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'People with disabilities are represented as one-dimensional, that they're happy all the time'

A new podcast is giving people with disabilities a platform to share their stories.

WHEN A COMMUNITY has been built to keep certain people out, change can be hard to even begin to think about.

DURING THE WEEK Finian McGrath, the Minister of State with responsibility for Disabilities, officially marked Ireland’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the United Nations in New York.

Despite signing up to the Convention in March 2007, on the first day it was possible to do so, Ireland was the last EU country to ratify it.

Its ratification has been welcomed but the decade-long wait has been criticised by many people. Much has changed for people with disabilities in recent years in Ireland, but there are still many challenges to overcome.

Some of these challenges are explored in a new podcast called All About Dis’, which gives people with disabilities a platform to share their stories.

One of its episodes focuses on Run of the Mill Theatre, which aims to help address the underrepresentation of people with disabilities in the arts.

14-79 Kate Bauer and Mark Smith in Reason in Madness, a Run of the Mill production marking the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death (November 2016) Source: Vincent Lillis

The theatre, which is based in Celbridge in Co Kildare, was founded in 2014 by theatre artist and teacher Aisling Byrne after six years of working with people with intellectual disabilities through Saint John of God Community Services Liffey Region.

Run of the Mill aims to provide opportunities for people with extra support needs to engage with the theatre as makers, artists and participants.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Aisling said: “When you’re working with artists and makers with intellectual disabilities, it’s a population of people who over the last many, many years have not really had their voices heard in society or not really been listened to.

There has been an absence of the voices of marginalised people in general on Irish stages or in arts settings over the years.

Run of the Mill has produced everything from Shakespeare adaptations to Grease, and do so in a “collaborative” and “post-textual” way – where a script develops in a more organic way based on the actors’ needs.

mark 2 Actor Mark Smith Source: Vincent Lillis

Aisling explains: “Generally speaking, the work will be very much informed by the perception and the experience and of the people I’m working with.

It’s collaborative theatre – so rather than me coming into the room and saying, ‘This is what we’re going to work on now’, I try to tap into the artistry that’s there with the individuals I’m working with, so I’m basically led by them.

“What I might bring into the room is a piece of work I feel might resonate with the people I’m working with and that they can bring their own truth to it.”

The script for Home Alone – an upcoming production which explores group living – was devised through improvisation and input from the actors, for example.

Alzheimer’s disease

Aisling said the theatre’s adaptation of King Lear was inspired by the fact people with Down syndrome have a much higher chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Studies suggest that about 75% of people with Down syndrome who are over the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s, six times higher than the general population.

Aisling said some of the theatre’s members had been engaging in a memory clinic at the time, adding: “Immediately I thought of King Lear and the story of how it’s an aging man who, for all intents and purposes, begins to deteriorate and lose his mind.

20 A scene from Reason in Madness Source: Vincent Lillis

“So we might be exploring that kind of high brow work with the group but it could also be a completely devised piece where we come in and say, ‘What are you guys interested in? Let’s make a play about that.’”

Mark Smith played King Lear in the theatre’s adaptation of the Shakespeare classic. His late father, Vincent Anthony Smith, was an actor and inspired him to also take to the stage.

“He’s almost like a bit of a celebrity in our hometown of Celbridge,” Aisling told us.

“Every time I go into Daybreak in Celbridge to get myself a coffee, 10 or 15 lads might say, ‘Hey Mark’ or ‘Hi King Lear’,” Mark added. Aside from acting, he works in Tesco and Maynooth University, where he studied Anthropology from 2011-2014 through the Inclusive Learning Initiative.

One-man show

Mark is currently developing a biographical one-man show with Aisling and others as part of Axis Ballymun’s ‘Playground’ residency for artists with disabilities.

“I love it, I just love it … Axis Ballymun is one of the best places I’ve worked,” Mark said.

His one-man show is more personal than any of the previous projects he’s worked on – it delves into some of the darker times in his life, including his father’s passing and a health scare he experienced two years ago.

“I do struggle with my weight, I got a bit of a scare in 2016. I had cirrhosis of the liver and it was due to bad food. I put things about this into the show.”

Mark, who has also performed in musicals, said he relates to This is the Moment, a song from Jekyll and Hyde – noting that everyone has a front-facing persona while dealing with personal issues behind the scenes.

Reason in madness marketing shot Vincent Lillis (1) Mark in a promotional shot for Reason in Madness Source: Vincent Lillis

Speaking about the residency, Aisling said: “The inspiration for the show is that, as much as Mark is considered this amazing individual, which he is, who’s put on this pedestal, as Mark’s collaborator and also friend, I would know and he would know that it’s not always amazing and life is full of struggles too.

I feel in theatre and in art and in cultural representation, people with disabilities are represented as very one-dimensional, and we discussed how people particularly with Down syndrome – there’s this myth that they’re just happy all the time, this kind of reductive notion. That’s not true.

All About Dis’ 

All about Dis’ was developed by Pádraig Walsh and aims to give people with disabilities a platform to share their stories, as well as impart information from experts and advocates. Health Minister Simon Harris is among those who have been interviewed on the podcast.

Explaining the origins of the show, Pádraig told TheJournal.ie: “I would have worked as a behaviour analyst in schools, working with people with disabilities for the last 12 years. I noticed that when I was doing workshops with parents in particular they would share stories and learn from each other.

“We would have conversations a lot about where disability sits in Irish society today and how we can tell those stories. All About Dis’ evolved from there as a social justice movement, but also as a platform for stories around disability to be heard.”

30713153_1003022483181000_1716169339779940352_n Aisling, Pádraig and Mark Source: Órla Ryan

Mental health is one of the topics explored on the podcast. Pádraig noted that about 40-50% of people with intellectual disabilities are on psychotropic medication and may not have adequate mental health supports.

“They could be a person in a group home, living with people they don’t want to live with. Naturally enough, mental health difficulties will emerge.

“If you’re living with somebody you don’t like, you’ve the option to move out, whereas somebody with a disability, because of circumstances, that mightn’t always be the case,” he said.

‘A lack of understanding’

Aisling said that, while people from other theatre groups have attended Run of the Mill’s productions, there has been a reluctance by some to welcome people with disabilities into groups that are open to the wider public.

She said one actor was told they couldn’t perform with a certain group because it would pose a “health and safety issue”.

It belied this sense that some people think a person with a disability is ‘this’, as opposed to understanding that a person with a disability is just an average Joe Soap but might have some additional needs.

However, Aisling said progress is being made. She said there’s “a lack of understanding about what it means to have a disability or the individuality of every person” but that, “with each passing show we do, with each project that we make, the understanding in our own community begins to grow and grow and grow, which is great”.

Aisling said many people want to help make events, and indeed the wider community, more inclusive but aren’t sure how to do so – due in part to the fact that people with disabilities were ‘hidden’ in Ireland for decades.

“Unfortunately, the way it was dealt with in Ireland for so many years – people were in a centre, they were away from the town. The visibility of people with disabilities, the representation, is not just increasing on our stages, it’s increasing on our streets.

When a community has been built to keep certain people out, change can be hard to even begin to think about.

Pádraig agrees, but notes that “changes are afoot”.

“We’ve just ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which really signals that people with disabilities have the same rights as everybody else.

“There are a lot of changes happening in society at the moment and we just want to make sure that people with disabilities are not left behind.”

You can read more about Run of the Mill Theatre here or listen to All About Dis’, which is supported by KBC’s Bright Ideas fund, here

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Órla Ryan

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