The Play's the Thing: Disabilities and the Arts

A Place for Everyone

The Play?s the Thing: Disabilities and the Arts

Wolf's mission statement sounds simple, even obvious -- but it's an important distinction. "If you isolate children with disabilities into their own programs, you lose many of the benefits that come from 'inclusion,'" says Simi Linton, author of My Body Politic and a consultant on disability and the arts in New York City. The term "inclusion" refers to a relatively new approach in special-needs education, where kids of all abilities are taught in the same classrooms or extracurricular programs as long as it's clear that each individual child can benefit from the experience. It's a departure from the traditional model of "mainstreaming," where a child's level of participation is based on how well he or she can keep up with the other students. And while the idea is gaining some traction in schools, inclusive extracurricular programs are few and far between. "Our culture has narrow definitions of who can be an actor or who should be on display," says Linton. "But every kid has an imagination and deserves a chance to explore their creativity."

Wolf's determination to make Wolf PAC accessible to all children comes from personal experience; her older daughter, Samantha, now 37, has multiple handicaps and lives nearby in a group home. "While my children were growing up, we saw firsthand how people respond to disabilities, and it's not always pretty," Wolf explains. "Wolf PAC is about community, and these children are a valuable part of our community. I was determined to create an opportunity for them to contribute their talents." Regn, Wolf's younger daughter, knew that she had to sign on. "As Sammi's sister, I was born into a family where it was a given that we would be advocates for people with disabilities," she says. "I love theater because it offers a home to all kinds of kids who maybe don't belong otherwise, whether they have a disability or just aren't one of the 'cool kids.' Our job is to create a safe environment where these kids can learn how rewarding it is to help create something bigger than yourself."

Abigail Ford has watched her 9-year-old daughter, Lucy, who has autism, develop that sense of being part of a larger whole. (Ford asked that her family's names be changed because her daughter is still too young to fully comprehend her disorder.) "I don't know if she knows she's different, but the great thing is that at Wolf PAC, it doesn't matter that she's different," Ford says. "Every child feels welcome."

Lucy's biggest challenge is figuring out how to recognize social cues and engage with other kids, says Ford. But Ford knew she'd found the right fit in Wolf PAC when she watched Lucy waiting backstage during a 2010 production of Peter Pan. "The kids were playing with a Game Boy to pass the time and I saw Lucy hanging back by herself, until one of the other girls turned to her and said, 'Hey, do you want to play?' and they showed her how to use it," Ford remembers. "It was such a small moment, but it's the kind of natural interaction that someone like Lucy doesn't get very often."

Indeed, while inclusion is an increasingly common goal in academic settings, it doesn't always help foster the kind of social encounters children need. Clara Konrad, another mom of a Wolf PAC-er with autism, asked that her family's names be changed in this article because she's watched her 9-year-old daughter Josie's pool of friends shrink as classmates and their parents become aware of Josie's challenges. "Once people noticed Josie leaving the mainstream classroom for special instruction with the autism-support teacher, she went from having about eight friends in first grade to just three now at the end of third grade," Konrad explains. But every summer, Josie goes to Wolf PAC's camp -- and enters a much more accepting world. "Nobody pulls back from Josie because of her autism," Konrad notes. "Instead, they work on coaxing her out of her shell." The staffers know how to play to Josie's strengths, which turn out to be singing and memorizing lines. And they use a variety of strategies to help the children warm up, both socially and on stage. "We always plan big dance numbers so that any kid who might have trouble can be near someone she knows and trusts," notes Regn.

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