Tim Webb – Five tips for creating work with young people with disabilities

14 Jan, 2016

Tim Webb co-founded Oily Cart 35 years ago, and has written and directed more than 80 shows for the company that creates work for two audiences: very young children (six months to six years old) and young people with complex disabilities. Webb has worked as an actor, writer and director at theatres large and small throughout the UK. His scripts have been produced at Leicester’s Haymarket Theatre, London’s Albany Empire (formally on the site of the Albany), and Manchester’s Contact, and by theatre in education companies in Greenwich, Glasgow and Leeds. He has directed productions for Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, the London Bubble Theatre Company, Glasgow’s Giant Productions, Canada’s Carousel Players and the Chicago Children’s Theatre. Here are his tips for creators of work for young people with impairments.

1. Think multisensory

Whether preparing a workshop or a performance, run a multisensory check on what you plan. Are you addressing the senses of touch, smell and the kinaesthetic sense, as well as those old theatre standbys of seeing and hearing?

2. Don't paint with a broad brush

Don't think of the audience as some homogenous group. They are not “an audience of children with special needs”. They are a group of complex individuals with a vast range of different attitudes, aptitudes, interests and various communication skills.

3. Observe and improvise

Following on from my previous points, whether you're doing a workshop or performance, above all you need to observe your audience and be able to improvise, responding to what you see. Are you ready to do what you planned slower, faster or completely differently? And are you ready to let your audience in to become co-creators of the piece?

4. Watch the grown-ups

Observe the reactions of any accompanying adults just as closely as those of the children. The adults will almost certainly know the children better than you, and you can often tell just from an accompanying adult's body language whether they think some activity is being well-received by the child – or you are heading for trouble. On the other hand, don't be in thrall to an adult companion's reaction – whether spoken or unspoken.

5. Be wary of labels

In the same way, be wary of the way in which labels such as “autistic spectrum condition” and “profound and multiple learning disability” are used to define people through “the prism of pathology” – concentrating on deficits and impairments. Involvement in a workshop or performance often brings insight into otherwise unregarded facets of a child participant and reveals something of the rich, complex personalities that lie beyond the labelling.

Susan Elkin, The Stage, 11th January 2016

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