het Theater Festival

Remove the barriers, pave the way

Fri 08 Dec 2023

During Day of the Maker 2023 this year, we shared practical experiences about accessibility in practice. Inspired by the emergence of relaxed performance and trigger warnings or the much-discussed performance of Justina Miles (the sign language interpreter during Rihanna’s superbowl performance), we reflected on how accessibility finds its way into everyone’s artistic practice, or just not at all. Read a recount of the day by Sander Deckx, translated to English by Katrien Debois. 


The moment we were leaving Brussels Central station, we saw the bright red van arrive. It is one of those vehicles you could spot anywhere, no matter how busy it is. It’s a vehicle that wouldn’t look out of place in a cartoon or comic. Something like a moving tomato. Since I already knew the streets of Brussels a bit, I asked the organisers a few days before Day of the Maker, whether someone would like to accompany me from the railway station to the Kaai Studios. They offered to arrange a taxi. Perfect, I thought: no cobblestones, no high curbs, no potholes. I made arrangements with someone from the team to take the train and taxi together. No fuss. No stress. She gets in and my wheelchair is safely secured. While laughing, we were saying: “We’re going to be there way too early. Perhaps, we’ll be the first to arrive.”


I can tell you already: we were not the first to arrive. Even with a taxi, it turned out to be no easy matter to travel from point A to point B in the city centre of Brussels. The ride of barely two kilometres easily took half an hour, because we ended up stranded on a square not far from the station. The street we had to turn into was closed off and all other exits were barricaded by cosy terraces, massive planters and prohibition signs. The GPS tried hopelessly to readjust but was equally lost. We ended up being the last to arrive. I quickly found a spot in the circle, trying to hide my awkwardness and focussing on how not to spill my coffee.


“My name is Sander. He/him. I’m quite nervous about today. I have no idea what to expect. I have dark curls, green eyes. I’m in a wheelchair. Today I’m wearing a pink T-shirt and  grey sweatpants from a well-known brand. I have five tattoos and a blister on my left hand. In front of me I see an almost empty stand with dark red folding chairs.”


That’s how I introduced myself. The assignment we received from Dahlia Pessemiers-Benamar was simple:


“Tell us who you are, but also describe what you look like. Also say something about the space we are in.”


This way of getting to know each other, which is intended to give blind and visually impaired people an idea of what the group and the location look like, immediately brought us to the topic of this Day: Accessibility in practice. How do we ensure that our artistic practices, the work that we create, our sector, but also society as a whole, is accessible to everyone?


During this exercise, it was striking that many of us immediately started telling stories: about the clothes they were wearing, the necklaces around their necks, the rings on their fingers. Perhaps it’s a professional habit. Perhaps it’s a challenge for people who tell stories for a living to stick to an objective, dry description. During the introduction, a few times participants said the phrase:


“I look forward to moving.”


And so it happened. Under the guidance of Rachid Boulahrir we did an exercise in which we experimented with different levels of tension in the body. While we were first allowed to move freely and completely relaxed – sitting, lying, standing, with open or closed eyes –, after a while we were asked to tense our bodies and continue dancing like this: first ten percent, then thirty, then fifty, then seventy, then one hundred percent tension. The moment of letting go that came between each stage took away my nerves a little more each time. I sank deeper into my body and really settled here. At first, we moved with caution, maybe even slightly, we barely knew each other or not at all. It took a while before we fully used the space. Before we made contact and moved on together.


“You should actually always move as if you were at home. Nowhere do I dance as well and freely as in my own living room.”


We then started working with Dahlia on the Open Minds card game, where you build a story using three different types of cards. The first card shows the name of a person with a short description, the second a situation, and the third a context for this person and situation:


Card 1: Jan, 40 years old, music producer

Card 2: sprained ankle

Card 3: gym


Based on this information, you have a conversation as a group. You fantasise about Jan: what would he look like, how does he spend his days, what kind of person is he? Then you think about how he sprained his ankle, what that does to him, what consequences this could have for him and how he deals with it. The third card is the most important in the game, because here you will look for possible problems and solutions. The questions you ask yourself as a group are:


How could a gym be inaccessible to Jan with his sprained ankle?

What could/should happen to make this context accessible to him?


In this way, the game shows that the context causes the limitations. For me, being a person and maker with a physical disability, this is not a new insight. On a daily basis, consciously or unconsciously, I am aware of the (in)accessibility of our society for someone in my situation: I have to reserve trains, find accessible toilets and rehearsal rooms, I have to email cultural centres to inquire whether the boxes are accessible, or whether I can get on stage easily with my wheelchair. As long as I am in my own home, where everything is organised according to my needs, I have no limitations. In contemporary disability studies this is called the social model of disability. In the book Theatre and Disability, Petra Kuppers, herself a researcher with a disability, explains it as follows:


“[…] ‘disability’ appears at the moment when this particular impairment enters the value scheme of a particular society. As long as a society’s aesthetics, that is, ways of thinking of things as beautiful, allow for difference, no disability exists. In a society that has gently sloping ramps or level entrances to most buildings, someone who does not locomote easily on two legs has relatively few problems.”


After this exercise, Dahlia said something that I have been thinking about a lot in the past few days, which occasionally floats through my head, pops up and sticks around:


“In fact, it is everyone’s job to approach people when a place is not accessible to someone with any disability, to ask a question about it, to open the conversation.”


She is right. And yet I must admit that I rarely do it myself. I usually keep my mouth shut and deal with it myself. In silence.


Before the lunch break, we were given a creation-based assignment to think about while eating. We all knew that this moment would come, that this could not be absent on the Day of the Maker, and yet the tension in the room immediately rose. Nerves came back and maybe even some stress. We were asked to each write down three words that we associated with accessibility and inaccessibility. We had to incorporate this into a short performance with a piece of text or choreography that we already knew. In addition, we had to find and use one object. For the short time we had, this assignment felt quite big. I can only speak for myself, but after the fifteen minutes we had after lunch to really work on it, I felt anything but done or satisfied. And yet I just did it, showed it. Maybe that’s the great thing about days like that: in the end you just do it. You show. What you have. What you don’t have. You show yourself.


“Common ground is the base of accessibility.”


After a second short movement exercise, we read an excerpt from Living a feminist life by Sara Ahmed under guidance of Madonna Lenaert. In this text, Ahmed describes how privilege works and how institutions exclude part of the population. We reflected on our own privilege and we shared moments when an institution or society did not suit us.


“Privilege is an energy-saving device. Less effort is required to be or do. If you arrive with dubious origins, you are not expected to be there, so in getting there you have already disagreed with an expectation of who you are and what you can do, then an institution is the wrong shape; the jumper does not fit.”


At the end of the day I left, feeling tired and emotional. Time and again, I underestimate how these topics get under my skin. How close they get. How exhausting it can be to spend a day talking about it. Perhaps I had thought or hoped that more creators with a physical disability would be present. Neurodivergent creators. I think I would have liked that.


“Not about us, without us.”


My mother would pick me up at the Kaai Studios. After a long wait, I received a phone call: she couldn’t find it. The streets were closed and she was just driving in circles. Luckily, I hadn’t waited alone. We went looking for my mother and her car. Still cobblestones, still high curbs and still potholes in the road. We finally found her parked in front of a grocery store a few blocks away.


I quickly fell asleep in the car.