Using Dance, Music And Theater To Foster A More Inclusive Environment

Elaine HallBy: Elaine Hall

(This is a continuation of a previous post- here is part one)

“A human being mints many coins from the same mold and they are all identical. But the Holy One, Blessed be G-d, strikes us all from the mold of the first human and each one of us is unique.” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5)

Would we know of Aaron if Moses hadn’t spoken with a lisp? G-d knew to pair someone who could speak easily, with someone who had trouble being understood. Both became leaders. By pairing peers with and without disabilities together they discover each other’s unique gifts and thereby learn, grow and can ultimately lead together. In all of our classes at The Miracle Project Judaica, we use ‘reverse inclusion’- bringing typically developing peers into the creative workspace with individuals who have disabilities.

3. By using ‘reverse inclusion,’ – bringing peers into the creative workspace – everyone benefits. The arts enable participants to connect to each other in new ways that discourage isolation and build community. We pair Sarah – who only wants to sing alone and screams if anyone joins her – with Ellie, a non-disabled teen; slowly trust is created and gradually Sarah allows her to join her song. Over time, Sarah sings a duet with Ellie in a production, and the following year, Sarah is the first child with autism to participate in her Sunday school choir.

Reverse inclusion has many other benefits.

Kenny is known as being a bit of a bully at camp. He can eyeball the vulnerability in others and use it to bring them down. This year, he needs community service hours and thinks participating in a creative arts, theater camp will be an easy way to get all the hours he needs in one full week. He comes ready ‘to help’ but halfway interested. The first day in camp, he is partnered with James, a teenager with Down syndrome. Kenny is trained to follow James’ lead and he becomes increasingly moved by his new friend. Soon, Kenny decides to stay on through the rest of the year, and he is transformed into the protector of the vulnerable.

Sandra is a tough teen, the product of a divorced family, an absent father, and a single mom. Though she is doing well enough in her daytime studies; afterschool, she turns to the wrong crowd; she likes the ‘bad boy.’ Her best friend, Kaitlin, encourages her to join an Inspired Teen group which is a group of teens of all abilities who raise awareness, funds, and participate in The Miracle Project camps and classes.  Sandra connects with David and glides his wheelchair to dance with him. Soon, David pushes himself out of his wheelchair and moves his body – first as a crawl, then guided by Sandra, he uses his walker to get onto the stage.  Ryan Berman our theater director, decorates David’s walker as a Turntable for the production, giving David the character – DJ David.   In time, David is using his walker and dancing by himself on stage. Sandra, feeling like there is something she can offer the world, grows in self-esteem. She breaks up with the ‘bad boy’ and decides to apply for college with an emphasis in Theater and Special Education.

Group of individuals with and without disabilities performing together in the first The Miracle Project Judaica show, "Everyday Miracles" where a group of Hebrew school kids go back in time, led by the new kid, "Eli" and meet their namesakes. (Courtesy: The Miracle Project)

Group of individuals with and without disabilities performing together in the first The Miracle Project Judaica show, “Everyday Miracles” where a group of Hebrew school kids go back in time, led by the new kid, “Eli” and meet their namesakes. (Courtesy: The Miracle Project)

4.  Involve the entire family. Family interests are often split when there is a child with a disability.  One parent drives one child to dance class, Little League, or piano recital; while the other is taking the child with a disability to therapy.  Parents comment that an inclusive theater program is the one place where they can all participate.  Quinn loves to read from the Torah. He has perfect pitch; he also has autism. His sister does not share his ear for music, but she loves to write lyrics. Together they craft beautiful songs.  His Mom helps with the cast party.  Other parents build sets and make costumes.  Together a dynamic, creative community is born.

Siblings may sometimes feel scrutinized as if they have to be overly responsible ‘young adults’ when they have a brother or sister with a disability. Sadly, resentment can build up. Brian’s brother, Kalab, has Asperger’s, and to Brian, Kalab’s incessant repetitions are just ‘annoying.’ Brian connects with Stacey whose sister is non-verbal autistic. Together they share about their siblings’ challenges and when it is time to choose a character for the play, Brian chooses to play the role of a non-verbal autistic boy who types to communicate. He grows in compassion and understanding of his brother by being able to express his feelings, knowing that he is not alone, and also by witnessing how his brother is embraced by others in the class.

The arts are a great equalizer. By participating in shared creative experiences, positive relationships evolve. In our classes at The Miracle Project Judaica, peers work together to write an original Jewish play. Drawing on the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of all, we realize that we are not alone. Participants unite together to create a work of art. Parents are no longer isolated and focused on their child’s deficits – they experience joy. The audience becomes moved by the experience. Everyone is transformed as they learn: in the words typed by Jacob Artson, a long-time participant in The Miracle Project:

If you look long enough
Maybe you’ll see why
Everyone has a talent and they can learn to fly

If you look long and hard
You can see beyond the face
It doesn’t speak but it still feels
Everyone has a place –

To Fly.

Elaine Hall is an internationally renowned arts educator for her starring role in the HBO Emmy Award winning documentary, Autism: The Musical. Her groundbreaking Jewish musical theater and film program, The Miracle Project Judaica, has been named by the Slingshot Guide as one of North America’s best Jewish organizations to foster inclusion.  Elaine’s memoir, Now I See the Moon, was selected reading by The United Nations for World Autism Awareness Day 2011 and for Jewish Disability and Inclusion Month 2013. Elaine is a motivational speaker seeking to change attitudes towards Inclusion through her religious and arts education programs, and through the I Win (Inclusion from Within) programs. Elaine lives in Santa Monica, California with her inspiration, her son Neal Katz diagnosed with autism at age three, and husband,  therapist, Jeff Frymer  – as she answers the call to bring The Miracle Project Judaica to communities nationwide. Connect with Elaine on Twitter or learn more on Facebook.

Read our last post: JDAM Roundup
Come visit us on Facebook to learn more about inclusion of people with disabilities

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