Entertainment That’s Helping Society Gain New Perspective on Disability


Easterseals CEO Randy Rutta and TV producer Jonathan Murray.

I’m pleased to co-author a piece today, on the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, with award-winning television producer and friend of Easterseals, Jonathan Murray. Jon is credited with inventing the modern reality television genre. His critically acclaimed series, Born This Way, returns for a second season tonight on A & E. Read the post in its entirety on my Huffington Post blog.

This is the true story of seven friends, navigating the typical trials and tribulations of young adulthood—from first kisses and signing a lease to landing that big job. They also happen to have Down syndrome.

And they’re thriving. They’re leaving their childhood homes, holding jobs, starting families and living their best lives. This isn’t radical thinking. It isn’t inspiring. It’s just reality.

friends laughing

The second season of “Born This Way” starts tonight on A and E.

And it’s a reality 1 in 5 people in our communities are living. Although disability is a normal part of life—touching us all at some point—there’s a significant need for stories that amplify the voices of this population. Not just to reflect the diverse society we live in, but to also promote social change

For example, many people in the disability community want and are capable of jobs and independence. Yet, the unemployment rate among Americans with disabilities is nearly twice that of people without disabilities. The disability community is an untapped resource for businesses looking for skills-based, work-ready employees. Can the entertainment industry help society get past the stigma and gain a new perspective about people with disabilities and their potential? Read more…



We’ve come a long way, baby — the ADA turns 26 on Tuesday

Blind justiceI started losing my eyesight in 1984, when I was 25 years old. At first I didn’t use a white cane or a guide dog. I quit driving or riding my bike, but I could still see well enough to walk to my job as the Assistant Director of the Study Abroad Office at a Big Ten university.

Most of my work back then involved counseling college students on study abroad options — I could have done that with my eyes closed! As my eyesight got worse, though, I started making mistakes in the office. I still remember spilling grounds all over the floor on my way to make the morning coffee. I had to sit close to my computer screen to see the words. I ran into tabletops.

At some point my boss took me aside and told me I wouldn’t be going to the annual convention with my colleagues. “You’ll embarrass the office,” she said. Months later, my contract was terminated.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) celebrates its 26th anniversary tomorrow, July 26, 2016. The landmark federal legislation was passed five years after I lost that job. Designed to improve access to services and employment opportunities, it was intended to eliminate illegal discrimination and level the playing field for people like me who live with disabilities.

I am totally blind now, and I use speech software to moderate this blog for Easterseals. I’ve had two books published, and have another one on the way. I record pieces for public radio from time to time, and I lead four different memoir-writing classes for older adults in Chicago every week.

It’s true we have a long, long way to go before hiring practices are totally fair to those of us who can’t see, use wheelchairs, or have a myriad of other disabilities. Things are moving in the right direction, though, and thanks to the wisdom and determination of the many people who banded together to get the ADA passed 26 years ago, we have the law on our side.


How would you dress if you couldn’t see yourself in the mirror?

Easterseals Thrive hosted Twitter chat about disability and fashion on Wednesday, and it was a lively discussion. Thanks to all who participated! Speaking of fashion –here’s my take on it as a person who is blind.

I feel good in this outfit. My Seeing Eye dog Whitney likes the fur coat she is wearing, too.

I was 26 years old when I lost my sight. A Vietnam Veteran who was blinded in a military training accident was assigned to teach me how to cook.

A friend who visited me at Braille Jail (that’s what I called the facility I was sent to in order to learn new blind skills) told me what this teacher looked like. “That guy? He has long sideburns and long hair. Bell bottoms!” my friend said. “He looks like a rock and roller from the 70s!”

The year was 1985. I was horrified.

I started fidgeting with the buttons on my denim jumper, wiggling my toes against the flat cotton shoes on my feet. These clothes I’d bought when I could see would wear out sometime. What would I replace them with? Would I forever DRESS as if it were 1985?

We didn’t have much money back then, but my husband Mike saw to it from the start that I shop at the most expensive and exclusive clothing store in town. My first time there, I paraded out of the dressing room in a tight pair of leggings. The store owner gasped. “Oh, honey – you’ve got some big hips!” Now here was a woman I could trust.

I’ve never put on leggings again, but most of the clothing I wear comes from smaller boutique-type stores. I get to know the store owners and staff and trust them to be honest about what looks good on me –and what doesn’t.

