Gigi in DC! part 3

Gigi talks about accessibility in DC and how it compares to the UK when it comes to drama training and as a country.

Gigi in DC! part 3

I have a chronic illness called ulcerative colitis and this makes life just that little bit harder for me. The NHS ensures I have regular checkups and medication to keep my condition stable. In order to move to the US, I had to pay extortionate fees of over £1100 for just one semester to complete an integral part of my degree and have the same experience as my peers.

That being said, I’ve experienced more ableism in the US than in the UK, which I was really shocked about. It was so difficult to find health insurance that covered pre-existing conditions and mine cost over £1100. I’m on high alert when it comes to eating right as I don’t want to miss classes as attendance checks are huge here, even with an illness. However, because the food is so rich and sugary, it has a different effect on my body. Thank God I have a dance class to work it off! The campus is huge compared to Rose Bruford, which would be fine if it wasn’t so hilly. It has so much beautiful green space with ramps, but also an unnecessary amount of steps. It makes the campus difficult to navigate for those who use wheelchairs or mobility aids.

Personally, I sustained a tendonitis injury in my right foot in my first week, so I had to reduce the number of dance classes I was taking and observe. This was really tough for my mental health but also for my ability to bounce back and attend classes as I was behind on certain exercises and combinations. It was very difficult to get the help I needed, due to the cost of healthcare in America and the hindrance of that had I needed physiotherapy or blood work. 

There are very few accessible buildings and despite students with physical disabilities attending, it doesn’t seem hugely accommodating. For my own disability, restroom access is really bad. There aren’t many toilets in the buildings I have had classes in, so how I handle my illness is significantly impacted. Rose Bruford on this front actually is very similar. There are very few toilet facilities in easy access near certain classrooms, and there are few accessible buildings without stairs. It’s things like this that may seem normal or unavoidable to us, but this is what makes training elitist and inaccessible for a whole demographic of people.

What America has done really well is making the Smithsonian (free) museums and travel more accessible with elevators, escalators, and easy-to-navigate systems. Most museums have ramps or easily accessible entrances whereas a lot of places in the UK lack this. This makes arts venues much more for the people they want to create exhibitions for and it attracts those demographics. 

Translating this to the stage, I have seen much more disability representation in the UK theatre scene than in America. Comparing DC and London, I’ve seen plays and musicals in London, starring actors with a huge variety of disabilities or chronic illnesses, very openly and proudly as part of their roles. People like the wonderful Beth Hinton-Lever who was in the Ensemble of Hadestown at the National Theatre and is a disability activist born without her lower right forearm. Or the insanely talented Liz Carr who played Dr. Emma Brookner in The Normal Heart. She is also a disability rights activist with the condition arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, which she has called in her stand-up comedy ‘meus thronus kaputus’. There needs to be much more done to improve representation on the stage but the UK has made a decent push in recent years, despite more commercial sector productions not allowing re-admittance once the show begins. In DC, I have seen no representation and while I have not yet experienced the more funded, wider diversity of work within the New York theatre scene, there is not much difference. To quote The Theatre Times:

‘On the surface, a number of New York theaters have shown themselves a little more willing to include disability into their narratives…Deaf West’s Broadway production of Spring Awakening, introduced ASL as part of its choreography and included disabled actors…even though it was merely an addition to an already established musical, that’s where the positives end. Further exploration shows disability seemingly comes in only two forms: pity or evil.’

More on this point can be found here

It is very interesting how both countries can easily do better for actors and audience members with disabilities but decide not to. Onstage Blog has a list of ways to tackle ableism that can and should all be implemented. Such as in practical accessibility: having restrooms near the stage/plenty of access, ramps, and wider backstage areas, costumes that accommodate wheelchairs, and those with sensory issues or aids. Get Into Theatre also has a lot of resources to support actors with disabilities. 

Their ideas include more captioned performances, inclusive choreography, and boldness in casting choices. Representation in what I’ve personally consumed as an audience member is an area where the UK has a better track record, especially London theatre, and America needs to catch up. They are beginning to diversify their casting beyond those actors within the gender binary, in many ways leading over the UK, but in terms of disabilities on the stage, the UK has made more obvious leaps forward. There is still a way to go.


Header Image Credit: Westside News


Gigi Downey

Gigi Downey Contributor

I am a third year actor at Rose Bruford College as well as a director, musician and writer. After completing my Gold Arts Award in February 2018 at 16, I joined my Arts Award organisation Babylon Arts as a steward and duty manager and I've done other teaching and facilitation work as well as working in theatre such as guest experience, bartender, box office admin and on the stage. I'm currently in the United States studying musical theatre and preparing to write a dissertation on, in broad terms, how theatre explores consent and desire.

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