“I miss hugging people. I’m a hugger,” Rebecca Bricklin recently shared with me. Rebecca and her mother, Alexandra, have been friends of mine and People’s Light for some time – first as patrons, and more recently as volunteer ushers for our relaxed performances. My colleague Leigh Jackson (Director of Patron Experience) and I interviewed them and several other theatre friends – volunteers, patrons, board members, and fellow artists – for a new project with the Institute on Disabilities (Temple University) entitled We Will Talk About These Days, centering the voices and perspectives of individuals with a range of disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
These conversations are a gift. In addition to the Bricklins, we spoke with People’s Light trustee Diane Bishop; former student and current volunteer Nate Conley and his mother Priscilla; and with a personal artist-friend of mine, Isaac Merz. These interviews highlight glaring holes in care and resources for the disability community, as well as joyful silver linings and personal breakthroughs.
While “disability” includes a range of divergent experiences and cuts across all demographic identities, loneliness and isolation are often unifying experiences for individuals with disabilities. It is no wonder many would struggle to find connection during a pandemic which necessitates isolation. However, individuals with disabilities can also be masterful at adapting, and for some, the current pandemic brings greater equity to constraints with which they may have already been accustomed.
My friend and undergraduate theatre conservatory classmate, Isaac – now a musician in Pittsburgh – noted, “because I've lived my whole life with having to adapt to challenges, I really feel like I'm more prepared. This is an amazingly easy thing for me to wake up and have challenges in front of me. You know, I've been doing that ever since I wanted to walk, tie my shoes...everything. I believe possibly that would be [the same] for a lot of people facing disabilities. When you have a disability, you are adapting and you are believing in yourself; you are a place of solutions, not a place of scarcity or a place of lack.”
Surprises continue to emerge as we find our way in this new landscape. Diane Bishop had not anticipated “the ups and downs. There were days that I was quite content, and then there were days where I would stand out on the front porch and think, I'm the last person left on earth.” Though cut-off in a traditional sense, our COVID-centric worlds also have revealed increased societal innovation to connect in new ways. Remote working, the explosion of online gatherings and virtual arts experiences have allowed individuals to opt in on their own remote terms and to engage at their convenience. Many, I’ve learned, take comfort in these adaptive practices and hope they will continue, even when we can gather safely in person again.
In this time of uncertainty, inside and outside of this project, I have found reaching out to be a means of showing up. I’ve been amazed at just how important intentional points of contact can be. A caregiver shared that a big part of her self-care was just being able to talk to me. She shuddered at the phrase “mental health care” with what she experiences to be a significant lack in true "care" in the present context, noting that “relationships and connections are what shine through and make the difference.”
The two dozen plus individuals featured in this project not only share their perspectives, but generously open their worlds. I hope you enjoy the interviews conducted – those with our theatre friends and those of the Institute’s collaborating partners – and that this project inspires all of us to more intentionally engage with, listen to, elevate and learn from the experiences of individuals with disabilities in this moment and going forward. While we try to envision our post-COVID future – reopening our venues, regathering with fellow artists, colleagues, volunteers, and patrons – it is essential that we make space for and prioritize these individuals to ensure greater inclusion now and when we emerge on the other side.