Shopping online is cheaper, I know. A computer screen doesn’t allow a person to feel a piece of clothing, though, and I choose what I wear by how the fabric feels — and I feel — when I wear it.

People with disabilities get stared at. I can’t see the stares, but I sure can feel them. And as long as they’re watching, I want to look good.

Apparently, I do. That’s what people tell me, at least. And Without being able to look in a mirror and judge for myself, I have the luxury of believing them.


Pokémon Go a no-go for some people with disabilities

Erin Hawley, our own digital content producer for Easterseals Thrive, today shares with us one perspective on the latest Pokémon Go gaming craze.  While it’s certainly bringing people together to socialize and game in a new and exciting way, her astute analysis points out that  parts of the game are not accessible to people with physical challenges.  

Easterseals often consults with companies to help them make their products more accessible because we find that an inclusive development approach results in better products overall.  What do you think?  We are eager to be a part of a conversation to more directly connect people with disabilities to the companies that make the things they use… that we all use.   Our hope is that this will lead to better, more accessible products, technologies and experiences, and ultimately advance true inclusion.

By Erin Hawley


Erin Hawley

I was excited for a new, free Pokémon game — until I realized it wasn’t accessible.

I don’t begrudge anyone their fun with Pokémon Go. It’s a good way to get folks out and around in their community if they have the ability to do so. Seeing strangers bond over a shared interest is fantastic. Some have said it helps with their mental and emotional well-being. But developers are ignoring a significant portion of gamers: people with disabilities. Inaccessible games are nothing new (listen to me talk about it), but we can’t accept the status quo when it increasingly and continually marginalizes us.

So, what makes Pokémon Go not accessible for me and other disabled users?

While I have the ability to leave my house, it is difficult to navigate the community in a wheelchair. Cracked concrete, lack of curb cuts and sidewalks, stairs, steep hills, dirt roads, rocky roads, sand — it’s all here, and it’s all an obstacle or completely impassable. I can’t get to that hotspot on the beach or on a hill. I can’t drive, and I rely on others for transportation — meaning I don’t get out much. I can’t go out at all on my own. I can’t carry my phone and use it independently outdoors, unless there is a table — and those things don’t grow on trees. I can’t hold the phone up to take a picture or look at what I’m doing. Add in anxiety and chronic pain, and it’s a mess.

I’ve caught a total of two Pokémon — one at home, and one at a restaurant. I haven’t left my house in five days, and I used the only incense available. There have been no recent Pokemon sightings around here since then. While many folks can walk around to up their XP, incubate eggs, and go to gyms, I’m sitting here feeling like a nerd outsider.

Of course, my individual access needs are not the only problem. There are articles out there about the developers’ silence on accessibility, about lack of VoiceOver access for blind users, and a heap of other concerns. Mine isn’t an isolated incident.

How can developers at Niantic meet these access needs? As with all accessibility, one size doesn’t fit all. Disabled gamers have myriad needs and different ways of playing/modifying their gaming experience. But start with something like free incense, allowing your character to virtually travel, and allowing VoiceOver access. What about in-game tutorials and text-to-speech? The only way we’ll get changes is if developers work with us.

Making games accessible for more people needs to start at the beginning, not as an afterthought. It starts at home, where we teach our children about disability, or where we do not harm disabled children through exclusion or oppression. It starts through education and empowering disabled children to design and develop their own gadgets or games. And it starts by collaborating with individuals who have disabilities in all areas of technology, from programmers to play-testers.

Some may say “it’s only a game” – but those saying that probably have the abilities needed to play. Yeah, it’s “only a game,” like that restaurant with stairs is “only a place to eat,” or that doctor’s office without accessible exam tables is “only a place to better your health.” Disabled people face access barriers all the time. When our methods of fun and relaxation are also blocked, it’s a hard pill to swallow.

We can’t dismiss topics like accessible gaming as frivolous, or worry that discussions like this one detract from “real issues.” The means by which disabled individuals access cultural trends or activities is crucial to disability justice. Housing, medical care, physical care, and access to voting and food are extremely important topics. But so is access to entertainment. To suggest otherwise is to make us the Other, as though we don’t deserve to have fun because we are disabled; as long as we can eat, sleep, and breathe, that should be enough.

