Many would argue that the dance community is no place for sensitivity. With television and movies projecting our industry as aggressive and competitive, it is a quiet but fundamental assumption that those in the disabled community should shy away from dance. Despite this misconception, it is possible for people with any kind of disability to fully integrate and even flourish in the highly structured and disciplined dance environment.
My belief in this possibility has led me to develop a program called “Unique Movers,” which uses a positive reinforcement approach to teach dance and movement skills to children and young adults of all ages and abilities. The program offers workshops and classes that incorporate movement, dance, music, and classroom-based skills in a celebratory and fun environment. Since 2018, Unique Movers has brought inclusive dance events and workshops to the New York City area, including New York City, Long Island, and Westchester county, and to the Philadelphia area. Traveling to the many wonderful studios in these areas has opened my eyes to the need for our facilities to be more accessible and inclusive. Many of the studio directors I encountered were interested in expanding on this idea, but were not exactly sure where to start or how to go about it. However, if studio owners can take these four easy steps, they will have made real progress toward creating a safer, more adaptable and inclusive environment.
1. Access Audit
First and foremost, it is important to recognize whether or not the studio location is accessible and adheres by these guidelines. One good way to assess your readiness is to complete an “Access Audit” for your building. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
How many entrances are there to the space?
Are the doors wide enough for a wheel chair?
Are there stairs to the entrance?
Is there a ramp or a wheelchair lift?
Are there signs that indicate how to get to the ramp entrance? Are they visible? Is there a clear path?
Evaluate the path: are there grates/holes where someone’s wheelchair or walker might get stuck?
Does the door open manually or automatically? If Manually, what sort of mechanism does it use? (bar handle, knob, etc.)
If the building has more than one floor, how do people get between floors?
Are there signs to show where to get to the elevator?
Is there adequate signage?
Is there braille on your signs?
What sort of lighting is used— fluorescent, incandescent, daylight?
Are there mechanical noises in your space? (Such as buzzing)
How many accessible restrooms (with wide doorways, handrails, low sinks, etc.) are there?
What is the width of the entrance to the accessible stall? (The ADA defines accessible as 33 1/3”)
Are there grab bars on two sides of the stall?
Answering these questions might uncover problems with your space that you had never thought of. If you have the means to address these problems, you are already on your way to creating a more accessible dance studio.
2. Class Structure & Composition
Many studio directors have asked me if it is best to have a designated “Special Needs” dance class, or if they can have those students integrate with the rest of the curriculum. The answer is it depends. It is important to have classes or workshops that are inclusive in order to boost an inclusive and accessible culture at your studio. However, when it comes to curriculum, it is okay to separate classes depending on age, interest level, or ability so you can educate each dancer properly and address each dancer’s needs on an individual level. I have known dancers who are on the spectrum and who dance full-time with their competition team. I’ve also known dancers who are on the spectrum and can only handle 30-minute classes. It is best to evaluate each dancer’s specific needs and place them accordingly.
3. Use of Language
When addressing curriculum and class composition, it is also important to think about the language you use around your studio, your signage, and your in-class descriptions. It is important to avoid “limiting” language, such as “Special Needs Class”. There are more creative and inclusive ways to describe the class while still getting the point across. I like to use the words “inclusive” and “nuanced.”
As I mentioned earlier, it is important to note if your signage is easy to understand. Something as simple as using large letters and short words, along with easily understood symbols, such as directional arrows, can go a long way to create an easier experience for everyone. Often at restaurants and other public places, we see signage that is “clever” but not accessible. Terms like “Spaghettis” and “Meatballs” for gender-specific bathrooms can be confusing for anyone, so just be sure that any language used at the studio is concise and adaptable!
4. Awareness & Education
Most importantly, educate yourself! It is essential when teaching inclusively to understand how beneficial music and dance are. They are key to understanding the relationship between you and your students and can tell you how best to communicate to make them feel safe. According to studies led by the National Art Education Association1, many with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) will struggle creating relationships with others due to their difficulty communicating. It is known that people with ASD can often feel isolated or stuck in their own bodily sensations. Get around these feelings by incorporating movements such as “mirroring” and “following.” These techniques can create an empathic reflection relationship in the classroom and increase the level of comfort for your students.
By implementing these four steps, your studio can become a place where dancers and students of all abilities, both physical and developmental, can thrive. Everyone in your studio should be provided a safe environment for an art that can be positive, uplifting and even therapeutic, especially for those with disability.