Inclusive theatre-making:

Participation, empowerment and well-being

By Elena Di Giovanni (University of Macerata, Italy)


The article discusses the natural move away from traditional, barrier-centred notions of accessibility to media and live events towards more inclusive paradigms and practices with the people, not the barriers, at their core. After defining the notion of inclusive theatre-making, it introduces the concept of well-being as well as the tools and scales that can be used to measure it in relation to participation in inclusive theatrical practices. In order to promote advances in the study of people’s reactions to, and appreciation of, inclusive strategies and activities in the field of media accessibility, the notion of well-being is here tested and explained through the results of an experiment carried out in Italy in 2021. The ultimate aim is to stimulate researchers to move beyond the evaluation of immediate, or short-term effects of access and inclusion, towards a comprehension of the long-term effects on their lives.

Keywords: accessibility, audiences, disability, models of disability, well-being, participation, theatre studies

©inTRAlinea & Elena Di Giovanni (2022).
"Inclusive theatre-making: Participation, empowerment and well-being"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Inclusive Theatre: Translation, Accessibility and Beyond
Edited by: Elena Di Giovanni and Francesca Raffi
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
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1. Introduction

In many a discipline, pivotal changes, such as the recognition of new research avenues, have been classified in terms of turns: the cultural turn in translation studies (Bassnett and Lefevere 1990) is, for instance, one outstanding example of a major change that hit the relatively young discipline in the early Nineties and that oriented its expansion thereafter. In the field of audiovisual translation (AVT), traditionally seen as a subdiscipline of translation studies but de facto being today largely independent and broad enough to have several sub-avenues itself, a pivotal turn is connected with the appearance, and rapid ascent, of media accessibility studies at the turn of the century. Previously researched within rather distant disciplinary areas such as information technology, engineering and certainly disability studies, media accessibility has had the great merit of fostering the maturity of the source discipline by incepting it with true and multifarious interdisciplinarity, therefore bringing AVT to the fore even within distant fields of research.

The exponential growth of media accessibility within the realm of AVT, evidenced, among other things, by the multiple international grants assigned to projects dedicated to it and the proliferation of publications the world over, has caused many scholars to ask themselves whether it is still correct to consider AVT as the source discipline, thus somewhat replicating the pattern between translation studies and AVT. As a matter of fact, the term ‘accessibility’ can easily be applicable to interlingual translation practices such as dubbing and subtitling, as they undoubtedly make audiovisual texts of all types accessible for speakers of different languages (Romero Fresco 2019; Di Giovanni 2020).

Moreover, as media accessibility reaches its own maturity, it also witnesses a paradigmatic change that is already shaping research in tangible ways. More importantly, such a change is a result of the mutual evolution of the research field as well as the practice, in many parts of the world. As a matter of fact, both areas have been recording a shift from barrier-centred to user-centred approaches (Romero Fresco 2021), from providing access for to creating access with, from a reactive to a proactive approach (Stephanidis 2009). With this change, that has to date seen many attempts at labelling it – as always happens when new research avenues and new practices take shape – the main tenets are being re-moulded, revised, re-opened. Amongst the many attempts at redefinitions, such expressions as participatory accessibility (Di Giovanni 2018), co-accessibility (Okyayuz and Kaya 2020), creative access (Romero Fresco 2021) and universal accessibility (Remael and Reviers 2019) have been used, all of them essentially pointing to a revision of the traditional view whereby the end-users (persons with disabilities) are recipients of access services. As is clear, the focus is shifting from disabilities and their needs to a creative, joint approach to access, to the valorization of diverse abilities and the sharing of the design, implementation and enjoyment of accessible-turned-inclusive texts, events, performances. And this is precisely where the shift lies: what have traditionally been seen as the primary end-users, now become more and more regularly co-designers and co-providers of services, tools, strategies for a true integration in media and the arts. Such a move has also been fostered by what have been defined and described as participatory practices (Di Giovanni 2018), that have again contributed to blurring the dividing line between who is to be the provider and the receiver of access services, thus leading to increased awareness and empowerment (ibid.). Therefore, inclusion has become a key concept, leading several scholars in media accessibility research to quite naturally turn to universal design to define new methodologies and frameworks (Patiniotaki 2019; Remael and Reviers 2019) and to adopt inclusion rather than accessibility as a reference term.

