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National Forum on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities

Concept Papers

Disability and Training in the Arts

Arthur Pepine

Is There Something to Learn?

Is there something which people with disabilities can learn from a variety of training programs such as the Yale School of Drama? A fair question if the people in question have a firm understanding of their goals and are knowledgeable of the programs under consideration. Without an understanding of one's goals and the price which he or she is willing to pay for them, a person with a disability will compound the disappointments which ordinarily come with belonging to this minority, in which two out of three persons are unemployed, with the frustration of looking for work in one of the most intensely competitive fields imaginable.

The School of Drama

Some insights into the School of Drama's programs should help in beginning an understanding of what types of programs are available.

The School of Drama offers a graduate level program, lasting three years, and yields a Master of Fine Arts degree. While the occasional student is accepted without having attended college, a bachelor's degree is a prerequisite for admission. Applicants are drawn from a broad cross section of the population and from distant cities, both national and international.

The School, while fairly expensive, extends sufficient financial aid to make attendance possible for all applicants, even those with the most modest of resources. Attendance often results, however, in debt exceeding $30,000.

In addition to classroom instruction, students participate in a prodigious number of productions which range from studio and Cabaret presentations to fully actualized thesis productions and productions at the Yale Repertory Theater. This intensity of production activity is often credited by our alumni as the reason for the high level of preparedness with which students are able to enter the business.

Not An Acting Program

The Yale School of Drama is often misperceived as an acting school. While acting enjoys the highest visibility of all the disciplines, it is only one of nine programs in which students can specialize. The other programs are directing, dramaturgy, playwriting, technical design and production, stage management, theater management, sound design and stage design, with sub-specialties of costume, set and lighting design. The School graduates practitioners in all the crafts needed to operate a regional theater, such as the Yale Repertory Theater.


The latest embodiment of the School of Drama came about in the middle of the politically fervent 1960's when Robert Brustein was appointed dean. His weighty mission was to revive the school's then stagnating programs.

Brustein brought with him a vision wherein the school would develop crafts people in all facets of theater production; artists who could go on to take active participation in the then-nascent regional theater.

Conservatory Environment

His innovation was the establishment of a regional, professional theater--the Yale Repertory Theater. In the fashion of a conservatory, the theater would be a partner with the school in both the production of stimulating theater and the training of accomplished stage artists. The two were viewed as a seamless union of the institutions in which practicing artists at the Rep would be both models and teachers to the students of the School. Students, in turn, would study the basics of their crafts at the school while apprenticing themselves to the professional activities at the Rep.

A graphic, if not elegant, analogy often used to illustrate the relationship is that of a medical school and a teaching hospital. At a medical school, students learn the basics of medicine from doctors, to whom they are apprenticed in the practice of medicine as interns and then residents at a hospital.

In the thirty-plus years since its inception, the model today may not be as fulsome as originally conceived, but the Rep is still the master teacher to the students. Professional practice is the goal to which they aspire.

It is this comprehensive, conservatory paradigm that distinguishes the Yale program from ones at other schools. While one may find programs conducted at professional theaters, (acting being the most popular), students are there mostly as fodder for casting demands than for real apprenticeships.

Applicants With Disabilities

The question of people with disabilities' participation in the Yale program is a thorny one. The program is inclusive as to gender, race, and ethnicity and the students with disabilities who have attended, have completed the same program as their non-disabled peers with none but the most modest of accommodations.

Admissions officers find the question of admitting people with disabilities difficult in the abstract. People with disabilities after all do not constitute a homogeneous group. The needs of a person who is blind and the challenges they present are obviously different from those presented by someone who is deaf or orthopedically impaired or has a mental disability.

In addition to us coming with a variety of competencies, the demands of the various academic disciplines differ widely. For some programs it may be imperative to see or hear or perform a high order of mathematical functions, while for others the demands may be quite different.

Disabled Persons As Applicants

More than a handful of students with disabilities have already completed the program. These examples could fairly be characterized as "easy matches." A concise list of people whom we have graduated would include a playwright who used a wheelchair, numerous actors with learning disabilities, an actor who was an amputee, and a dramaturge and theater manager with severe visual impairments. These students had disabilities which did not prevent them from carrying out the essential functions of their courses, and their faculty had arrived at some level of comfort with those students' disabilities.

At the same time, while I have no reason to believe applicants with the following disabilities have ever been rejected by (much less have ever applied for) the following programs, there are circumstances in which the very nature of a disability would render a person unqualified for a professional course of study.

For example a totally blind person is not likely to be found qualified to pursue a course in stage design. Likewise, it is easy to see how the faculty in sound design would find a deaf person unqualified for their program.

These calls are easy. Less easy are the circumstances where peoples' employment depends upon an employer's leap of imagination or faith. The stories of computers assisting people to accomplish more traditional jobs for instance are legendary, but what of those employers who were the first to take that leap? Understanding how these risk-taking employers function is a valuable pursuit.


One should not underestimate the value of the Americans With Disabilities Act. While enforcement is difficult in areas like these, in which judgment plays so strong a role, it has forced administrators to at least think about their program and disability issues. Not many people are fearful of its consequences, but do know we are around, and believe they have some kind of obligation to us.


My experiences at the School of Drama and in the arts in general suggest that 'gatekeepers' are a fairly sympathetic group of people, but it is the rare individual who is free enough to see people with disabilities absent a 'medical model' lens.

Attitudes and prejudices, among both employers and the public, are deeply ingrained. The unlearning of these perspectives, while moving at a seemingly glacial pace, will yield in time. People with disabilities must simply be prepared to capitalize on opportunities that come their way.

In the craft of acting, for example, the only roles once deemed appropriate for African-Americans were limited to menials and outlandish stereotypes until the talents of performers like Paul Robeson and Canada Lee could not be ignored. In time, the performers came to be accepted not just as black characters, like Othello, but as not-so-black characters, like Macbeth, whose essential nature they portrayed superlatively.

Emblematic of the future for people with disabilities is the development of Marlee Maitlin's career. Her initial film role was one for whom deafness was central, but she went on to play roles where her deafness was merely incidental. The oddity of her deafness was dispelled. She is now viewed not as a deaf actress, but as an actress who is deaf.

We have moved society far in seeing people with disabilities as individuals and not as a locus of disease. However, until we achieve a disability-blind society, people with disabilities who look to break new ground will, like all new ground breakers, have to be more talented, more assertive, and more patient.

Other Papers in this series - "Training Models"

© 1998, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Reproduced by permission.
No part of this publication may be reproduced by any means without the written permission of The Kennedy Center.

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