Specific styles of movement, warm ups, etc., are covered in the Flying Footless course. The following is a list of some of the things that studios and instructors can do to make their spaces/classes more welcoming when it comes to people with disabilities. This list is just a beginning and is in no way complete.
*Communication is key. Rather than assuming that a person can or cannot do something, or the language that they use…discuss what works for them.*
Email participants in advance whenever possible. Preparations tend to be much smoother and easier when done in advance. Ask about accessibility needs and language that participants use.
Make a list of ASL interpreters for people who are D/deaf. Perhaps you could barter in exchange for classes or maybe your employer will cover costs. If you know in advance that someone will be coming to your classes who could benefit from ASL, arrange for interpretation.
Consider having a board to write on so that someone who cannot hear you, can still understand what you are saying. Make a list of audio description providers for people who experience blindness and low-vision. Again, this will need to be set up in advance. Try to be as descriptive as possible. Make connections with local organizations for people with blindness or low-vision and establish those relationships…ask for help.
Clear obstacles for people who have different balance considerations or who use wheelchairs.
Make sure there is enough room for wheelchair users to get around.
Have chairs around so that participants can sit down. This can benefit many people. Lower limb amputees definitely need a place to sit.
Have a chair by the door so that people who need to sit to take their shoes off, have a place to do so. Consider not enforcing the shoes off rule (my prosthetic feet were attached to my shoes for over a year…I literally could not take my shoes off).
Loud music and bright lights may not work for people on the autism spectrum. Consider having options.
Reflect on the language that you use. Wheelchair bound, stumps, crazy, etc are all words that I avoid using. These terms put disability and madness in a negative light. A wheelchair is a very useful tool. Stumps are dead trees, not body parts (in my opinion). Again, this is individual and many people do use this word. Ask your participants what language they use when referring to themselves or if there is any language that they avoid. Make a list of words that you can use instead of hurtful ones (ie ridiculous instead of crazy).
Another note on language… not everyone likes the word disabled. Ask which words they use.
I recommend beginning by introducing yourself and checking in individually if possible. Keep in mind that not everyone is going to want to communicate with you about their needs etc., and that is okay too. Open the door and let them decide what to do with it.
The scope of this list is for people with disabilities but another form of accessibility is making everyone feel welcome. When you ask participants their names, ask for their gender pronouns (do they go by he, she, they, ze?). Consider the way that you talk about body types, age, etc.
Here are some questions to consider asking:
- Are there movements that you struggle with or avoid?
- Is there anything that I can do to help you?
- Is there any language that you would like me to avoid using?
- What language do you use when referring to your…adaptability/body/limb difference/etc.?
Please note: asking someone what happened is irrelevant. The person may have been through a traumatic event and if so, they may not want to share that with a stranger. They also get asked that all of the time. If the person was born that way, they may feel badly because they don’t have a story.
It is a fine line between being too helpful or trying to do too much for students, or on the other end, ignoring them completely. If you see that someone is struggling or something is not working the same way for them, offer assistance. If they say no, go with that.
Tell your participants that it is okay to take breaks and leave the room if needed. This can be helpful if people are dealing with mental health situations. Don’t take it personally if someone leaves the room. Self-care is the most important thing.
Try to be more descriptive in your classes for people who experience low vision and blindness.
Remember that participants live in their bodies every single day. What may seem impossible can be a regular thing for them because they have adapted to their situation. They are experts of their bodies. Try not to make assumptions.
Lower limb amputees who use prostheses and people who experience low vision or blindness, generally have a difficult time balancing. Amputees tend to have an especially difficult time closing their eyes to complete any standing exercises and people who experience low-vision or blindness have a harder time balancing on one leg, etc. This is something to note and a higher level, potentially something to use to challenge participants.
Amputees prosthetic feet and knees cannot move on their own.
After class ask for feedback. Ask if anything could have been better.
A Few Things to Keep In Mind
This is a life-long learning process and it’s never over.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. There is a lot of information and it’s easy to get overwhelmed when trying to change many things at once. Make small consistent changes and gradually implement more and more as it makes sense.
Language matters. Here are some ideas on how to approach it.
“Place your hands here if you have hands”
If someone does not have feet: “Place your foot or whatever you use as a foot or whatever you think of as your foot, or the end of your leg, here”.
Things like “find your own version of this exercise”, can often be useful for participants who have experience with movement.
Try not to dwell too much on the differences. Shifting the focus of the entire class to someone’s difference may not be okay. Check in with your participants and talk to them about it in private first if possible.
Consider the exercises you are choosing based on your participants. If a participant does not have feet, it could be very traumatic if you do something that focuses on feet for a long period of time. It also might not be traumatic at all…it could be helpful. Communicate with your participants and check in with them.
Mistakes happen all of the time! If you say something and realize later that it might not have been the best choice…acknowledge it and apologize. I make mistakes every day!
Think about how to incorporate wheelchairs and other mobility devices and if you have the opportunity, try it yourself. Blocks, extra straps, loops, etc. are always helpful. Think outside of the box, communicate with each other, stay safe and have fun!
For more information on courses and the Flying Footless manual, visit the Kingston Circus Arts website or the LEGacy Circus website.
Thank you to the many amazing people who contributed their experiences and thoughts to create this document. Too many to name but I hope this helps. xo