Making a More Inclusive Community: Mixed Blood’s Disability Advisory Council

Posted on June 4, 2013

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This blog post is written by Disability Community Liaison Rob Ley. Rob helped found Mixed Blood’s Disability Advisory Council (DAC) in late 2010 and has led that group ever since. After a 25-year career in large advertising and marketing agencies, and a brief solo consultancy focusing on persons with disabilities, Rob jumped into the world of nonprofit organizations. In his day job Rob is Acting Executive Director of Mind Body Solutions, which helps persons living with trauma, loss and disability live more vibrantly within their bodies. It was founded in 2002 by author and healthcare innovator Matthew Sanford.

You know a person with a disability. If not right now, then soon. Trust me on this. About one in twelve Americans has some disability—between 37 and 54 million of us, depending on how it’s measured. Experts predict that population will double in the next 20 years due to the aging of Baby Boomers and veterans returning from two wars.

I have a disability myself, from a motor scooter accident. It gave me a spinal cord injury, a nasty limp and one of those coveted handicap-parking placards. I also head up the DAC at Mixed Blood Theatre.  We’re completing our third year. Our objective is to make Mixed Blood the theatre destination for persons with disabilities. That seems natural enough for a theatre dedicated to promoting pluralism and addressing artificial barriers. But there is more to the motivation.

With such staggering numbers, it’s not surprising that there is no single disability community. Disabilities are too common and diverse to generalize. Some are cognitive while others are physical, or both. Some are in place from birth and others are acquired. Some disabilities are noticeable while others are hidden.

The DAC is made up of ten volunteers who represent persons with a variety of physical and cognitive disabilities. Members include the president of ARC Greater Twin Cities, a psychiatrist and the executive editor of Access Press. Half have disabilities. There are some very busy people who still manage to volunteer their time to Mixed Blood. This is a big deal.

The Council meets about eight times a year to provide input on three things: what goes up on stage (think evaluating scripts and the like); audience experience (accessibility, etc.); and attracting a larger audience more often (partnerships and outreach to groups ). Many of the DAC’s contributions have also occurred in one-on-one discussions with Mixed Blood management, their own staffs, professional colleagues and friends.

Before we formed the DAC, we did some research with our audience that concluded unequivocally that the biggest things preventing persons with disabilities from attending more theatre were ticket prices and reliable, timely transportation. Today, any Mixed Blood patron who self-identifies as having a disability can reserve no-cost seats for themselves and their companions. Additionally, they can request no-cost taxi service to be arranged for them. While the DAC doesn’t want credit for these policies, we were certainly happy to help celebrate their adoption.

In a recently-completed study with persons who are blind, we found out that most legally blind people have some amount of sight (and would love to be seated upfront, thanks), very few have service dogs and the tiny Mixed Blood Theatre lobby is not all bad because it’s “easy to learn.” The study also uncovered much more to inform DAC’s recommendations to Mixed Blood for how to best adjust to welcome more patrons who are blind.

Other research gave insight into what MBT’s audience would like to see on stage. The requirement of authenticity when dealing with disabilities was very clear; made memorable with the saying “Nothing about us without us.” So DAC members have advised on a number of Mixed Blood productions, particularly those featured in two Center of the Margins festivals, with plays exploring the complex world of disability. Interestingly, our research also indicated many persons with disabilities have a preference for non-disability themes through comments such as, “Hey, I live with that every day. I go to the theatre for an escape” or  “What if you just happened to cast an actor using a wheel chair in a play that had nothing to do with disability?”

If you don’t have a disability, is this really relevant to you and your enjoyment of Mixed Blood theatre? Well, yes. Whether or not you’ve participated in a post-performance discussion at Mixed Blood, others in the audience have affected your theatre experience. That’s one reason to be aware of all these initiatives.

And, you know someone with a disability.

Rob Ley helped found Mixed Blood’s Disability Advisory Council in late 2010 and has led that group ever since.

Rob Ley helped found Mixed Blood’s Disability Advisory Council in late 2010 and has led that group ever since.

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