'We're just like everybody else': New play tackles misconceptions about disabilities, love and sex

Talking sex and romance can be cringe-worthy for parents and their adult children — the stuff of many an awkward romantic comedy.

Now imagine you have a physical disability, can't get in or out of your wheelchair by yourself, and need a caregiver to help you talk with others. You like a boy, but how do you date? What does consent look like in that scenario?

You might be paralyzed from the neck down, but you have sexual urges. What do you do? 

Those are some of the scenarios a new theatre production at the Anvil Centre in New Westminster wants its audience to consider about dating, romance and sex for people with disabilities.

The production, called Romance, Relationships and Rights, is described as social theatre, where the community — in this case individuals with disabilities who are also advocates — are empowered to tell their own stories. 

The actors have little professional experience but plenty of lived experience, and the six scenes from the show draw from that.

Ben Nelms/CBC

"Love has no boundaries," says one of the actors and advocates, Dana Faris. 

"We're just like everybody else. People can see it (the disability) as a barrier to having a relationship. They make assumptions about us."

For example, some might assume people with disabilities aren't capable of having relationships, or believe it might be too hard physically. But a 2018 study found that 84 per cent of individuals with mild to moderate developmental disabilities said they had been in a sexual relationship, and 87 per cent indicated that they would like to be in a relationship. 

Often, the barriers to relationships are overprotective caregivers.

The advocates in this production wanted to perform, rather than tell, their stories. Some of their scenes — about online dating and meeting a stranger for the first time — would feel familiar to anyone, irrespective of whether they have a disability.

Other stories are more unique and based on real people.

The theatre process

The show was put together in conjunction with The University of British Columbia's Centre for Inclusion and Citizenship and theatre departments. The advocates participated in acting classes in the fall, and then scripted the show from their own experiences in January.

The process took more time and effort than a typical theatre production, but director Leyton Schnellert said it was worth it.

"Traditional actors just couldn't tell these stories," Schnellert said. "It's not theirs to tell and the experience would have been totally different."

The theatre made changes to the way the show is delivered to make it more accessible for both the actors and the audience. 

One of the actors, Justin Vancleef, is blind in his left eye, and worked with the lighting director to ensure the bright theatre lights were dimmed. Interpreters were paired with actors and also signed the show for the audience. 

All you need is love

Vancleef plays Jeffrey, a young man with multiple disabilities who wanted to date Shannon, who had difficulty communicating by herself. Their parents facilitated a date, carefully watching and ensuring that what was evolving was romantic and meaningful.

Ben Nelms/CBC

Then, the caregivers get out of the way and allow Jeffrey and Shannon to spend some romantic time alone. 

When Shannon's seizures worsen, Jeffrey is at her side in hospital simply holding her hand even while she's in coma. There's hardly a dry eye in the audience. 

Ainsleigh Spencer, a support worker who came to the show with his client, was choked up after the performance.

"I thought it was beautiful, insightful, really meaningful," Spencer said. "It's just a beautiful story about two people who found love, and it ended too quickly."

And for Vancleef — who like his character needs the help of an interpreter to communicate — the message to the audience is simple.

"We have the right to date and love just like anyone else."

Ben Nelms/CBC