We are part of society. One thing we need, as a worldwide community, is to dismantle how we view disability, accessibility, and technology. We also have to look at this from an inter-sectional lens; class, race, ethnicity, and gender all factor into technological and gaming accessibility.

Here’s hoping the developers of Pokémon Go take notice and join the disabled community in a conversation about accessibility. We gotta catch ‘em all, too, right?

This post was originally published on Erin’s Gimpy Geek blog.


And… go! Adapting Improv and learning your lines

In a play writing post we published here last month I promised a second post with more details on my failed attempt to memorize and perform a monologue without being able to see the script – or the audience.

I wrote my two-minute dog monologu on my talking computer, then listened to it line by line and repeated the lines one at a time onto a voice recorder. Throughout the week I’d listen to the recording, and I made a special point to do so before swimming laps for exercise. That way I could rehearse underwater, too.

And still, I arrived at class the next week feeling uneasy, and, of course, I flubbed my lines. So. Is it more difficult to memorize a script when you can’t read print? Would reading my monologue over and over throughout the week (rather than listening to it) have made my memorization efforts more of a success?

I don’t know.

The next class went much better. We didn’t have to hand in that assignment, we just had to perform it. The teachers wouldn’t have my script in front of them. They couldn’t know if I was memorizing or ad-libbing. Performing my piece in class that Saturday was far less nerve-racking.

Our homework that week was to choose a famous book or play or movie, write a two-minute interpretation of that work, and perform it as a play in class. The play could be a one-person show or we could ask fellow students to take parts, too.

Our class is studying the Too Much Light (TML) style. We’re creating very short minimalist plays. No costumes (actors just wear their street clothes) and no elaborate set design. Each short play starts by announcing the title and saying, “Go!” Plays end by simply calling out “Curtain!”

A teacher sat next to me to describe the action when my classmates performed their pieces Saturday. I was one of three classmates helping one writer perform his interpretation of Batman, another enlisted other students to perform her piece on Harry Potter.

I was born to play the part. Here I am with friends at a high school costume party in 1976 -- we're dressed as the characters from Wizard of Oz.

I was born to play the part. Here I am with friends at a high school costume party in 1976 — we’re dressed as the characters from Wizard of Oz.

My favorite was the two-minute interpretation of the movie Titanic: It opened with a woman sitting in a chair with her back to us, hugging herself, moaning and making kissy sounds throughout the entire two-minute play. This was a minimalist portrayal of a character making out with someone non-stop. A second actor would periodically approach the make-out artist, nudge her chair and say, “Hey!” You know, like, “Hey – I’m out here!” The make-out artist wouldn’t even look, just simply shake her off.

The actor doing the nudging happens to use a wheelchair, which, to me, made the scene even more effective. She’d roll away, come back, nudge the make-out artist’s chair, say “Hey!” and be shaken off, then roll away and come back and say “Hey!” Over and over again.

Finally the nudger showed up with a water pitcher in her lap. This time, after saying “Hey!” she poured the pitcher of water over the make-out artist’s head. “Curtain!” There you have it: The make-out artist portrayed Kate Winslett’s character in Titanic, the nudger played the iceberg, and the entire movie that won an Oscar for best picture in 1997 was over in two minutes.

I chose The Wizard of Oz, figuring I could be Dorothy, and my Seeing Eye dog could play Toto. Our TML teachers had urged us to consider the theme of the work we’d be interpreting, so my free time the week before was spent pondering no place like home, the ruby slippers, clicking three times, and Dorothy’s dance segments with the scarecrow and the Tin Man.

Which led me to wonder: Why didn’t Dorothy dance with the cowardly lion? And that’s when it came to me. The Wizard of Oz as a night at a dance club. My class mates and teachers liked the idea and had plenty of recommendations afterwards of ways to enhance the script and my performance. I’ll end this post now with my original script. Enjoy!

Scene opens with me talking to Seeing Eye dog Whitney as we walk on stage, my feet obviously hurting.

Me: Man, she really was a witch, wasn’t she?

We stop in front of the stage, facing the audience.

Me: These shoes are killing me.

I lean down to adjust them, get a kiss from my dog and stay down there to talk with her face to face.

