Thursday, January 8, 2009

Everybody Plays

Recently, Imagination Stage adopted the slogan “Everybody Plays” to highlight our programs and services for students with disabilities. From its inception, Imagination Stage has had a commitment to empowering children of all abilities through the arts. For many years, we have offered peer group classes through our Access program which provide focused instruction for students with disabilities in a smaller class setting. Through the years, as the disability community has changed, our programming has changed as well. Imagination Stage has recently entered into a partnership with Kids Included Together to strengthen our model of inclusion and the supports we offer students with disabilities, whether they choose to be in a peer-group Access class or in an inclusion setting with typically developing peers.

When creating an inclusive class or camp, we often initially focus the majority of our attention on the child who has identified as having a disability. And rightly so. Our staff talks with parents to discover the unique facets of their child, and then works with faculty members to help create an inclusive classroom environment that will guarantee a successful experience. Access staff might suggest specific classroom strategies, or place an assistant in the room to help facilitate inclusion in the classroom. As we focus on creating an equitable experience for the child with a disability—we have found it equally exciting to watch how inclusion impacts children without disabilities.

In inclusive settings, students learn the tools to successfully dispel preconceived notions, break down barriers and create common ground. Inclusion teaches patience—as children learn the benefit of waiting to hear what a peer has to say (even if it takes that student longer to say it). Inclusion fosters creativity—we find that children often come up with better and more creative inclusion solutions than any of the adults. Inclusion teaches children that there is no “one way” to do anything—there are different ways to communicate, different ways to comprehend, different ways to act, sing and dance. Inclusion teaches children to accept individuals for who they are—valuing the unique strengths that every student brings to the table.

As Director of Access and Outreach, I get to foster these types of learning moments and hear of our success stories around our “water cooler” each day. However, last summer, I had the opportunity to personally see the tenets of inclusion in action as I directed a production of Willy Wonka Jr. which included several students who had identified as having a disability. From day one, our staff emphasized that everyone brought special gifts to the production process. As we began to navigate the daily routine and the needed inclusion supports for each activity, I began to notice that the emotional environment of my company was changing. My students began to take care of each other—as fellow actors and as fellow humans. And “taking care” did not mean “looking after the students with disabilities.” No, each student—disabled or not—seemed to reach beyond themselves to care for each other and for the well-being of the ensemble as a whole.

On the day of the performance, I watched my students sing the coda of the song “Pure Imagination”—which they also signed in American Sign Language:

If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it.
Anything you want to, do it.
Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it.
I was struck by the poignancy of these lines in the moment. Looking around at my ensemble, I realized that these students would indeed be able to change the world. And that the experience of this summer was perhaps helping to lay the foundation for a world where diversity is cherished, acceptance is routine, and inclusion is a way of life.

By Diane Nutting

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