(Brian Balcom photo by Alison Thvedt)

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). BTD spoke with Brian Balcom about his work in accessibility in theater shortly after the success of Theater Wit’s Teenage Dick.  

Tell me about your work in accessibility and diversity in the theater regarding people with disabilities. 

I work at Victory Gardens as the Access Project Coordinator. I am in charge of making sure all of our performances are accessible, which means that we maintain a physically accessible space and also offer services for patrons such as ASL interpretation, open captions, audio description, and touch tours. 

I’m constantly trying to find ways to enhance those services past the minimum requirements. Examples of this would be instead of simply hiring two hearing ASL interpreters, having an ASL master or interpreter on the team who is deaf, for whom sign is their first language, to more accurately and honestly interpret the play. We’re always looking for ways to enhance our services and offer people as close to an authentic experience as possible.  

Last year Ali Stroker was the first person who uses a wheelchair to ever win a Tony Award, and this definitely raised more awareness regarding artists with disabilities. As someone who lives in that space, did this create more conversations or opportunities for inclusion for you or other artists who are otherwise underrepresented? i.e. Does awareness give way to change?

Any time you have someone in an underrepresented group making national headlines, it’s a great thing. We saw that with Ali Stroker. Throughout the years, there are always people or events or things that catch our attention and permeate the awareness of society. So it’s always encouraging. The most important thing that comes out of this is that the talent is out there. 

There have been a small handful of characters written to have disabilities on shows like Glee, Dark Angel, and Malcolm in the Middle and films like Contact, Forrest Gump, and Born on the Fourth of July. These were characters cast with non-disabled actors, and that was good at the time because it allowed that character to exist, even if there wasn’t an artist that the producers felt was talented enough to carry it. Seeing Ali up there and out there and winning an effing Tony sends a clear message to the world that authentic representation with the talent required now exists. These artists are out there, and you should go and find them.      

Are there playwrights, plays, or artists that we should be watching when it comes to disability/accessibility/etc.? 

Red Theatre has a history of producing or creating plays with and for artists with disabilities, specifically with the deaf and hard of hearing community. I’ve seen a couple shows where most of the play is in ASL and offers captions for the hearing community. Red Theatre also used to hold or still does hold accessibility auditions specifically for actors with disabilities and invites theaters from around the city to attend to get to know the disabled talent in town, so that’s fantastic. There was a series called Crip Slam at Victory Gardens where we present artists with disabilities, and we hope to bring it back. 

Kevin D’Ambrosio who has CP is a great storyteller and actor. [Actors] Delaney Feener and Jacob Mundell are congenital amputees. Michelle Benda (also CP) is an up-and-coming lighting designer who worked with me on Teenage Dick. There is an emerging number of local artists and actors with disabilities that are worth taking a look at. (BTD note: Jacob Mundell was in TimeLine Theatre’s production of Rutherford and Son last season.)                       

Statistics show that one in four people in the U.S. are living with a disability. What needs to happen to create more visibility and accessibility for theater artists and patrons? Are there groups in Chicago that are leading the charge with this? 

It is often said that the disabled community is the largest minority in the country. But like any minority group, the diversity within that group is wide. It ranges from anywhere from people with severe asthma who can’t walk very far without physically losing their breath to people who can’t move at all and need to communicate via a computer by moving their eyes across a screen. So it always seems difficult to unite under a single disability flag, so to speak. A greater amount of empathy is important. 

It is a challenge within our theater spaces to dedicate time and resources — especially financial resources — to access because it can be very expensive. ASL interpreters might cost $1,000 to interpret one performance. That can be a difficult thing to achieve for a lot of theaters. To simply put in automatic door openers can be into the tens of thousands of dollars. I know that accessibility can be an intimidating undertaking, but what is easy to forget is that accessibility affects more people than you think

Victory Gardens sent a survey out to [its patrons], and we got a healthy response of people who say “I use captions” that we hadn’t previously been aware of — likely because they are starting to lose their hearing due to age. There are a lot more people that depend on or utilize these services more than we think. Even if it’s an automatic door opener: someone with MS or Muscular Dystrophy who may have difficulty opening the door, [and seeing them] walking down the street, you wouldn’t necessarily know that. 

For someone whose mother or father might have gone to the theater a lot and now they are losing their vision or hearing and don’t feel like it’s a place for them anymore to someone who breaks their leg in a biking accident and can’t get up the stairs in your theater space — now they have the opportunity to continue to experience the stories you put on your stage

Victory Gardens has been known for leading that charge for a while. We were one of the first if not the first theater to offer access services to our performances back in the 80s or early 90s. Now, thankfully, there are a lot more theaters contributing to the accessible performance offerings. The Goodman, Chicago Children’s Theatre, and Lifeline Theatre offer relaxed performances, sensory friendly performances and services for patrons on the Autism spectrum. That is something that Victory Gardens needs to do and is looking forward to implementing soon. (BTD note: ComedySportz also offers sensory-friendly programming every now and then). 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To learn how your non-profit can better implement accessibility and center disability inclusion, click here

For accessibility resources in the Chicago area, check out Great Lakes ADA Center and the Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium.

Red Theater has developed a Chicago Storefront Theater Interpreters Database. This database is intended to aid the Chicago theater community in finding interpreters to help grow Chicago’s Deaf theater artists and audiences.

For more information and resources on National Disability Awareness Month, click here.


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