Athena Stevens has wanted to be an actor since she was three. "My philosophy is that as everyone is staring at me anyway, I might as well get a pay cheque," she says. To that end, she has applied to every drama school in the UK and had about 20 auditions. She got down to the last but one stage at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) in London and received offers from four other institutions.
This, in spite of the fact that she has cerebral palsy, with restricted movement in all four limbs, and often uses a wheelchair. It was not a big issue, she felt. Acting is such a difficult world to get into, she says, that it would be hard to accuse those who rejected her of doing so on the grounds of her disability rather than talent.
Athena may be unusually determined, but she is not deluded. In spite of the intense competition for places, in spite of the emphasis on physical appearance and future employability, it is still perfectly possible for a disabled person to achieve a place on a prestigious performing arts course - and it is becoming more so.
Take Sophie Stone, who is studying a three-year acting degree at the highly competitive Rada, and is deaf. Or Lucy Edwards, who is studying to be a props maker at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and is dyspraxic. Or Aidan O'Reilly, another aspiring actor at Rada, who has a visual impairment that means, "What most people see at 200 feet, I see at 20 feet."
Alongside all these are numerous students with various degrees of dyslexia, a common learning difficulty among those studying dance and drama, and a more serious one than it seems because it can not only affect ability to read and write, but also ability to learn lines and remember routines.
Nick Lawson, a recent graduate of London Contemporary Dance School says, "Sequences that take other people a matter of minutes can take me days to learn. I've learnt not to panic and take it down to the basics, breaking it down movement by movement."
In the past, many students would have kept a condition such as dyslexia or mental health problems hidden if they could, concerned that with hundreds competing for every place it would give the audition panel an excuse to take someone else. Other disabled applicants would probably not have applied at all.
This is now beginning to change, according to Barbara Waters, chief executive of Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities. Not only are more of these students being encouraged by friends and teachers to have a go, institutions are becoming more open minded about who they take and how they go about choosing them.
Sophie is one example of this. The first time she applied to Rada she reached the last stage of the audition process, but was advised that she needed more acting experience. After working on a project with the Royal Shakespeare Company and with Graeae, a theatre company for actors with disabilities, she applied again and was accepted.
The first two weeks were the most difficult, she says, although she had communication support workers assigned to take notes for her and to tell her where she needed to be. After that, she knew in which lessons she would need help and could ask for it. Singing is still the most challenging aspect of the course for her but she has two "amazing" singing teachers who have helped her find songs that suit her range and worked with her on rhythm and diction.
She says: "Over time, all the teachers are starting to click and think, 'This is so simple. I only have to turn around. I only have to put my hand down.' And then it becomes so natural that it becomes an unconscious decision to accommodate me in the lesson."
For Nadia Albina, born with no right forearm, it was the physical components of her drama degree at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art that initially caused her concern - fight scenes in particular. "I knew it was going to be difficult," she says. "I have never been to the theatre and seen an actor on the stage who has a disability without playing a part that doesn't call for it. I found that quite upsetting, but I knew it was something I had to face." But she quickly learnt moves that she could perform without problem. And while she has experimented with a prosthetic arm, she finds she is better able to operate without one.
The schools that these students attend are all part of the Conservatoire for Dance and Drama, which brings together eight affiliate schools delivering high-level vocational training in dance, drama and circus arts.
For the past three years, the Conservatoire has run a disability project, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, looking at how provision for disabled students can be improved in every aspect of studying a course in the performing arts. This includes changing application forms to encourage applicants to disclose a disability and say what support they think they might need in an audition, without fear of damaging their chances of being accepted. The Conservatoire has also produced a DVD featuring disabled students to encourage others to apply.
In addition, the project involves training staff about how to support the disabled students they teach. Lois Keith, disability project manager for the Conservatoire, says staff may have received very traditional training in their own student days and might not have worked with disabled people in their own professional lives. They need to be kept up to date not only with the "reasonable adjustments" they may need to make in their teaching but with changes in legislation and issues such as confidentiality. It is not appropriate to gossip about what might be "wrong" with a student, for example.
Disabled students are encouraged to have a learning agreement, setting out what their individual support needs are and how staff can meet them. "It means that staff take on the responsibility for making 'reasonable adjustments' to their teaching and the student doesn't have to go into each class and explain things," says Keith.
Her project looks closely at the core elements of a course and assessment procedures to ensure they are not discriminatory. While it is important not to compromise standards, she says, schools need to assess whether elements of a course that may be difficult for a disabled student are done that way because they have to be or merely out of tradition. She argues that since performing arts training is creative, it is always possible that if teachers look at new and innovative ways of working that will help disabled students, they will help all students to achieve their full potential.
The Conservatoire schools all describe themselves as vocational, and their graduates expect to enter the jobs market, which can be especially challenging for disabled students. On the other hand, so many actors and dancers have difficulty finding work that the position of disabled actors is not necessarily worse than their non-disabled contemporaries.
Athena looks upon her disability less as a disadvantage in the jobs market than as a unique selling point. "I know I'm going to have trouble, but how many disabled actors are there out there?," she asks. "Not many. And in this business you have to be able to make your own opportunities."
She says her disability allows her to draw on experiences and give weight to characters in ways that are not available to other actors.
Waters says disabled students must be given the same chances as everyone else to find out whether they have the talent to become a performer and can find work in the field. "People giving guidance have to be much more open-minded and not put people off before they get through the door," she says.
New legislation has encouraged attitudes more open to inclusion. The Disability Discrimination Act Part 4, that came into force last year and in April and September this year, obliged public bodies, including universities and colleges, to anticipate the needs of disabled students and make the necessary adjustments in the physical environment.
From this month there will be more onus on universities to explain why they have failed to make the adjustments needed, rather than leaving it to students to complain and ensure compliance with the act, while in December, a new aspect of the act will require public bodies to produce a disability equality scheme showing how their procedures give equal rights to disabled people.
They will have to prove they have involved disabled people in drawing up these schemes and in three years' time will also have to prove how successful they have been.
"Students don't always know their rights so it is a long, slow process," says Waters, who stresses that education is very different from going into a shop and not getting good service. "It's a longer term relationship." But she says progress is being made.
Stevens, who is from Las Vegas, says she deliberately chose to study in Britain, with all the visa problems that entails, because she felt it offered more opportunities for disabled students. This is partly because the dominance of Broadway in the States and consequent stress on musical theatre makes it especially hard for disabled actors to succeed, she says, but it is also to do with attitude.
For her, more open-minded attitudes by performing arts schools can have far-reaching effects. "It is terribly important that disabled people are integrated into mainstream drama," she says. "It is theatre that shows us what society considers to be normal."
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