When I was in elementary school, I volunteered to be a peer mentor for my classmates who have intellectual disabilities. I remember they had outbursts and had trouble expressing themselves with words, so they resorted to using their body language. I remembered this was unsettling to me. But I remembered the term “peer” which we went over constantly in class. It meant and still means to me, “equal.”
So last spring when the opportunity presented itself to help teach theatre to a group of our SUCCESS peers (UMBC students who have intellectual disabilities), I jumped on it. The first class, I saw what they could do. I found how they could produce honest and real moments; that were uninhibited and natural. However, what I saw in the professor and other aids was a sense of “othering” them. Through treating the SUCCESS peers with an inclusive attitude but careful not to discount their learning. At the end of the class I performed along side them in the culminating performance. I was proud of what each person had accomplished, just as I would be in other classes I taught.
So I’d say my activism is two-fold. It is teaching theatre to people who are not normally given the option as well as treating them in a way that sees them as people first. Ability second. My theory is that ability takes many forms and we are all disabled, we simply place more emphasis on those disabilities that are visible based on the physical body or the body’s behaviors. To add theatre, it is a tool for anyone to learn communication skills and confidence. But what I have loved about that experience is my peers’ want to learn and sheer enjoyment in simply getting on stage.
My second element in activism is role modeling for the professor and other student peers; that these people can and should be treated just like everyone else. I am excited to continue in my activism this semester by teaching a second round of theatre for the SUCCESS peers, who are my equals in every way.