And if participation is essential for inclusion, inclusion leads to empowerment, to increased social equity, to the sharing of experiences where different abilities are added value and not barriers. We may venture to say, and we will try to demonstrate it through the results of an experiment, that participation, inclusion and empowerment generate increased well-being.

Utopian as all of this may sound, as media accessibility research is still reflecting on, and experimenting with, the move from accessibility to inclusion, it seems worthwhile and urgent to find ways to measure the impact of inclusive practices in media and the arts, particularly in terms of (potentially) increased happiness and overall well-being. This is in line with the nowadays regular trend in AVT, where reception studies have taken centre stage, but most of all it seems important to close the circle of experimental research by evaluating whether the direction taken is truly beneficial to end users of different types.

In the following sections, we will explore the shift from accessibility to inclusion, define inclusive theatrical practices (inclusive theatre-making), reflect on the notion of well-being and apply it to the evaluation of an inclusive, multisensory theatrical experience.

2. From accessibility to inclusion: a shift

As we have observed, the study of accessibility within audiovisual translation has seen considerable development over the past years, most notably towards interdisciplinary pathways. We have seen, for instance, how many new and fertile directions have been taken thanks to the interaction with psychological (Fryer and Freeman 2012, 2014; Walczak 2017; Doherty and Kruger 2018), sociological and philosophical (Neves 2016; Greco 2018), political and institutional (Orero and Matamala 2018) theories.

The term accessibility, today used perhaps too widely across the disciplinary and experiential spectrum, generally implies a movement away from conditions of total or partial privation and disadvantage, towards situations in which privation is overcome or neutralised by ad hoc solutions. Thus, accessibility aims to remove barriers, whether they are structural, communicative, cultural, financial. In this sense, the definition of accessibility provided by the WHO on their website becomes particularly relevant, as it connects the need to provide access for as many individuals as possible (not only to health services) to the respect of human rights. On the whole, the WHO defines accessibility in terms of equity: it must be guaranteed to all people with their diverse needs, in as many contexts and circumstances as possible, thus clearly moving towards the concept of universal access and to the need to cater for impairments that may be permanent, temporary or situational. Along a similar trajectory, the European Accessibility Act, approved in 2019, establishes guidelines common to all EU states in relation to a series of services that have to be open to all (banking, entertainment, media, telephone services, transport, health, etc.) but also with the aim of “removing barriers created by divergent rules in Member States”.[1] Barriers are to be removed from legislations as well as from primary services and entertainment, towards a truly inclusive European society.

Many are the definitions that we could here quote and that indicate a departure from the traditional notions of disability – beyond what Gossett et al. (2009) define as segregationist approaches to accessibility – to draw naturally closer to the concept of inclusion. The social model of disability itself is significant in this respect: a clear distinction is made, within the model, between individual impairment (Woods 2017) and disability, the latter seen in broad terms as a “societal failure”, a generalized condition whereby people “are disabled by ableist structures, both physical and attitudinal” (Collins et al. 2021: 3) that ought to be redressed by the true sharing of experiences.

Starting precisely from an analysis of the social model of disability, Collins et al. discuss inclusion of persons with disabilities in theatre and entertainment by referring to the notion of social inclusion and by stating that the latter can be achieved only by seeing the removal of barriers as an a priori condition, not an objective. For Collins et al., therefore, barrier removal is a basic requirement for inclusion, not a goal. This is precisely the idea we aim to support here: if accessibility has its great value and is often a necessity, especially when dealing with pre-existing structures, texts, places, inclusion – as a notion and a practice – originates out of a neutral, equalitarian stance, where barriers are not an initial concern, because the idea of inclusion is that everybody has a right to participation and enjoyment. Thus, moving from a neutral, equalitarian stance, inclusion can only aim for a positive, constructive pathway and outcome, although possibly not universal. 

