It was a play by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. Or rather, it was a Saturday-night performance of Beckett’s one-person play Not I by two people: Jess Thom, artist, communicator, comedian and neuro-diverse disability activist with Tourette’s syndrome, and Charmaine Wombwell, a British Sign Language (BSL) performer. And it wasn’t just the performance. It was the whole evening. It was a film and a conversation about the play, about disability, about neuro-diversity and about humour too. And it was Jess herself.
I know just how hard it can be to design and deliver workshops on diversity and inclusion that make a real difference to how people think or act. I don’t think I’m the only person (consultant, facilitator, coach on diversity and inclusion) who feels like that. But Jess’s performance made a difference to me. So for those of you who are designing or delivering inclusion workshops, or are more generally interested in how to create an inclusive culture where you work, here are three things that made Saturday night the best inclusion workshop I’ve been to.
- One of the things that makes a culture inclusive is respect for difference. Disability and neurodiversity were respected – not just respected, but celebrated – to the max on Saturday night. It began before we even arrived: when I booked the tickets I noted how the performances were described as ‘relaxed’, which Jess’s website defines as offering ‘a warm welcome to people who find it difficult to follow the usual conventions of theatre behaviour. This can include: people with learning disabilities, movement disorders, autistic spectrum disorder, other neurological conditions, those with young children or babies, and of course, people with Tourettes’. In fact a relaxed performance seems like good news for everyone: we were all encouraged to move around the studio as much as we wanted, to be noisy and comfortable, at any time. Other examples of respecting difference: Jess and Charmaine told the audience what was going to happen at the beginning of the performance – how long each section would last, what we’d be doing and when. For some people that kind of information is vital to their ability to participate. It helped me too. It allowed me to stop worrying about whether we’d make the train home, and be fully in the room for the duration of the play. And Charmaine was on the stage with Jess throughout, translating the play and Jess’s performance and conversations with the audience into BSL. She wasn’t on the margins but core to the performance.
- Another thing that makes for an inclusive culture is a sense of connectedness with other people. There was a big emphasis on making connections and building meaningful relationships on Saturday night. Some of the things that got me thinking about this: the way in which Jess and her team warmly welcomed us into the theatre with personal greetings and an invitation to sit where we wanted. The encouragement we were given to get to know audience members sitting next to us. The diversity, range of expertise and experiences of the people who were shown coming together to create the production, from grime artists to costume makers specialising in the use of lights (who knew?). Jess’s warmth and humour which made her instantly likeable. And her openness about living with Tourette’s and her invitation to ask any question we liked. The feeling that we all belonged, that we were meant to be there together, at least for as long as the performance lasted.
- The third thing that helps with inclusion is raising awareness. The evening was hugely informative about Tourettes, which is a neurological condition affecting Jess and more than 300,000 children and people in the UK. I’d really encourage you to visit Jess’s website to find out more. It’s not about uncontrolled swearing, which is how I’d misunderstood it. A key feature of Tourettes is that people make involuntary and uncontrollable sounds (vocal tics) and movements (motor tics) multiple times a day. Jess’s vocal tics include ‘hedgehog’, ‘biscuit’ and ‘sausages’. Jess says on her website that ‘It’s possible to suppress tics for a while, but eventually they have to be let out. I often tell children this is a bit like how it feels if you try not to blink’. As the mother of teenage children I really felt it when Jess described how as a teenager she used to try to hide her tics, and would disappear to the loo every few minutes to let them out. And it was powerful and moving to hear Jess describe how learning about the social model of disability – which says people are not disabled by their condition but by the failure of the world around to take account of difference – had been a massive liberation, transforming her sense of herself, and her life.
Saturday night reminded me about learning about inclusion through the experience of being included. It brought home to me – again – that there’s nothing more powerful than connecting with someone’s personal experiences to help raise awareness and understanding. And it made me wonder how I might incorporate at least some of the guidance for a relaxed performance the next time I facilitate a workshop or a meeting.
For more information visit Jess’s website on https://www.touretteshero.com/: ‘a place to celebrate the humour and creativity of Tourette’s’.