I have a question: Can plays be written with the idea of Universal Design? Should they be, and how?
The term “Universal Design” was introduced to me by my boss, Julie, at Upstream Arts. She showed us a PowerPoint slide of a large stately building. Impressive, tall Corinthian columns, clean stone steps—one of those buildings whose architecture says something like, “Very important things and people are inside. All the big, important knowledge things are here, too. I’m a very important building. Welcome to my importance.”
The next slide she showed us was the back of the same building. From what I remember, it wasn’t clean stone and columned—it was old, messy brick and a rickety, wooden wheelchair ramp with chipped paint and a cracked asphalt parking lot. You know, one of those back entrances that says something like, “I didn’t plan for YOU to be here… So, I, uh, made you this with what was left in my budget… So… Yeah.”
Upstream Arts is a nonprofit here in the Twin Cities, and I’ve been working with them as a teaching artist for about 4 years now. We are a group of working artists who go into all sorts of spaces: schools, transition programs, adult disability services, and more, and (to quote our amazing mission) use “the power of the creative arts to activate and amplify the voice and choice of individuals with disabilities.” It’s an amazing job, y’all. I love it. But my connection to the disability community began long before my first day on the job. It began with Joe.
My brother Joe is 10 years older than me, almost to the day. I told him I was writing this article and I wanted to talk about him.
I said, “I wanna write a bit about you, your disability, and your hobbies and stuff. Is that okay?”
“Oh yeah, sure” he replied.
I asked him what his hobbies are, and he told me these things in this order:
“My hobbies are painting, bowling, going for walks, playing PS4 games (Play Station 4), seeing the birds go into my birdhouses and seeing the birds eat food from my bird feeders, wildlife mammals, my soap—General Hospital… my bowling shows… smoked sausage, salads from Culvers, and chicken.”
All amazing hobbies, as I’m sure you’d agree.
Joe was born with Tuberous Sclerosis Syndrome, an uncommon genetic disorder that causes benign tumors to grow in a person’s body. My brother has tumors in his eyes, kidneys, and in his brain. As a result, he has seizures—now managed by medication—and cognitive disabilities. Having Joe as my brother is wonderful, and our connection allowed for me to be regularly in community with individuals with a wide range of disabilities from a young age. So, when Julie showed us these pictures at my first Upstream Arts training and mentioned “Universal Design,” I was honestly embarrassed that I had not heard of the phrase.
Architect Ronald Mace coined the term to describe the concept of designing buildings, products, or environments to be accessible to all people, regardless of ability. The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University expresses these principles to consider with Universal Design:
- Simple and intuitive
- Perceptible information
- Tolerance for error
- Low physical effort
- Size and space for approach and use
Basically, it’s the idea to consider accessibility in planning of the build, BEFORE ground is even broken. Not adding it afterwards and calling it an accessible building.
I was absolutely WOW-ed by this concept, and I started to notice in my everyday life good and not so good examples of Universal Design. Look at the buildings in your neighborhood, your place of work, the sidewalks. It’s fascinating to me.
So, how does this connect to playwriting?
I was born with an eye condition called Macular Corneal Dystrophy. It’s a rare, severe form of stromal corneal dystrophy. Starting around my freshman year of high school, my corneas started filling with ill-defined clouds, and it led me to severe visual impairment. I spent over a decade battling headaches, severe light sensitivity, and decreasing vision. Only my family really knew about it, and I tried to hide my symptoms for as long as I could, but in my mid-20’s it grew harder to hide the truth. I was having to ask actors to lead me offstage during blackouts or ask for help moving around backstage. I needed larger printed materials for work. It was a tough time, and I was not gracefully accepting my condition.
The moment theater changed for me was when I went to see Theater Mu’s production of Two Mile Hollow by Leah Nanako Winkler at Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis. I had been having trouble with my eyes that day but really wanted to see the show. I was sitting in the fourth or fifth row… and I couldn’t open my eyes. The stage lights bouncing off the set and the bright costumes were too bright for my eyes, and it was too painful to open my eyes, look up, and watch the play. So, I listened… and I missed so much. I knew so many actors in the show, and while I was able to appreciate a good number of things about the play, anytime there was a silent moment of comedy—particularly facial expressions and nonverbal moments of action—I was lost. People around me laughed or audibly responded, and I just felt so left out.
About a week later, I had an eye appointment and the doctor used the B word… blind. He suggested that I shouldn’t be driving anymore. It was a feeling I will never forget.
Most productions have one or two ASL interpreted nights. One to two audio described nights. Select performances with open captioning. Select performances that can accommodate patrons with sensory and vestibular sensitivities. These are the things the physical theaters provide when producing our plays, but, as playwrights, are we writing with accessibility in mind? Should we? And how? When I was studying acting, we never talked about the accessibility of the texts. It was something to be thought of in production, at the theater. The playwrights and their texts were sacred, much like the Corinthian columns, and having one to two ASL interpreted performances is the rickety ramp attached in the back as an afterthought.
I wrote a play called The Very Last Wishes of Grandpa Joe or Mia & Hector Go Sightseeing during the 2 years or so it took me to have and recover from cornea transplant surgeries. It’s about someone losing their vision and was a really great project for me to focus on during that time in my life. I was a Nashville Rep Ingram New Works playwright at the time, and it was the first process where I was being open and direct with a theater about my vision. In the play, I have a character called AUDIO DESCRIBER/STAGE DIRECTIONS who, essentially, is an actor who, every single performance, is onstage, with the script, audio describing the show. I wrote it in so that the show would be accessible to blind/low vision audience members ANY night they might want to come, AND they wouldn’t have to wear headphones or ear pieces. (I know there are many playwrights already experimenting with more accessible playwriting, this is just my example.)
How could playwrights interpret those principles of Universal Design in architecture and apply them to the creation of dramatic literature? How do we do that? Is it writing more characters that reflect the individuals in our communities who have disabilities? How do we do that without falling into the trap of what disability activist Stella Young calls “inspiration porn”—the portrayal of people with disabilities as inspirational solely or in part on the basis of their disability?
Is it writing in ASL interpreters/audio describers into the casts of our shows?
I guess I just really want to offer, playwright to playwright, this idea of building accessibility into the writing of your play and not layering it on after or having someone else do that for you. I feel like I often fall into an attitude of, “I shouldn’t put limitations on my story! It’s just my job to create full characters and tell a story!” I worry about how producible my accessibility-focused plays may be. But I am challenging myself to not see considerations of accessibility as limitations or afterthoughts, but as opportunities to create work I might not ever have thought myself capable of.