Our Disabled Patrons Matter - CircusTalk

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Our Disabled Patrons Matter

We share this article written by Johnathan Lee Iverson, an acclaimed Performer, a New Yorker and Chairman of the Board and Ringmaster for NY-based Omnium Circus which has inclusivity as its core mission. Omnium presents a show that features multi-abled performers and features special accommodations for audience members of all abilities such as ASL interpreters, Audio Description, relaxed seating, etc. to ensure that everyone, despite any disability, is able to enjoy this live show.  Johnathan writes about the importance of all of us working together to recognize and “normalize” our neighbors no matter who or what their differences may be, and that work for all of us starts right in the performing arts space.

It happened during a performance of the Broadway smash “Hadestown.” An audience member pulled out a device and appeared to brazenly record the show. One of the production’s actors takes issue with this and reprimands the alleged perpetrator from the stage. Who could blame them? The actor was likely triggered, as such incidents have become common place in theatrical spaces despite the pre-show pleas made by show management. I, too in my career as a Ringmaster have found myself “triggered” and on more than a few occasions taken it upon myself to act as the “device police.” However, things are not always what they seem.

During this particular performance, what appeared to be a brazen act was actually a disabled patron attempting to enjoy the show as best they could. The device in question was a captioning mechanism, as the supposed offending theatre goer “identifies as a deafblind person who is late-hard of hearing with progressive vision loss.”[1]

Clearly, this was an unfortunate misunderstanding for which the offended party graciously made clear, kindly absolving the actor in question. A generous gesture when one considers it most often falls upon the shoulders of such individuals to exhaustively have to explain their existence. This kind of misunderstanding exposes a gaping blind spot in the performing arts industry and society at large, particularly as it relates to the disabled community.

1 in 4 American adults live with a disability.[2] 1 in 44 American children are on the Autism spectrum.[3] Globally, over 1 billion people live with some form of disability and that number is “dramatically increasing,” according to the World Health Organization[4]. The disabled community is, in fact, the most diverse of all minority groups. Therefore, it is impossible for any of us to not be connected, either directly or indirectly with the disabled population. Thus, it is imperative that our disabled neighbors are not only in the conversations we are having around diversity and inclusion, but that they actually be a part of those conversations, as our friends in the disability community often advocate “nothing about us without us.” Therefore, that kind of inclusion would make such incidents, as the one at Broadway’s “Hadestown” far less likely to occur, as a better educated and inclusive performing arts industry would be well equipped to better inform its members and accommodate its audience.

Omnium: A Bold New Circus, founded in 2020 by artist, author, and scholar, Lisa B. Lewis, was created with this mission in mind. Our purpose is literally in our company name, “of all and belonging to all.” At Omnium, we believe diversity is what happens to us, but inclusion is what we choose. In essence, diversity is as good as it is active. From our board of directors to our staff and crew and of course, our artists, Omnium is the most fully inclusive circus in the industry. Moreover, Omnium’s mission – “of all and belonging to all,” extends to our audience and how we accommodate them. Omnium Circus is proactive and ever mindful of how we present our brand of the performing arts to our audience, particularly our disabled patrons and their families.

All Omnium Circus productions are equipped with ASL, Audio Description, Relaxed Seating, Calming Areas, Braille, and Wheelchair Accessibility. Greater still, Omnium prides itself on the fact that our audience can see a reflection of themselves in our circus ring – from the multiplicity of ethnicities that are represented, which is common to the circus industry as a whole, to our multi-abled stars such as celebrated dancer and acrobat, Anna Gichan, who is deaf and portrays our Poet using ASL throughout the presentation to the renowned, Jenn Bricker-Bauer, born without legs, she  stuns audiences alongside her husband, Dominik in their breathtaking interabled aerial routine.

Omnium endeavors to normalize our neighbors no matter who and what they are. We believe we normalize our neighbors via authentic inclusion – their voice, genius, humanity, and presence must be in our boardrooms, on our executive staff, crew, cast and in our audience. We invite the greater performing arts community to join us as we grow together in an effort to normalize what it is to be truly inclusive.

[1] Los Angeles Times – ‘Hadestown’ apologizes to audience member reprimanded by cast member by Christi Carras
[2] Center For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
[3] Center For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
[4] World Health Organization (WHO) – 24 November 2021

Main Image: Courtesy of Omnium Circus

Go to Equity and Inclusion for more content, resource and conversation on this topic.  

Johnathan L. Iverson
Ringmaster, Motivational Speaker -United States
Johnathan is the Chairman of the Board at Omnium: A Bold New Circus. An accomplished and celebrated showman of circus and stage, as well as, a much in demand motivational speaker. He contributes regularly to CircusTalk and is the creator & host of the YouTube series, In Center Ring.

Johnathan L. Iverson

Johnathan is the Chairman of the Board at Omnium: A Bold New Circus. An accomplished and celebrated showman of circus and stage, as well as, a much in demand motivational speaker. He contributes regularly to CircusTalk and is the creator & host of the YouTube series, In Center Ring.