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 ‘’Making inclusive practice unlimited from birth’’, blog by Marie Williamson

Working with different abilities

By Marie Williamson, All or Nothing Emerging Artist

In September 2016 I attended Unlimited Festival at Tramway; an international programme of performance, visual art, discussions and more, celebrating extraordinary work by disabled artists. Kim Simpson (Unlimited Festival producer, and All or Nothing producer) ran a two-day event at the end of the festival called the ‘What’s Next Symposium’. We discussed the different issues that disabled artists face within the arts, hearing from disabled artists about their practice, and had a chance to network and share our own issues that keep arising both professionally and personally.

During the two days, a conversation that kept coming up was that of: what can be done to provide more inclusion for people with disabilities throughout the arts world, but especially within the local Scottish community? There was a general feeling that a lot of art forms are adapting their programmes to include those with disabilities in Scotland, which is amazing, but overall there was still a long way to go until people with various physical and learning difficulties felt fully included. Throughout the symposium each person I spoke to reminded me of my own practice, and led me to question, ‘’is my practice inclusive to all?’’

As an aerial and dance choreographer for people with a variety of abilities, inclusion is something I am highly conscious of. When I was in dance training I was taught about Fleming’s model of the four different learning types: visual, auditory, read-write, and kinaesthetic. Everyone will find that they have more of an ability to learn within one of these areas. When I teach, I try to be aware that people think and work differently. For me, inclusiveness starts with the clarity and versatility of the directions that are given – especially as I am someone with dyslexia and dyspraxia – and begin to think about other ways I can instruct physical movement.

Whilst trying out these methods while teaching I have found a variety of different teaching techniques work. This could be as simple as the use of touch to direct a body part instead of audio, or a step by step visual demonstration for those who are visual learners. There is a high number of participants who find instructions confusing until they try the move, which becomes even harder to understand whilst upside down! One tip to help is by asking the student if there is a certain way to make it easier to understand i.e. audio description, visual demonstration, etc. This becomes a very one-to-one teaching practice. Admittedly this becomes challenging when you are teaching a group of eight students at a time, but this extra attentiveness will help the individual with their own practice in the long run. This does not only apply to how a person learns, but also how a person moves, which comes to make me question how I would teach someone that has a physical disability.

All or Nothing has worked with many projects and groups that have different body forms and abilities. These include: ‘Createability’ – a project that worked on harness and dance with a group of youths from Greenock with different forms of disabilities; and ‘Luminate’ –  a recurring project as part of a festival to encourage over 50’s to take part in the arts. These projects are incredible to see take life. As a project facilitator, I always take into consideration that some participants will have physical attributes that need more one-to-one attention, and that their abilities to create are endless and determination is inspiring. All or Nothing as a company do not have any pre-requisites that say that someone with a disability cannot take part in a class, which means that teachers need to be equipped for any person with any ability to enter their class.

So how do you provide a fun and safe class for a physically disabled participant? Include, adapt, challenge, ask and respect.  Everyone has their own way of moving and as teachers we have a duty to show participants a range of moves with safety as our number one priority – this doesn’t change for someone with a disability. Here is my approach:

  • If a person has a physical disability, then ask them about their abilities before making any judgements.
  • Consider making a programme with the participant which could mean helping them physically progress with the syllabus, and with personal strength.
  • If you need to adapt the move you are teaching for an individual then before doing a completely different move from the other non-disabled participants, then think about whether the moves can be adapted to a different bit of kit, height, or technique.

This comes from my own experience and observations over five years of working with different abilities. Aerial for me isn’t and shouldn’t be exclusive. I want teachers to ask themselves: if a person with a disability was to come to class, would I feel confident and able enough to teach that person? Addressing this it would be a testament to the aerial community and teachers alike.


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