All these principles will be further discussed by observing, through the lens of an experiment, how shifting from the notion of accessibility to that of inclusion as a point of departure for the designing and developing of theatrical experiences can lead to more positive life conditions, i.e. an increased satisfaction, empowerment and well-being. But before moving to discussing this experiment and defining its guiding principles, we need to define inclusion in relation to theatres and the potential of inclusive theatrical practices.

3. Inclusive theatre: principles and applications

In 2008, a team of British scholars working on applying the principles of universal design to the study and improvement of the quality of life of the elderly, defined the concept of inclusive design (Waller and Clarkson 2009), although the expression had previously been used, in more general terms, with reference to the planning of spaces and places (Imrie and Hall 2003). As is the case for universal design theory, but with even more emphasis, inclusive design places at its core the people, their different abilities and ages, as well as their rights to participating in events, information and services. And if universal design is associated with seven founding principles[2], inclusive design rests on five key elements, laid down and explained, among others, by Linda Nussbaumer in Inclusive Design: A Universal Need (2012). These are, quite simply, 1) people, 2) diversity, 3) choice, 4) flexibility, 5) convenience (ibid.: 33). As the author explains, inclusive design can hardly ever be considered as a finished process but rather as an ongoing experimentation; it is a methodology rather than a goal, and all its five principles aim to enhance people’s diverse features as added value, not as impediments. Inclusive design also supports the involvement of different people and different abilities in the planning, making and enjoyment of services, and even entertainment, for the benefit of as many people as possible as well as for their personal growth.

Besides the great relevance of inclusive design principles for the building of a framework to define and operationalize inclusive theatre-making and the related activities within the realm of AVT, a reference is due to previous work by Pablo Romero Fresco, with his definition of accessible filmmaking (2019). With the aim to highlight the importance and the need for accessibility to cinema and the other audiovisual media, Romero Fresco recalls that a thorough consideration of true access opportunities should be part and parcel of the film production cycle and not an afterthought, i.e. a post-production concern as often happens still today. Integrating access services into the creative process of filmmaking yields many benefits: it elicits awareness of the primary importance of accessibility for film distribution and success, it saves time and money through planning, rather than modifying afterwards. All in all, accessible filmmaking implies a move towards inclusive design and away from traditional accessibility tackled, precisely, as an afterthought.

Therefore, based on the thrust provided by the notion of accessible filmmaking, but also reflecting the new societal needs highlighted by recent redefinitions of disability and access, we aim here to define and explore the notion of inclusive theatre-making, or inclusive theatrical practice(s). Inclusive theatre-making refers to the sharing of the creative process for a theatrical performance, as well as its enjoyment, by as many individuals as possible including persons with different needs. It is important to highlight that it does not only apply to the primary notion of a performance, but is extended to all those activities that revolve around theatres, such as visits, workshops, etc.

In line with the principles of inclusive design, the essence of inclusive theatre-making is precisely that everyone – artists, creators and audiences – participates in as many of the phases involved in the making of a performance as possible. Participation is one of the main keywords: it is participation that leads to inclusion, and inclusion is in turn essential for empowerment, that is a second, major keyword for inclusive theatrical practices as they are defined here. The notion of inclusion (participation, enjoyment) in artistic events is nowadays central for scholars working in many fields across the disciplinary spectrum. One interesting set of notions and methodologies comes from community development theory, where the centrality of inclusive social and cultural practices in the growth of communities at many levels (including the personal one) has been fully demonstrated. By way of example, Julie McCarthy (2004), Kees Epskamp (2006), Annie Sloman (2011), Kabaso Sydney (2013) and several others have focused on the concept of theatre for development, describing how a participatory, inclusive theatre can be a real driving force for the development of entire small and large communities, increasing awareness, taking people with different abilities out of their homes and into theatres, building new paths and opportunities for ever larger audiences. In practical terms, and looking at Italy only, a host of theatres and theatre festivals have been redefining their vision and their programmes as theatres for development (Di Giovanni et al. 2022), by integrating inclusive practices in their activities and, most importantly, by implementing strategies for inclusion at the level of planning, fundraising and also recruiting.

