HubWeek speaker combats accessibility barriers to dance training

Ellice Patterson, the founder of Abilities Dance Boston, at the HubWeek 2019 event Pursuit Talks: A More Accessible Future. Seaport, Boston, Mass., Oct. 2, 2019. Photo by Lillian Eden/ BU News Service

By Lillian Eden
BU News Service

BOSTON — When Ellice Patterson tried to make a career in dance, she found many barriers to entry, some of them literal. So she found a way around — by creating her own company. 

Patterson, the founder of Abilities Dance Boston, spoke at Hubweek 2019 about her experiences with dance and creating spaces for people of all abilities. Her dance company, founded in 2017, aims to create safe and accessible spaces for everyone. 

“We create work based on our own identities and experiences, etc., because it’s important to show that disability is not one thing, but that it is this beautiful community,” Patterson said.

As Patterson knows firsthand, creating inclusive experiences is a lot of work. Even when she was able to access studios, she often found that choreographers didn’t know how to work with someone who wasn’t able-bodied.

It is not enough, Patterson said, to hire diverse dancers to feature in productions, but to make practice spaces, teachers and performances accessible, too. 

Patterson showed the crowd a clip of a duet with an able-bodied dancer and a dancer in a power chair. In addition to the music, there was an audio description of the performance for people who are blind or with low vision created by a dance writer and a poet. An ASL interpreter at the Hubweek presentation translated the audio description so everyone in the crowd could experience every aspect of this inclusive performance. 

Patterson has faced systemic issues, such as sexism, racism, ableism and classism, and said she constantly has to be an advocate for herself and her performers. “We haven’t been funded for reasons like I didn’t look like I had a disability or I danced too well to have a disability or the dancers didn’t look like they had disabilities or we didn’t fit a certain narrative of what that should be,” she said. 

In one solo performance, Patterson said she danced with a walker, with a wheelchair and without either to show that mobility is fluid.

Having a space where people with disabilities can feel empowered makes her students feel more emboldened in other areas of their life, Patterson said, like advocating for accommodations for themselves at their workplaces. Patterson’s goal is to train and educate the next generation of dancers and instructors so that everyone has the opportunity to see themselves represented in art.

Patterson is optimistic about increasing accessibility in the workplace. Companies and community outreach programs have been asking accessibility experts for advice and making strides toward creating inclusive spaces and workplaces, instead of just trying to fulfill a quota. Even small changes, like the way companies write job descriptions or making telecommuting an option for employees, can make jobs and workplaces open to more people. 

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