People with disabilities deserve to work! Follow the stories of individuals with disabilities (self advocates) and their experiences navigating employment. Get a glimpse into the highs and lows of searching for work, interviewing for a job, the first day of a new job, dealing with conflict at work, asking an employer for help, and advocating for more responsibility and future promotions. Focusing on what can happen on one day, we explore the intricacies of working at Hollyside Community Recreation Centre, a Pet Shelter, and an Office Building as self advocates deal with the barriers, challenges, and successes that can happen in their search for meaningful employment and careers.
Disability theatre has a rich history in Canada that has disrupted the status quo and ableist assumptions in mainstream theatre since the 1980’s. Disability theatre “interrogates society’s – and theatre’s – overwhelming preference for whole, independently functioning, rational-minded persons…[that] challenge both the form theatre takes and the normative concepts that underpin its enduring structures” (Hargrave, 2015, p. 9-10). We Deserve to Work is a new disability theatre production created to challenge and expand audience understandings of the world of work.
Our process: We first had to decide what our next show would be about. Members of the company brainstormed what topics they wanted to address through theatre, and employment was chosen. The partner organizations (CLS, CIIC, Massey Theatre) then applied for and received a Vancouver Foundation System Change Grant. Once our project began in January 2021, the self advocates took on new roles, learning how to do research as part of building a play. From January – September 2021, the self advocates worked with the directing team to lead three focus groups with employment specialists, self-advocates, and employers. “It was important to hear from lots of different people to help get ideas for our show. We decided together what questions we wanted to ask in the focus groups. As co-creators, we each had a different role in the focus groups.” (Dana Faris, Researcher, Co-Creator and Actor). Then from September 2021 – June 2022 we used that research to devise a play and workshop it for a test audience. Throughout the past two years, our process has been iterative and accessible, centering self advocates in the creative process.
- Iterative: We engage in a cyclical, emergent process that critically examines itself and is responsive to the needs of the company. Instead of traditional theatre practices with a script and strict hierarchy of roles, our roles in the theatre-making and research process are constantly evolving
- Centering self advocates: Self advocates are positioned as co-creators. This requires partners in the process to hold space for self advocate voices to direct the flow of our work and what steps are needed next. Through our Vancouver Foundation grant we are paying the self advocates a living wage for their time and expertise in the project.
- Accessible: We think about the spaces we make theatre in and how to make them accessible to self advocate co-creators and audience members. Inclusion facilitators are available to support self advocates in communicating their ideas in the creation phase and in performance. Design elements such as set, props, lighting, projections, costumes, and sound play a key role in amplifying the self advocate voices and messages.
As one actor/co-creator says, “a project like this is important] to spread the word and awareness about people with disabilities that we’re all capable of performing the job. The main message of this play is that everyone deserves a chance to work. It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you have a disability or not. If we set our mind to it, we can do anything.” – Dana Faris, Co-Creator and Actor
“I’ve learned from this experience that it doesn’t matter where you are, where come from in the world, or what your disability is, [you should always] be yourself, and ask for help if you need it. … I actually graduated from this very high school years ago, so this is like my second home.” – Aaron Pietras, Researcher, Co-Creator and Actor
“The Community Living Society is committed to supporting individuals to find meaningful, competitive employment. We offer support, resources and experience to assist individuals, families and employers in this journey. This play delivers passionate messages and offers take-aways for the potential employer and co-worker in all of us.” – Janice Barr, CEO, Community Living Society
“It’s really been exciting to watch members of this theatre company expand their roles to include being researchers for their second production. The team co-designed the research component and took on roles as interviewers, co-facilitators of focus groups, note-takers and time-keepers. To see the key messages from the research transpire into something so creative is a wonderful way to share our work. We are committed to making all aspects of our research inclusive and accessible and hope that the results will positively impact policy and practice.” – Dr. Rachelle Hole, Canadian Institute for Inclusion and Citizenship Co-Director
“Access and inclusion in creativity and self-expression is a fundamental right of all people. We’re very glad to support self advocates to fully participate in the performing arts. We know seeing their projects on the stage can inspire others to be more inclusive employers and citizens. ” – Jessica Schneider, Massey Theatre Society Executive Director
“I’m very passionate about employment because so many times people [with disabilities] are getting generic jobs and their specific skills are being overlooked. And a lot times [those] people are being treated like they aren’t equal, like not getting equal pay. … I want to make sure we have a voice, and so I’m very passionate about getting to put together this play production ‘We Deserve to Work’.” – Larissa Gunkel, Co-Creator and Actor
“Everyone despite their capabilities deserves the right to work. It just feels good to be here, to work on this project together, and to create something great.” – Amy Chan, Co-Creator and Actor
“It’s been a really wonderful experience to work with self advocates as they co-create the script with our co-directors throughout this production. It has been a collaborative approach and process each step of the way. It is so important for us to hear from self advocates about the realities they encounter with employment. I hope their stories that are shared through this theatre production will evoke change that supports inclusion.” – Belinda Chi, Inclusion Support Facilitator
Our directing team had this to say about the experience: “There is an intrinsic “presentness” to theatre. When you watch an actor on stage, they are here now with you, and you are here now with them. This is all the more impactful in our production ‘We Deserve to Work’, which reminds an audience – whether they identify as a person with disability or not – that people with disability are here now. So often, people with disabilities are placed at the margins of society, through a lack of access, through a discomfort with difference, through structural inequities. This play places our self advocates in the light of the stage, and I hope it keeps the light on them when they move off of it. Working on this project is such an honour, and, on top of the serious purpose, just a laugh riot! These artists are a joy to work with.” – Jordy Matheson, Co-Director and Assistant Stage Manager.
Co-Director and Producer Jessica Anne Nelson says, “it has been a great pleasure getting to work again with Leyton Schnellert, the Canadian Institute for Inclusion and Citizenship, Community Living Society, the Massey Theatre, and all our self advocate co-creators. After the success of creating ‘Romance, Relationships & Rights’ in 2019, I was excited about helping these artists share their stories and experiences of the world with the community once again, but this time tackling the important topic of employment in ‘We Deserve to Work’. All these self advocates are deeply passionate about sharing their experiences with the world and about effecting real change in our communities. Creating this play with them has been incredible. They’ve created a production that highlights our shared humanity and that we’re all soft and vulnerable people living in a world that can be difficult and harsh at times, and asks us all to consider ‘what can we do about this?’ Puncturing our assumptions of what people with disabilities are capable of doing, it has been an honour to take this journey with them and help to make all of their creative dreams come true for this production. I hope audiences will be moved by the extraordinary work of these artists and that they will leave the theatre challenging any preconceptions about the disability community they may have held. We all have a right to be here, to live in a world that accepts and welcomes us all, and I am deeply proud to play a part in bringing their messages to our audiences.”
“I’ve been facilitating devised social theatre with community groups for 30 years and the theatre creation process still gives me chills. Working with this collective has been deeply rewarding. Disability theatre is a powerful tool that can disrupt assumptions, social practice, and the lived experiences of self advocates. As we saw with our previous production, ‘Romance, Relationships & Rights’, social theatre created by the self advocates for an audience that includes self advocates, family members, support staff and the general public carries an impactful transformative message. October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and this production, ‘We Deserve to Work’, raises awareness about the challenges self advocates face in seeking and maintaining employment, but also poignantly and humorously points out that self advocates are already amazing employees – and need opportunities for advancement. Come to this production to see how professional theatre artists have collaborated with self advocate creators to use design elements to lift up SA voices and make messages accessible to all audience members. This really is a one-of-a-kind theatre experience.” – Dr. Leyton Schnellert, Co-Director and Co-Producer