Moving more specifically within the realm of theatre studies, inclusion has been a key issue for quite some time and from several standpoints, with a special prominence in those studies connected to audience expansion and their integration into the production. One eminent contribution to this approach has been provided by Caroline Heim in her book Audience as Performer, which starts with the following premise:

Audiences are extremely versatile and adaptable performers, and their repertoires of actions are often influenced by the socio-cultural milieu. […] In the theatre, there are two troupes of performers: actors and audience members. (2016: 4)

In the statement above, Heim underlines the importance of the sociocultural context in which audience/s and performer/s move, but most of all she places the characters and the audience on the same level in the production of a show. Heim talks about two troupes to direct “which meet under the floodlights and look at each other, listen to each other, act and applaud one another” (ibid.: 20). The two troupes also wear costumes for their performance, and move from being strangers to getting to know each other and becoming a team, a troupe, through what Heim calls “emotional contagion” (ibid.: 22). And if, initially, Heim distinguishes the two troupes as made of the artists on one hand and of the performance attendees on the other, she slowly but steadily moves on to merging the two, also to include staff members who tend to the performance but also participate in it. It is precisely this idea of a communal experience that is designed together with the participation of all (artists, audiences, staff members) that wants to be at the core of the notion of inclusive theatre-making. The audience, for Heim, can be critic, consumer, community, co-creator, not necessarily at different times.

As both Heim and Fischer-Lichte highlight, the metaphor of the contagion helps to clarify that “the experience of a performance arises from what happens among the participants” (Fiches-Lichte 2016: 64), i.e. a co-performance that is a unique event and changes its participants. All these notions are useful and relevant to a further shaping of the concept of inclusive theatre-making and can easily be extended to the participation in a performance, as both spectators and co-creators, of persons with disabilities. Before moving on to analyzing one such experience and the measurement of well-being in relation to it, here is a final quote to strengthen our notion of inclusive theatre-making in terms of participation:

If you participate, then you change what you participate in. Participation leads to collaboration or is, more often than not, collaborative. Not only does the audience write the play quite as much as the author does, during collaboration the audience writes the play quite as much as the actors. [….] Collaboration can be transformative. (ibid.: 147-148).

Participation means collaboration which becomes transformative, something that is, by default, almost always positive. Inclusive theatre-making should be understood as such: the participation of as many individuals as possible in the planning stages, the implementation and the enjoyment of a performance, which give rise to fruitful and innovative collaboration. Increasing everyone’s awareness of people’s different needs also gives rise and strength to audiences that have often been denied the theatrical experience because they cannot see, hear or understand like other audiences. It therefore generates empowerment.

In the following section we will concentrate on deaf and hard-of-hearing people, blind and partially-sighted people, but also people with no sensory disability and we will analyse theatrical activities that were designed and carried out together. Considering both the short-term experience and the exposure to such activities over several years, we will reflect on the measure of their well-being.

4. Inclusive theatres and their relation to well-being

As anticipated, one of the main assumptions of this article is that the move from traditional notions of accessibility to that of inclusion brings with itself a shift of perspective: if accessibility normally implies moving from a negative condition towards a neutral(ized) one, inclusion is based on an initially neutral position, with the aim to turn it into a positive one. In mathematical terms, we could say that accessibility moves from a minus and heads towards a zero value, whereas inclusion moves from a zero position towards a plus value. Although widely discussed above, the constructive, positive potential of inclusive practices and their application to theatre can be further explained and enhanced by experimenting with ways of measuring them.

