Western New York is home to an abundance of diverse arts organizations that add to our quality of life—as audiences and as participants—and that includes people who live with a disability.
“We all experience that thrill of performance in our own way. But we all experience something. It’s very unique,” says Amy Jakiel, a professional actor and singer who is also an instructor in People Inc.’s “The Arts Experience” day habilitation program for people with developmental disabilities.
Almost 30 years after the American With Disabilities Act was passed, there is still a stigma attached to individuals with disabilities that may preclude them from pursuing their artistic passions. Actors like Ali Stroker—who this year became the first wheelchair-bound person to win a Tony Award for a Featured Performance—continue to break barriers. And locally, three arts organizations make it their purpose to welcome performers of all abilities to be part of a distinct artistic community.
Inclusive Theatre of WNY
Aimee Levesque, Ph.D., is first and foremost a mom—and her daughter wanted to act. She couldn’t find the right opportunity that suited her daughter’s needs, as she’s on the autism spectrum, so five years ago she started her own theater company. Inclusive Theatre of WNY welcomes actors, playwrights, stagehands and technicians of any ability. Levesque and business partner Marilyn Erentsen-Scott connected with the Ujima Theatre Company and other local professionals for guidance.
After some early acting workshops and writing sessions, Levesque had a revelation: “When we focused on what individuals can do, and not what they can’t do, amazing things happen,” she says.
The company presented its first fully staged production in 2018, a regional premiere of “And Where Will You Put the Things You Save?” by local playwright Baroness von Smith. Actor John Profeta was proud to be part of the cast. “I loved my experience with Inclusive and would definitely work with them again.”
The biggest challenge for the company is “shattering institutionalized thinking,” says Levesque. “When you give a person the confidence to be who they are, that gives them purpose.
Being part of Inclusive gives them the tools to help them be successful.”
Momentum Western New York
The act of singing has documented health benefits. It brings more oxygen into the body, increasing aerobic stamina. Singing also releases endorphins—the natural feel-good chemical in our body—a natural antidepressant. Plus being part of a choir is a great social activity that can regulate heart rate, create a sense of belonging and bring fun and joy to our overly stressed lives.
Individuals with disabilities derive these benefits and more. Dr. Joni Milgram-Luterman, a music therapist who recently retired from SUNY Fredonia, was inspired by a similar choir in Canada to start Momentum Western New York in 2015. Its 20 members participate in a disciplined and energetic performance choir where their natural gifts are celebrated.
“We are an auditioned choir, so you have to show that you can sing on pitch” says Amara May, a music therapist and the choir’s administrative assistant. Once you’re a member, the artistic and music directors work with singers to further develop their talent. “Whatever skills they have, we emphasize,” she says.
The group performs familiar tunes (think Beatles and Elvis Presley) at two public performances each season, and May says, “It’s fun to see what the songs bring out in our singers. Music has that incredible power.”
Danceability is an individualized dance, movement and fitness program primarily—but not exclusively—serving people with special needs. The program was founded in 2007 by Christine Dwyer, a special education teacher, and Robin Bishop, a social worker, who are also both dancers.
“Our students are on the autism spectrum, have seizure disorders, some are in wheelchairs, others are developmentally disabled. One of our students came to us when he was in his 60s; he’s visually impaired and always wanted to dance. He’s awesome,” beams Bishop.
Nine part-time teachers and 90 volunteers teach more than 150 dancers from age three to 70. Dancers are exposed to all genres and classes are small by choice (up to six students). “You can never age out of this program,” says Bishop. “We work with anyone who wants to dance with us.”
Lessons benefit the families, too. Parents and caregivers use this time to relax in the waiting area, connect with other parents or spend time with their other children.
There’s even a special Sensory Waiting Room for dancers who need a more relaxed environment before or after their lessons complete with comforting beanbag chairs and other amenities.