Me: We leave the farm, head to the city, try to meet Mr. Right, and jeez. The first guy was nice and all, but boy was he dumb. The second one was so stiff, and that third guy, what a chicken. God these shoes hurt.

I fumble with the shoes and finally stand up again to face the audience.

Me: These damn shoes! They’re so tight they won’t come off…

I run the heel of one shoe off the other, obviously struggling to get that one shoe off, to no avail.

me, grunting: One!

I run the heel of the second shoe off the first shoe, obviously struggling to shove that second shoe off, to no avail.

me, grunting again: Two!

I repeat with the first shoe, trying one last time, obviously struggling, to no avail.

me, grunting again: Three!



Book review: Robert Kurson’s Crashing Through

It’s not uncommon for strangers, friends, and family to ask our guest blogger BlindBeader if, given the opportunity, she would choose to get her sight back. At this moment, science has not addressed curing the causes of BlindBeader’s sight loss. For her, at least for now, the question is moot. She couldn’t deny her sense of curiosity, however, and just finished reading a book about a true story of the uncommon transition from blindness to sight. Here’s her review.

by BlindBeader

Book coverBlinded at age three, Mike May defied expectations by breaking world records in downhill speed skiing, joining the CIA, and becoming a successful inventor, entrepreneur, and family man. He had never yearned for vision.

Then, in 1999, a chance encounter brought startling news: a revolutionary stem-cell transplant surgery could restore May’s vision. The procedure was filled with risks, some of them deadly, others beyond May’s wildest dreams. There were countless reasons for May to pass on vision. He could think of only a single reason to go forward. Whatever his decision, he knew it would change his life.

Beautifully written and thrillingly told, Crashing Through: A true Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man who Dared to See is a journey of suspense, daring, romance, and insight into the mysteries of vision and the brain. Robert Kurson gives us a fascinating account of one man’s choice to explore what it means to see — and to truly live.

Touching All the bases

This book is a combination of autobiography and scientific exploration of vision. Kurson’s look into Mike May’s life — both pre- and post-surgery – is effectively drawn. With a journalist’s precision, he details the chemical reaction that caused Mike’s blindness, the uphill battle his mother fought to admit him into a public school, and Mike’s struggles and successes in his personal and professional life.

When Mike begins to become accustomed to his vision, it’s not all sunshine and roses; sometimes it’s incredibly frustrating to go along that journey with May and Kurson. Much of the latter third of the book details the scientific research that helped explain what he could see and why other visual input was so challenging.

Mike May: A Blind Man who can See

Kurson shies away from characterizing Mike as an angel or hero or otherwise “super blind man.” Sure, he did a lot of exciting and great stuff with his life, but it’s not framed as “despite his blindness, he…” Mike May’s curiosity of the world in his childhood and early adulthood set the stage for him to embrace the challenge of vision, and the author draws this out with particularly nuanced emphasis.

Mike May now has good vision, but it is clear that he cannot process what he is seeing the way a fully sighted person can; he is, effectively, a blind man who can see.

It is clear that Mike May was intimately involved in the creation of this book, something that’s quite rare for blind subjects of biographies written by sighted authors.

Some Drawbacks

I personally found it incredibly disconcerting that during the entirety of the book, Mike May was referred to as “May.” The reason for this is unclear to me, but even in incredibly moving descriptions of discovering new things he could see, or describing some of the challenges he faced, having him referred to as “May” made it almost seem clinical and removed.

Some of the scientific data, while fascinating, could have been included in smaller portions throughout the book, rather than all in one chunk (though I do realize that much of the scientific data Mike May discovered at a particular time in his “vision journey”). I don’t know if there’s any way to make both biography and science lovers happy, but this review is my own.


If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to receive vision after nearly a lifetime of blindness, this book chronicles one man’s journey well. It’s not always necessarily a happy story, but it’s an important one.

After reading this book, I still hold the same opinion on restoring or improving my vision given the chance, but that opinion is still my own. If surgery is the answer for some, that’s terrific; if not, that’s OK, too. But Robert Kurson and Mike May have given me much food for thought.

BlindBeader is a gifted young writer who lives in Edmonton, Alberta, with her husband, 3 cats and guide dog Jenny. You can read a longer version of this review – along with her many other thought-provoking posts — on her Life Unscripted blog.


