Uplifting Neurodiverse Perspectives

Hello! My name is Alison Mahoney. I’m going into my second year as a PhD student in Theatre and Performance Studies at Pitt, and I research performance and disability. In addition to my academic research, I am a theatre practitioner: I co-founded and directed several productions for Bluelaces Theatre Company in New York City, which devises multisensory theatre for neurodiverse audiences of young people and their families or caregivers. While living in New York, I was the accessibility manager for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and a project manager with the Museum, Arts, and Culture Access Consortium (MAC), working to increase opportunities at cultural organizations for neurodivergent and disabled adults. These experiences propelled me to go back to school to think further about the ways performance and disability studies can speak to one another in order to build accessible arts spaces that are responsive to the disability communities they serve.

When I found out about the Humanities Engage immersive fellowships, I was excited to apply because this seemed like a great way to blend my nonprofit experience with my academic research. I reached out to CO/LAB Theater Group, an organization in New York whose mission is to “provide individuals with developmental disabilities a creative and social outlet through theater arts.” I highly recommend visiting their website to check out videos of past performances and buy tickets to their upcoming virtual shows! I worked with CO/LAB when I lived in New York, both as a teaching artist for some of their ensemble theater classes and in my capacity as access manager at Lincoln Center, where we collaborated to develop theater workshops as part of the exhibitions at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts for Lincoln Center families. I have always been impressed with the value CO/LAB places on their participants’ artistic contributions and the respect with which they approach their neurodiverse actors.

This season marks CO/LAB’s tenth anniversary, which is a remarkable achievement for a small nonprofit. The organization has grown in many ways over the past decade. They now offer many more classes to many more actors and have served over 1,300 participants since 2011. Their ideological growth, too, has been profound. The company was founded by four women shortly after completing their undergraduate studies at Syracuse, and initially relied heavily on techniques derived from special education, a field that often positions nondisabled “experts” in power over their disabled students, whose behavior is seen as in need of fixing. This aligns closely to what is known in disability studies as a medical model of disability, which places the “problem” of disability on the individual. In contrast, a social model of disability argues that disabled individuals are not the problem; rather, people are disabled by their encounters with architectural, societal, and attitudinal barriers. Over the course of their ten year history, CO/LAB has adjusted their approach to better align with a social model of disability, forming a self-advocacy committee for their actors to inform programming decisions and offering employment and training opportunities in their classrooms.

These ideological shifts have prompted CO/LAB to examine some of their administrative practices, and I am excited to help them incorporate changes to continue uplifting the neurodiverse perspectives within their community. This summer, I am working on three projects: examining their program evaluation practices and “actor log,” the company’s record of information about actors’ in-class participation, and conducting an accessibility audit of their classroom tools. I am tasked with thinking about how to include the perspectives of participants who do not communicate best verbally, since surveys or traditional interviews are not accessible to them. We are exploring the use of photo and video, physical tableaux, drawing, and in-class observations to ensure that CO/LAB receives feedback from all its participants, rather than just those who can articulate their thoughts in written or spoken language. My work with the “actor log” asks questions about what information to include in order to create accessible and supportive classroom environments. I will conduct focus groups and questionnaires with teaching artists, volunteers, actors, and actors’ caregivers to inform my recommendations for adjusting the information gathered in the actor log. Finally, I will be helping CO/LAB conduct one of their regular accessibility audits, which are done to ensure that the tools they use in their classrooms and performance spaces are as responsive as possible to their community’s diverse communication styles and access needs.

I am excited to dive into these projects, and I am grateful to Humanities Engage for making this kind of hands-on experience possible!

Alison Mahoney
Theatre Arts
June 2021

Learn about all the Pitch Your Own Summer Immersive Fellows and Curated Immersive Summer Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.