Amongst the many interdisciplinary pathways established within media accessibility research this past decade, one having at its core psychological concepts and methodologies to measure people’s reaction to, and reception of, access services, has been particularly fertile. It was by exploring such values as immersion, identification and enjoyment, for instance, that several scholars were able to unveil essential information concerning the receivers of accessibility, revealing, among other things, that traditional primary users (deaf and hard-of-hearing, blind and partially-sighted) should be kept on the same track as people with no sensory impairments in terms of the benefits they can derive from exposure to access strategies and tools.

To date, however, little research has endeavoured to explore the actual short, medium or long-term benefits provided by participation in inclusive practices in the context of media, theatre and live events, at least within the field of AVT. Yet, once the paradigmatic move towards inclusion is acknowledged, once the focus is on people’s diverse skills and their potential, an evaluation of these benefits needs to be established and experimented with. One fertile notion that has been steadily explored and variedly measured in many a field, including branches of psychology, sociology and philosophy, is that of well-being. In itself, well-being has been sub-defined as social, subjective or objective, within different disciplines but also with changes over time within one and the same research area, or even by individual scholars.

For Brajša-Zganec et al. (2011), subjective well-being measures are particularly useful to evaluate variations in quality of life, which can be referred to long-term, objective changes or to short, subjective experiences. For Diener, Shigehiro and Lucas, more specifically, “subjective well-being (SWB) comprises the scientific analysis of how people evaluate their lives – both at the moment and for longer periods, such as for the past year” (2003: 404). It may be here important to stress that Ed Diener is, to date, the most prominent scholar to have explored the notion of SWB and its applications, over a period of almost two decades. He was initially inspired by millennia of philosophical debates on the nature of good life and happiness (Diener et al. 1999), but also, more recently by sociologists and quality of life researchers active from the 1960s onwards. It is within the realm of psychology, however, that SWB has most systematically been defined and analyzed, with a series of scales and metrics subsequently tested, some of them validated and consistently applied internationally. 

Precisely by virtue of being a subjective measure, SWB is concerned with the respondents’ own evaluation of their experiences. Although personal evaluations can be influenced (as we shall see) by many factors, including cultural background, knowledge and physical condition, international research based on the application of quasi-identical, or slightly adapted scales and questionnaires, has shown that results are generally homogeneous and lead to extremely interesting findings (Helliwell and Barrington-Leigh 2010). Although SWB can be further articulated in a number of sub-components and parameters, each of them a potential object of study per se (happiness, life satisfaction, etc.), for the purpose of this first experiment we opted for a generic self-report questionnaire aiming to elicit people’s response to specific inclusive theatrical activities, based on closed, five-point questions with the addition of three open questions. More specifically, a decision was made to rely on a previously-tested questionnaire used over the years and widely applied, with a recent revamp due to its insertion in the “UCL Museum Wellbeing Toolkit” designed by a group of researchers at University College London for a large-scale evaluation of subjective well-being in response to museum visits and other cultural activities[3]. This questionnaire is considered one of the most reliable and widespread, based on the assumption that “well-being is connected to our attitude towards our life, but also to particular, occasional experiences” (Zani and Cigognani 2004: 56). The structure of the questionnaire and the experiment details are provided in the following section.

5. The well-being questionnaire and its application to inclusive theatrical activities

5.1 When, where, what, with whom

Between 30 July and 12 August, 2021, groups of blind/partially sighted, deaf/hard of hearing as well as sighted and hearing individuals of different ages were involved in the planning, organization and enjoyment of inclusive opera performances, tactile and sign language tours and, last but not least, multisensory experiences at the Sferisterio theatre in Macerata, as part of the InclusivOpera programme[4]. This project, founded in 2009, brought over 400 people of all ages to the Sferisterio for inclusive theatrical activities in 2021, and approximately 450 in 2022. In particular, the two multisensory experiences here reported were based on Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, staged at the Sferisterio during the 2021 opera season.