This July, I celebrate interdependence

Erin Hawley outside on a sunny day

Erin Hawley

It all started with an allergic reaction. I’m sensitive when it comes to fragrances, especially in candles, and this clothing store reeked of floral bouquet. Snot clogged up my sinuses in record speed as I was waiting in line. I left mom at the register and fled to an adjacent shop.

I drove around the sale racks relishing in the fact that I was — for once — on my own. And able to breathe.

My disability prevents me from ever being alone, though. I require a caretaker within earshot to suction my tracheotomy and reposition me in the wheelchair as needed. Anytime someone can’t hear me when I call them, anxiety takes over. This means I rarely explore public places without tag-alongs.

But that day, I could reach mom if needed. The store was crowded, and that calmed any sense of isolation bubbling up — there was always someone nearby who could hear me.

An employee in the thankfully-odorless fashion store asked if I was looking for anything. “A skirt!” was the first thought that popped into my brain and awkwardly tumbled out. Not sure why I said that, but really — is there any time you don’t need a skirt?

My motto in life is “what would Mariah Carey do“ if she had the budget of an SSI recipient. In my experience, it’s rare that strangers transcend preconceived notions of how I get around in the world and what it means to have a disability, but this employee immediately dove into the clearance rack next to us and started pulling out and parading designs in my size.

This was an uncommon interaction. I’m used to people either ignoring my presence completely, or treating me like a child. But this felt as if we were friends on a shopping spree. She noticed my disability (how could you not) and treated me like a person — imagine that!

Her next selection was a black and tan miniskirt. I pictured the different ways I could wear it — with lace tights, black leggings, or by itself for a subdued, casual look.

This ensemble would make me feel super sexy , which, in a way, is my number one goal in life. By showing some skin, I can reclaim my sexuality and let others know I am not ashamed of how I look. So I spent $6 on an amazing skirt that is still my favorite to this day.

Mariah would approve.

In that moment, I also realized that a stranger helped me and I felt good about it. I once thought independence was the path to happiness but have learned that total independence is an impossible goal — for anyone. We all need help and services to live. So there I was at that store, depending completely on someone else, yet experiencing a sense of freedom. To feel that way all the time must be heaven.

The interaction at this store was one fleeting example of interdependence transforming lives of people with disabilities. If we look through this lens of communal support, we can restructure and build networks that allow everyone to live as equal citizens. Access to clothes is one of those things we can’t do alone. Stores should train their employees to be as great as the woman I met that day, because fashion is for everyone.

Join Easterseals Thrive on July 20th at 6pm CT / 7pm EST for a Twitter chat on disability and fashion.


At age 100, former Easterseals director of education reflects on career helping children with disabilities

Beulah Moody

Beulah Moody

Beulah C. Moody, former director of education at Easterseals Western and Central Pennsylvania (previously the Easter Seals Society of Allegheny County), dedicated her 19-year career at Easterseals to helping children with disabilities achieve milestones.  This July 4, she celebrates a personal milestone of her own – her 100th birthday!

“I think we helped a lot of people,” she said, reflecting on her work at Easterseals.

She remembers one 6-year-old boy in particular, who gained an entirely new perspective:

“His mother left him lying on his bed for his first six years,” she explained. “He didn’t have any hair on the back of his head because it was always against a bed or the floor.  When he came to us, we did a huge amount of work with him, and attached him to a therapy board. We hoisted the board up, so that for the first time in his life, he was vertical. And the look that came into his eyes when he saw the world from that point of view – almost as if he was standing – was something I will never forget.”

Known more formally as “Mrs. Moody” to her staff, she earned a Master’s of Education from the University of Pittsburgh at age 58. She then began to teach at Easterseals, and eventually became the director of education, retiring in 1986.  As she put it: “My husband and I both worked until we were 70. I think the secret of a good long life is to keep busy, and stay aware of what is going on in the world.”

Through it all, Mrs. Moody was known for her razor-sharp focus and unwavering dedication to provide quality services to the people who came to Easterseals for support.

Rosemary Smith, former director of the speech pathology department, remembers:

“[Mrs. Moody] was June Cleaver when she was married. But when she came to work, she wasn’t June Cleaver any more. When she became director of education, my gosh, there was no fooling around. She wasn’t wasting her time, your time or the kids’ time.”

