Brian is Métis-Objiway from northern Ontario and I am Blackfoot from southern Alberta," Many Fingers says. "I asked him if he would want to work on a piece about our left hand."

Both dancers share the experience of growing up with a disability that was never discussed at home. "We'd never really talked to another individual who had amniotic banding or any form of that," Many Fingers says. "One of the things that we did was that we got our mothers on board with this production because we wanted to hear their side of what it was like raising a child like this. There was a lot of bullying and name calling, feeling different and left out, so I could imagine it was quite stressful as a parent." They got their mothers on the phone together and recorded the conversation, which then became a soundscape within the dance performance.

They first performed the piece, "What's Left of Us", at the Weesageechak festival in Toronto in 2014. "When we were making this piece of work, for us, it was about two humans connecting with similarities that really grounded us in the personalities," Many Fingers explains. "We never really saw this as a piece about disability or a disabled piece of work, or an Indigenous piece of work; it's more about human connection."

Neither artist had ever really considered themselves part of a disability community until the National Arts Centre brought together artists from different disability arts communities across the country in Ottawa in 2017. "There's a lot of resistance, of trying to normalize ourselves," Many Fingers says. "We call ourselves magicians of vanity — that for our whole lives we were able to hide our hands, like we have so many different tricks that we don't even think about it."

They've performed the piece numerous times in both Indigenous and mainstream arts contexts, but this will be their first performance in a disability-specific context. Prior to meeting with other disabled performers, Many Fingers says they were "so ignorant to the fact that a lot of theatre is not accessible. They've since added an audio describer for visually impaired patrons and developed a script, as well as adding two female interpreters for patrons who are hard of hearing and choreographing them into the performance in the roles of Many Fingers's and Solomon's mothers.

If blind people are going to be in the audience, Deaf people, wheelchair users, people who have autism or any kind of sensory-stimulation needs — I want these people in my audience, therefore I'm going to think about that as I design and make my show.- Alex Bulmer, Crip Shorts creative producer

While Bulmer is the first to concede that extra time, resources and money are required for making the arts more accessible, she sees accessibility as an opportunity, not a challenge. "To me, the opportunity of working within the field of disability arts is that people bring a different relationship of themselves as performing artists into space and that differing relationship between themselves is a launchpad for creativity."

"That is extra work, but I see it as part of the artistry, and I love the creative opportunity it brings."

Crip Shorts. January 25. Part of Cripping the Arts, January 24-26 at Harbourfront Centre, Toronto.