The Republic of Inclusion

Today was my last full day in Canada and in just a few hours Leftwing Idiot and I will be up before dawn to fly back to the UK. Besides being our last day, it’s also been our busiest and most exciting. And it’s been the coldest – not just of our stay, but of their whole winter. Any exposed skin starts to tingle and tighten the moment you go outside – Leftwing Idiot reported his nose hairs were freezing this afternoon! And no wonder because the temperature was down to -40º.

But the freezing conditions were no problem though because we spent most of the day in the warm, dynamic, welcoming embrace of the ‘Republic of Inclusion’. This was the event curated by artists Alex Bulmer and Sarah Garton Stanley, that I’d been invited to speak at. The event focused on the state of inclusion within the local theatre community.

The idea of a “Republic of Inclusion” caught my imagination from the moment I heard about it when I was invited to take part.

A republic is a form of government in which the power resides in the people, and it feels entirely appropriate in relation to inclusion because I share belief that the power of inclusivity resides within us all. Legislation, resources and expertise all have important roles to play, but to build sustainable, inclusive communities, we all need to be ready to think, talk, and take action together. And what better space for this than a warm theatre on a cold day in Toronto?

Though this was the first time the event had taken place it had a very established feel about it, and this was partly because of how thoughtfully and comprehensively access considerations had been integrated into the day.

I particularly liked listening to the audio description of the space. While this was not something I myself needed, it certainly enhanced my engagement with the space around me. It helped me settle into my surroundings rather than just being overwhelmed by the buzz of the event.

After a quick introduction to the day from Alex and Sarah, I started to give my talk.

I began with a monologue from Backstage In Biscuit Land which describes an upsetting experience I’d had at the theatre several years ago. Demonstrating how devastating the impact of exclusion can be felt like an appropriate way to start. I do sometimes worry that within the arts sector inclusion is viewed as ‘worthy’ but not ‘essential’.

Most of my talk, though, focused on the positive actions we can all take to promote greater inclusion. My key ideas were:

• The power of creativity and how we used this within Touretteshero
• Making theatre inclusive makes it more dynamic – using relaxed performances as an example
• The social model of disability, and how I’m not disabled by my body but by the failure of difference to be considered in how society is organised
• The need for people to think about the damage of diminished expectations, and the importance of building confidence and resilience amongst disabled people
• The realisation that creating change isn’t always a battle and can take many forms: it can be joyful, persuasive, discursive or silly. And that if we can get people to engage we can get them to change
• Laughter and humour can be incredibly useful in encouraging people to think differently

I really enjoyed giving the talk and kicking off an important conversation in a really exciting setting.

After my presentation and a quick break, Sarah and Alex introduced the idea of a ‘Long Table Discussion’. This is “a dinner party structured by etiquette, where conversation is the only course”, originally conceived by Lois Weaver. The Long Table sets up a space where anyone can come and go from the table, and join or leave the conversation happening around it.

The only time I’ve been involved in this type of discussion before, it was the ‘long table’ format itself that became the dominant topic of conversation, and lots of the responses to it were quite hostile because people felt excluded.

Interestingly this wasn’t an issue today, and I imagine that was because for most of the session the conversation wasn’t happening around the table at all, but was about the table itself and how to make sure it was inclusive of everyone. Jan Derbyshire skilfully led this negotiation which resulted in a long rectangular table being transformed into a round, height-adjustable table, with tweaked rules and etiquette that included an agreement to provide support for any participants who needed it.

The audience was a diverse mix of disabled and non-disabled people with lots of different ways of communicating. The negotiation process was fascinating and, while not flawless, it was an important demonstration of how discussing access considerations rather than assuming them is essential if a genuinely inclusive environment is to be created.

The event was an amazing hub for inclusive ideas. The challenge for us all is to play a part in spreading and developing them so as to enable inclusive practices to flourish and enrich all our lives.

The Republic of Inclusion offered an amazing glimpse of a way of working, creating, and being, which I for one am very keen on.

My hope is for a future in which the Republic of Inclusion is a place I inhabit rather than visit every so often.

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