For four years in the 1970s I taught in a rural residential school for ‘physically handicapped’ (they wouldn’t be called that now) children. Most, in fact, also had severe mental disabilities. Many of our pupils were dying. But perhaps slightly ahead of its time - the school had an enlightened policy of taking the children out as much as possible so that they be exposed to ordinary life and experiences. Equal rights dominated the thinking. So I took my little class - usually with a one-to-one ratio of adult helpers - to all sorts of places ranging from the local town for shopping, the swimming pool, Windsor Castle and, occasionally to see some sort of performed show. And jolly rewarding it was too - for me as much as for the children.
I was reminded of all this the other day when I heard that teachers of a special needs group were roundly criticised by a teacher accompanying a mainstream group at a recent performance of Shakespeare 4 Kidz’s musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. One autistic boy, apparently, got so excited in the second half and was enjoying himself so much that he made a few of his ‘happy noises.’ The child is otherwise ‘non verbal.’ The suggestion was that the autistic child’s loud (?) reaction had spoiled other children’s enjoyment and that he should not have been brought to the theatre.
By golly, what a tricky issue. Everything in me that cares about equality, education and justice wants to shout from the rooftops that it’s a wonderful thing for all children (and adults) — irrespective of ability or disability — to learn and develop from live performance. I regard it as crucial to education. And yet… if one person’s learning and enjoyment really does detract from another’s, how on earth are theatre companies and venue managers to make sure that equality of opportunity works fairly for everyone?
It does in most cases, of course. You rarely, for example, go to a pantomime anywhere in the country without there being a group of mentally disabled adults in the audience having a ball (in their own way). Never in my experience though, does their presence adversely affect anyone else’s pleasure, possibly because panto is such an informal and interactive art form. There is no issue with ‘happy noises.’ What happens, however, it it’s a pin-dropping classical music concert or a straight performance of Othello?
The problem is a matter of perception - not to mention tolerance, decency, caring and commitment to getting it right. Somehow we have to distinguish between, and balance, apparently ‘disruptive’ behaviour and the rights of people to enjoy themselves as best they can. There may be a big training need here for many people working in the industry as well as for theatre and other audiences. But there are no easy answers.
Discussion might help, though. So do let’s hear your thoughts on, and experiences of, this sensitive matter.