Her former assistant, Gerry Burchick, also recalls her no-nonsense attitude, which shined through the very first time she officially met her:

“She had a very stern appearance. Everyone was afraid of her. And one day she approached me and asked me to work for her. I said, ‘OK, but I don’t want to get coffee for you.’ And she said, ‘Fine. I’ll get your coffee. How do you take it?’”

Mrs. Moody remains just as focused today as she was during her Easterseals days. She reads the New York Times daily, and then completes the crossword puzzle in ink. She also leads a book group, takes a pottery class and helps underserved populations in her community.

Her recollections of her 100 years of life are a collage of humor, museum-quality detail, and the peaks and valleys of an American life, most of it spent in the 20th Century. 

“I was born during the First World War,” she said. “I waited four years during World War II for the man I married and worried about my son during the Vietnam War. There have been a few bumps and bruises along the way, but now, under the care of my loving son, his beautiful wife and my precious grandchildren, I would say it has been a beautiful life, and still is.”

Thank you, Mrs. Moody, for your service to Easterseals and to people with disabilities.  Happy Birthday!


Staged: a ‘seeing-eye dog’ scene

I’m trying something new this summer, taking this weekly play writing class at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago.

Over the course of 10 weekly 3-hour sessions that start on June 4, 2016, students will explore the process of creating a 2-minute play in the Too Much Light style, writing and crafting pieces based on true life experiences. The class will introduce tenets of honesty, brevity, audience connection and random chance, and will examine specific play formulas and styles that recur on stage– including monologues, object theatre, and even the difficult shortie play. The workshop culminates in a student-written performance of Too Much Light at Victory Gardens on August 13th, presented and performed for the public. In partnership with Victory Gardens’ Artist Development Workshop, Intro to TML at VG offers an opportunity to study the fundamentals of Neo-Futurism in a physically accessible setting, with accommodations provided for any student with a disability. Artists with disabilities are strongly encouraged to apply, and will be given preference in acceptance into the workshop. (The class is open to everyone; however we will strive to maintain a majority of artists with disabilities in the class.)

My Seeing Eye dog sure is calm during flights!

My Seeing Eye dog sure stays calm during flights!.

Without being able to see the other participants, I’m not sure how many of us have disabilities. The first day of class, though, a voice rang out at about my height and requested I pull Whitney completely under the chair I was sitting in. “I don’t want to run over her!” Aha! That classmate uses a wheelchair.

We all got to work right away on our first day. Introductions, exercises to help us relax, exercises to loosen up, a game to inspire creative word choice, then free writing — we wrote continuously for five minutes, without worrying about spelling or grammar. Topic: Something I Feel Strongly About.

After five minutes of free writing we took a 15-minute break. Then we got right back at it. Teachers read a few Too Much Light monologues out loud for us. We discussed ways those writers utilized good word choice, unexpected props, and unique staging to make their one-person play more interesting. Our homework? Transform our free writing “Something I Feel Strongly About” exercise into a two-minute monologue based on a true-life experience. We’d each use a prop and unique staging to perform our monologue in class the next week.

My free writing exercise betrayed my disgust with people who fake or lie about a disability to pass their pet off as a service dog. My Seeing Eye dog Whitney served as my prop and I took suggestions from the teachers about staging. Writing the monologue was fairly easy. Memorizing it? Miserable. Performing it in front of my classmates? Painful! More on memorizing without being able to read print and performing without being able to see the audience in a future blog post. For today, I’ll leave you here with my monologue script:

Scene opens with a person sitting in a straight back chair, an empty chair right behind that person, me standing and holding the back of the empty chair, my Seeing Eye dog at my side.

Me: My Seeing Eye dog leads me down the jet way and onto the plane whenever I fly somewhere. When we get to our seat, I sit down first.

I sit down in the empty seat.

Me: Then I tell her to lie down.

I point to the ground and give Whitney the “down” command.

Me: I picture her like a pile of logs.

I lean down and start shoving Whitney underneath the seat in front of me. Thanks to that person’s weight in the chair, it stays still while I squeeze Whitney under. I say the next lines while continuing to get her situated.

Me: I shove shove shove her back under the seat in front of me. She sighs a sad surrender and lays her head between my shoes.

Whitney does that.

