Teaching Students With Special Needs – Part 3

Earlier this week I went to Boston for Promoting Universal Access for Theatre and Out-of-School-Time Educators, a free event presented by Partners for Youth for Disabilities, Inc. Access to Theatre Program in collaboration with Wheelock Family Theatre, VSA arts of Massachusetts, and BOSTnet. The program featured a dance performance by Access to Theatre featuring a combined cast of dancers who required wheelchairs and those who did not in the morning, and a short workshop in the afternoon.

I am glad I went to this event, although I felt some of the activities were on a too-basic level for where I’m at right now. The majority of the attendees were teachers or administrators for generalized after-school care programs, and only a few were teaching artists or other theatre professionals. The workshop activities were focused very closely on dance more than theatre per se, and while I’m always glad to add another movement activity to my repertoire I had hoped to come away with more that I could apply directly to some of the freelance work I’m doing these days. The Artistic Director of Access Theatre was kind enough to talk to me after the event and answer some of my questions about working with children with blindness and/or sensory integration challenges. Overall the people at the event, presenting and attending, seemed very friendly and insightful– in some ways I think I would have preferred more networking and group conversation time to get to know people and share knowledge.

Some great thoughts and activities I got from this experience:

  • An awakening to open captioning and audio description. Very interested in investigating pricing for technology rentals in this vein in the future. One observation I had was that it really is important if you’re going to incorporate these into a performance that, just as with ASL interpreters in a live performance, the timing really needs to be as close to in sync with the live action of the performance. Otherwise, as a friend of mine once said, you might as well be interpreting the play in someone’s living room down the block for all the viewer gets out of it.
  • How essential it is, in doing theatre for and/or by people with disabilities, that issues of sensitivity are discussed and worked through on every level– from production assistant to facility manager to artists. There is a choreography that develops backstage in any production, but there are some unique concerns when a commitment to universal access comes into play. All may go well when things go as planned but technical “surprises” happen and attention to access can’t be thrown out. For instance, what do you do if the captioning suddenly stops working? If a dead microphone brings a crew onstage, blocking the ASL interpreter? If you don’t do anything then is access really being provided? Of course not– so the demands on the production team increase a great deal and the need for thoughtful improvisation is really required.
  • An interest in investigating some special education products, especially those developed by Edushape. I’ve encountered a lot of calls for materials with varying textures, as well as a need for latex-free products in general.
  • The beginnings of a brainstorm of all the ways bubble wrap could be used as a means for adaptation in theatre classes. In the “Poppin’ Dot” activity demonstrated at the workshop, for instance, a group of typical students and students with disabilities could all participate in a movement activity requiring travel from one colored dot to another if the dots were covered in bubble wrap. The wheelchair or child’s weight pops the bubbles and the child has a sense of where they are in space. The child with a need for sensory stimulation gets it and the child with limited vision can find their way as well. I’m thinking of looking at other types of materials that could be used in similar ways as well.
  • One really good point made at the event– always ask kids what their hobbies are. It’s the key to gaining insight into how they uniquely connect with the world.

Question for the World: Are there theatre activities you use in your work that incorporate small adaptations to serve the students with special needs within the group? What adaptations have worked for you?

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