Robin Bennett
September 18, 2015

The terms “developmental disabilities” and “challenges” are often synonymous with each other. In fact, challenges are part of life whether experienced typically or with developmental disabilities. However true this may be, here at 4th Wall we understand that the challenges of people with developmental disabilities can often bring up questions of the “accessibility” of certain activities for parents and caregivers. Let’s take a look at different challenges that many students with developmental disabilities may deal with and just how theater can create success from limitations!

1. Students who are Non-verbal:

American Sign Language is incorporated into every 4th Wall workshop and performance.
American Sign Language is incorporated into every 4th Wall workshop and performance.

Throughout theater history, the stage has been a place for people to communicate in different ways; from monologues and singing to interpretive movement and rhythmic dance, theater has provided the scene for people to learn about the world and themselves. The three parts of the theater–acting, singing, and dancing–when adapted properly, can be a very important tool in the development of a young person with limited communication.

Just about every 4th Wall instructor has experience working with a student who is non-verbal or sparse with their words. Some of our greatest success stories come from students who did not recite any lines or sing any songs. In theater, we learn that we can communicate in several different ways: facial expression, movement, gestures, costuming and so much more. At 4th Wall, the emphasis is always on the unique abilities that each student brings to our workshops and classes. Let’s look at a true 4th Wall story:

19-year-old Candy joined us for a workshop that would end in a production after six weeks of classes. She was warm and friendly, but quiet; in fact, she was nonverbal. At the beginning of class, Candy would often become distracted by something out of the window or going on the hallway, but everything changed when the instructors found out that she loved to get up and move! Instead of repeating or giving lines, Candy created a special movement and sound to make to create her character, which she had chosen: a spooky vampire! During the performance the audience glowed in her radiant smile every time she triumphantly whipped her black cape and laughed!

2. Students with Physical Challenges:

Robin acting in a production of "Good Person of Sezchaun"
Robin acting in a production of “Good Person of Sezchaun”

“I can’t do it the way everyone else can do it.” This is often the way that people with physical challenges feel when confronted with a new experience. The theater answers that with, ” Don’t let that stop you! No one here does it the way anyone else does!” Theater, especially in a program like 4th Wall’s, can be a great equalizer among people with different experiences and a variety of special abilities; because our program focuses on the unique abilities, not disabilities, of a child or young adult, talent is able to shine through every body–able or otherwise.



Let’s get specific:

     “When I was a child, I decided to try my hand at Theater. I loved becoming a character that was totally unlike myself. Some people around me thought it strange that I would be involved with such a physically-centered activity. The fact that I was physically challenged never made me afraid of being seen onstage; just the opposite! I said to myself, “everyone looks at me everywhere I go and watches how I move differently, I want to give them something to look at that is up to me!”

–Robin, 4th Wall instructor

3. Refusal to Participate:

     “For those with special needs, increasing one’s comfort level is where theatre therapy provides opportunities to stretch and grow; not only in speaking within larger groups, but expanding life enhancing skill sets as well.”

–Katie Mann, 4th Wall Theater Co. Co-founder

img_0148Often in a class, 4th Wall instructors will meet a student who is determined not to have any part in what is happening onstage. It is a frequent occurrence among all workshops and all abilities. It might happen that a student confronts an instructor at the beginning of class and loudly declares, “I’m not doing it!”. It might be during the excitement of an activity or rehearsal that a student gives into nerves and runs to hide in the corner. Instructors have three rules that they give at the beginning of class, “be SAFE, be BRAVE, and always be RESPECTFUL!” These are the moments that being brave becomes real for the students, and instructors are skilled in providing support and encouragement to be brave for those students that think they can’t/won’t do it. When it comes down to it, however, it is watching the other students who are just like them try it and have a good time, that most often encourages those not participating to be brave. Let’s look at a true 4th Wall story:

Brian’s mother had signed him up for a theater class hoping that he would enjoy it, but when she dropped him off Brian refused to enter the room. He whispered, barely audible, to his mother and after an instructor came out and spoke with them, they had made a deal; join us and watch (from a chair in the corner, he was adamant), and as the class progresses, the instructor will offer if he wants to join in, but if he doesn’t that is OK, too. So Brian took a seat in the corner and didn’t say a word or make a move that first class, but when he returned the following week, he allowed his chair to be moved closer to the circle and his fellow students. When the group began a game of “Pass the Hat”, he accepted the police hat and after putting in on, whispered, “freeze”. It continues like this, with Brian participating more and more with each week that passed until the final performance arrived. When his mother dropped him off before the show, she shared, “He has been shouting his lines to me all week rehearsing for today! He is so excited!”

How many of us can say that we will try anything (at least once!)? The majority of humanity–adults, youth, kids–with or without special needs often are stopped from trying new things by their hangups, fears, or things they can’t control. However, theater, specifically theater therapy in terms of the 4th Wall programs, offers a safe space to open up, try new things and have experiences that “challenges” and “special needs” have no say in!

If you, or someone you know, has questions about whether 4th Wall Theater is right for your child, loved one, or client, please feel free to contact us!