On 30 and 31 July, blind, partially-sighted and non-blind individuals co-organized and participated in a multisensory experience featuring the following elements: a) a violin and a cello player, b) a male singer (baritone), c) a selection of spices and aromas for an olfactory experience connected to Aida, d) six tactile maps reproducing the stage and settings for that production of Aida.

On 8 and 12 August, deaf, hard of hearing and non-deaf individuals co-organized and participated in a multisensory experience that was essentially the same as the one organized with and for the blind/partially sighted. The experience featured the same violin and cello player, the same baritone, the same sequence of spices and aromas for an olfactory experience, six drawings reproducing the stage and settings for Aida and, as an addition, a sign language interpreter for signing deaf participants.

A generic plan for the multisensory experiences had previously been drawn by the inclusion manager and operators at the Sferisterio theatre, also considering the nature and the main features of the production of Aida on stage. These experiences, fine-tuned with 2 blind and 2 deaf persons, were offered to an overall 65 people over 4 afternoons, all of them preceding the actual staging of Aida (accompanied by audio description and surtitles). The olfactory experience, new to the Sferisterio InclusivOpera programme, was initially conceived during a meeting with blind and partially-sighted patrons, but then extended to all other participants, as potentially of interest to all, as it finally proved to be. Spices and aromas were selected in relation to the two countries evoked in the opera (Egypt and Ethiopia) and to the time of the story (the great Pharaohs’ era). They were made available either in powder or grains, in individual pots, or through oil diffusers.

Each experience started with music excerpts from Aida, briefly introduced and explained by the musicians and occasionally accompanied by the singer. Participants, especially the blind/partially-sighted and deaf/hard of hearing, were able to touch the instruments and also the singer’s shoulder or chest as he was performing the arias. The olfactory experience followed with six oil diffusers placed on two, long tables and a series of individual pots with spices and grains that were distributed to the participants. An explanation of all the spices and aromas was offered, in Italian and in Italian Sign Language (LIS). As a final moment, the tactile maps and the drawings were used and explained. The overall experience, held in a large hall close to the theatre main stage, lasted between 60 and 70 minutes for all groups.

At the end of the experience, participants were administered a questionnaire, whose structure is the object of the following section.

5.2 The questionnaire

As anticipated, the general well-being questionnaire used for this experiment has a rather long history: it was developed in the late Eighties (Wheeler 1991) as the evolution of existing questionnaires that mainly focused on the evaluation of well-being resulting from the absence of illness. The evolution that was implemented, as reported by Wheeler, was to represent a “new frontier” to gauge “emotions, beliefs, temperaments, behaviors, environment, and experiences”. (ibid: 1). The structure of the general well-being questionnaire comprises 12 questions, all to be rated on a 5-point scale.  The questions that make up the questionnaire are shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Structure of the general well-being questionnaire

For the sake of our experiment, the questionnaire was limited to 9 out of the 12 questions above, to which 3 open questions were added. An Italian version of the general well-being questionnaire was used, validated through a short pilot test. The 9 selected questions were 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 11, 12 and 8 from the full version, translated into Italian as follows:

  1. Mi sono sentito/a felice
  2. Mi sono sentito/a coinvolto/a
  3. Mi sono sentito/a a mio agio
  4. Mi sono sentito/a al sicuro
  5. Ho apprezzato la compagnia delle altre persone
  6. Ho parlato con le altre persone
  7. Mi sono sentito/a sicuro/a di me
  8. Mi sono sentito/a bene
  9. Mi sono divertito/a.

The five scores were translated as 1) Mai [none of the time], 2) Raramente [not very often], 3) Occasionalmente [some of the time], 4) Spesso [very often], 5) Sempre [all of the time].