Me: One time while I was leaning down to get Wonder Dog all situated the teenager sitting next to me tapped my back and said she had, like, this really, like, funny story to tell me. I brushed my hand over Wonder Dog’s distressed leather harness one last time to make sure her flat back was completely under the seat.

I Brush my hand over Whitney’s harness.

Me: My fingers spidered over to curl her tail under, too…

I spider my fingers down to Whitney’s tail and remain down there checking her out during the next couple lines.

Me: …so it wouldn’t get run over by the shaky drink cart. Finally confident that Wonder Dog was safe and sound, I scratched her nose and sat up for the funny story.

I scratch Whitney’s nose, and once I’m confident she’s under, I sit up again to deliver the next lines.

Me: The teenager told me she was traveling alone. She told me she was an only child. She told me she had a dog. She told me her German Shepherd was like a brother to her. She told me they hated to leave her brother at home when they traveled.

She told me her dad came up with an answer. “My dad wears sunglasses,” she said. “He, like, acts like he’s, like blind.” The teenager was laughing so hard she could hardly tell the rest. You know, about how her dad, like, had somebody at the leather shop, like, make one of those, like, harness things for Rusty. “He pretends Rusty’s a Seeing Eye dog and, like, brings him on the plane,” she said. “Can you, like, believe that?”

I lean down again to make sure Whitney is still secure under the seat in front of me. I stay down there with her to deliver the last two-word line.

Me: I could.


Some are born great: a review of A.B.L.E.’s production of Twelfth Night

Photos taken by Michael Brosilow courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Photos taken by Michael Brosilow courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare Theater

We’re pleased to have Carolyn Alessio as a guest blogger today. Carolyn teaches English at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, and her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and Brain, Child. Her novel manuscript was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for socially engaged fiction.

by Carolyn Alessio

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” This quote from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is often used to inspire strength in serious situations, but it actually comes from a hilarious moment in the play. The A.B.L.E. Ensemble’s performance of Twelfth Night I went to at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater featured actors who embody greatness on and off stage and boast some impressive comedic skills as well.

A.B.L.E., which stands for Artists Breaking Limits & Expectations, includes 20 teen actors with Down syndrome and other developmental special needs. During the play, facilitators and teaching artists dressed in black assist the actors with lines while the actors concentrate on their characters and physical expressions. Founder and Director Katie Yohe cleverly demonstrated the method before the play began by offering the audience a line to repeat–about putting away all our cell phones and cameras during the performance.

05_ABLE at CSTAt first I wondered if the assistants might distract from the overall acting, or if the audience might not get to hear the actors’ distinct voices. Once the play started, I realized that several of the actors had already memorized their lines (through a rigorous practice schedule), and we had plenty of opportunities to hear the actors’ individual voices.

Many people with Down syndrome have anatomical differences in their oral cavity and facial muscles, and sometimes their words can be difficult to decipher. But almost everyone has trouble with Elizabethan English at first! At the play I found myself enjoying the words uttered twice–interpreted so differently, so passionately. The whole interaction reminded me of Portia’s lovely speech in The Merchant of Venice, in which she says that the “quality” of mercy is “twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

The actors’ physical “voices” also shone throughout the production. The role of Malvolio was a perfect vehicle for several A.B.L.E. actors. Written as a character who is a priggish servant to Countess Olivia, he is duped into believing that his boss secretly loves him and wants him to wear absurd, cross-gartered yellow stockings. Three different actors shared the part, and all showed great timing. Ben Collins, a 19-year-old ensemble veteran, hammed it up expertly, hopping around with one yellow-stockinged leg in the air. The audience exploded with laughter.

Versatility and adaptability are second-nature for these actors. Actor Lucy Walsh, another veteran, confidently played a whopping four roles including Feste, the clown. In the resplendent musical numbers that opened and closed the show, on-stage musicians played ukulele and guitar while the young actors swayed together, sang, blew kisses to the audience, and mixed in dance moves. One inventive actress even captured the creative, mischievous spirit of the play by briefly dancing “The Swim.”

The ensemble will start work on their second original feature film, The Spy Who Knew Me in August. A.B.L.E. describes it on their Hatchfund site like this:

Set among the high stakes game of international espionage, The Spy Who Knew Me follows a cast of 20 actors with Down syndrome as they struggle to stay true to who they really are in a world that wants them to be someone else.

The promising project is being funded by donations via Hatchfund.