In a rehearsal studio on the seventh floor of Concordia University’s John Molson Building, a dozen theater students prepare to take the stage. They stretch, make vocalizations, recite their monologue in low voices. We feel their feverishness, we also feel their complicity.
These students all have their lives ahead of them and their heads full of dreams, but five of them stand out: Stéphanie, Roselyne, Emmanuel, Philippe and Anne. Their differences? They either live with Down syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder or Intellectual Disability. And they are enrolled, like the others, in this intensive summer course. They will obtain, like the others, three university credits for this participation. For these five neuroatypical artists, this is their very first experience of post-secondary studies.
“To my knowledge, this is the first and only university inclusion project of this scale in Canada,” proudly says Menka Nagrani, associate professor of theater at Concordia University and instigator of this pilot project called Inclusive.
La Presse was able to attend one of the only two performances that the troupe gave, and which took place last week, at Concordia University, in front of a few dozen spectators.
The students had only three weeks to write, edit and rehearse this original creation, which incorporates texts by Eugène Ionesco, original texts, dance and a bit of singing. The lessons were mutual, assures Professor Menka Nagrani. The neuroatypical artists were able to share their professional experience with others (they are all actors with Productions des pieds et des mains, an inclusive dance and theater company created by Menka Nagrani).
Student Claire Joly, who was enrolled in the course, was impressed with her new friends’ ideas. “The project wasn’t Concordia students who included artists from Hands and Feet Productions. No way. We helped each other through the process,” she says.
The Inclusive pilot project took about a year of preparation in advance. First we had to convince management. “Anything new generates fears and apprehensions,” Ms. Nagrani recalls. Les Productions des pieds et des mains offered funding to pay tuition fees for new students and to hire three support artists. Their role was to accompany the five neuroatypical artists, if only to teach them how to come to university, how to navigate it, how to prepare.
The inclusive pedagogy deployed by Menka Nagrani in the course is the subject of a study led by Kim Sawchuk, professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Concordia University. Other universities will be able to draw inspiration from the pilot project to lead to inclusion initiatives.
“It’s surprising how normal the course is, in that not everything one would imagine to be a problem really showed up,” observes Alexandre Prince, research assistant. The challenges were mostly about language (there were unilingual Anglophones and unilingual Francophones in the group), not disabilities, he says.
The Inclusive pilot project also allowed two students with intellectual disabilities to join a dance class in the winter of 2023. One of them finished with the best grade in the class.
For Menka Nagrani, the time is right to lead this kind of initiative. Students, she says, want inclusion. “And diversity isn’t just about skin color; it is also the diversity of abilities. That’s all,” she said.
When asked if she recognizes herself in the television landscape, artist Anne Tremblay, who has dyspraxia, dysphasia and mild intellectual disability, answers unequivocally: “No. “My difference is not put forward, and it’s boring, because we should put all the differences forward”, concludes the smiling young woman.