The three added open questions aimed to elicit extra feedback and opinions, useful both for research purposes and for a better understanding of the appreciation of these newly-designed inclusive theatrical activities. The three open questions were:

  1. Secondo te cosa ha funzionato?
  2. Cosa ti ha lasciato questa esperienza?
  3. Cosa poteva funzionare meglio?[5]

Participants in the multisensory experiences described above were asked to fill out the questionnaire in the hour that followed them and that preceded the accessible performance of Aida. Four assistants were involved in the questionnaire administration on all four occasions, so that children and blind/partially sighted persons could have support in filling it out. Overall, 40 questionnaires were completely filled out and are therefore here considered for analysis. Out of these 40 participants, 28 were persons with sensory disabilities (13 blind/partially sighted and 15 deaf/hard of hearing, 17 female and 11 male) and 12 persons had no disability. A broad age range was covered, with children aged 7 and 9, but also senior citizens up to 81 years of age. Persons with disabilities had an average age of 43.2, with women scoring 49.8 (only one female participant was under the age of 18) and men scoring 29.7 (two male participants were 7 and 9 years old). Participants without sensory disabilities were 12 on the whole, with 8 women and 4 men, their age ranging from 11 to 57 years, for an average value of 32.6.

As we can see at first glance, our participants were relatively young and balanced in terms of gender. For the sake of the analysis here reported, we will consider the results obtained from the group of persons with disabilities taken together, then compared to those gathered from persons without disabilities. Moreover, results from a group of 6 persons with disabilities who participated in the inclusive theatrical activities at the Sferisterio for three years or more were also considered.

5.3 Results

As anticipated, persons with sensory disabilities were involved in the planning, organization and implementation of the multisensory experiences that were tested through the general well-being questionnaire. In particular, the two blind and two deaf persons were chosen in collaboration with Unione Italiana Ciechi Macerata (Italian Blind Union, the Macerata branch) and Ente Nazionale Sordi Macerata (National Deaf Association, the Macerata branch) considering their previous experience with inclusive theatrical activities and their willingness to collaborate. As a matter of fact, their support and input were precious in many ways, first of all by making all operators involved in the InclusivOpera programme realize how incredibly meaningful tactile and olfactory experiences can be for the blind and partially sighted, for the deaf and hard of hearing as well as for all other participants in a multisensory event, all the more so in the wake of a global pandemic that has inhibited our recourse to such senses. The four co-planners and co-organizers were two male and two female, the blind being 21 and 69, the deaf 27 and 36. Their appreciation of their own participation to a range of inclusive theatrical experiences was tested at the end of the 2021 opera season, but they were not administered the questionnaire here discussed. Also, as anticipated, out of the 18 blind/partially sighted, deaf/hard of hearing participants whose questionnaire results are here discussed, one third, i.e. 6 individuals, were selected as being involved in inclusive theatrical activities at the Sferisterio for at least three years in a row.

Figure 2 below offers an overview of the results obtained for each of the nine closed questions from the generic well-being questionnaire from the 18 persons with disabilities:

Figure 2: Overview of the results obtained for each of the nine closed questions

As we can see, virtually all questions scored highly positive results, the only one providing an average value below 4 (i.e. very often) being question 6, which asked participants if they had talked to other people. The score for this question is 3.46 for all persons with sensory disabilities, a result that decreases to 3.1. if we consider blind/partially sighted individuals only. This seems to confirm the tendency to socialize less easily for the blind as opposed to the deaf, and in general a shy attitude on the part of persons with disabilities. Even though all the scores are high, the highest scores were recorded for questions 4, 8 and 1 (4.68, 4.65, 4.57), which asked participants whether they had felt safe and secure, healthy and, perhaps most significantly, happy. As anticipated, results from 6 persons who were participating in inclusive theatrical activities at the Sferisterio for at least the third year in a row (three blind and three deaf) have also been analysed in isolation from the others, with the aim to see whether the recurrent exposure to such inclusive practices points to an increase in satisfaction and well-being.

Figure 3 below summarizes the results from these 6 participants, who were aged 14 to 81 (45.6 on average):

Figure 3: Results from these 6 participants, who were aged 14 to 81

As we can see, the scores for all questions are in this case higher than those recorded for the group of 18: question 6 (I talked to the other people) scored 3.83 out of 5, thus pointing to a considerable increase (+7.5%) if compared to the result of the overall group of 18 participants with disabilities. We could state that participation to familiar and previously appreciated events leads to more comfort and thus encourages these persons to socialize more easily. As for comfort and safety, questions 3 and 4 actually scored 5 out of 5 with all 6 participants, with an increase by 9.4% and 6.4% from the results obtained from the larger group of persons with sensory disabilities. Moreover, questions 8 and 9, asking if participants felt healthy and if they enjoyed the experience, scored once again the maximum value for all 6 participants, with an increase by 7% and 11.6% respectively. Particularly noteworthy is the considerable increase in the declared enjoyment by these 6 persons.

To complete our brief survey of the results obtained, Figure 4 below reports the average scores obtained from the persons without disabilities.

Figure 4: Average scores obtained from the persons without disabilities

On the whole, average scores are very high also for this group of participants, with interesting similarities and dissimilarities with the scores recorded for the group of persons with disabilities. By way of example, this group felt less happy than the other one, scoring 4.25, i.e. -6.6%, as an average value for the first and possibly most significant question asking overtly about happiness in relation to the experience. One reason may be that persons without disabilities have many more occasions to enjoy theatrical activities in inclusive ways, as opposed to persons with disabilities. Engagement and comfort, respectively at the core of questions 2 and 3, scored slightly higher results for this group (+1% and +1.6%). Interestingly, safety and security scored higher within the group of persons with disabilities, with an overall 4.68 as opposed to 4.5 recorded for this third group (+3.6%), a result that acquires additional significance if we consider that in ordinary, often non-inclusive life settings, safety and security are often a concern for persons with special needs. Talking to other people was easier for persons without disabilities as opposed to the other group, with an average 3.72 as opposed to 3.46 (+5.3%, which increases to 12.4% if we consider the scores obtained from the blind and partially-sighted only). Similarly, persons without disabilities generally felt slightly more confident than the other group (+7%), which may be related to an overall life condition that goes beyond the specific multisensory experience. Last but not least, persons with disabilities felt slightly healthier on the occasion of this experience than those without: average scores decreased from 4.65 to 4.58 (-1.6%), a datum that may acquire special significance if we consider that health is much more often a concern for persons with disabilities than for those without.

As for the open questions, results were generally positive and encouraging. Several blind/partially sighted participants praised the opportunity to touch both the instruments and the tactile maps, for greater participation and enjoyment, whereas four deaf patrons underlined the emotions that the experience had arisen in them. Three participants with disabilities, moreover, highlighted the importance of the right to participation, which is particularly meaningful for this article and helps us firmly connect participation not only with inclusion and empowerment, but also with well-being.

6. Conclusions

As Heim recalls (2016: 11), one of the words that is used most frequently in relation to theatres is house: a house is sometimes the theatre itself, or it can be used to refer to a specific area, i.e. the part inhabited by the audience. Whatever meaning is attached to house in relation to theatre, indeed the word recalls a space where people live together and experience together both ordinary and extraordinary events. An inclusive theatre, as well as inclusive theatre-making as a range of possible activities, aim precisely at making theatres comprehensive houses, where different abilities are acknowledged, highlighted and possibly, ultimately, empowered.

As we have seen, psychological approaches to the evaluation of accessibility and inclusion to media and theatre have been greatly beneficial in opening up new research avenues, in unveiling the opinions, and exploring the feelings, of different audiences. The application of the notion of well-being and its measurement in relation to inclusive theatres wishes to move one step forward in this direction, by offering an opportunity to evaluate satisfaction in participation, empowerment and overall life improvement in the short, medium and long term.

The questionnaire here presented offers but one opportunity to apply the notion of well-being to the measurement of the effects (or affect, in Diener’s terms) of exposure to inclusive theatrical practices, but it should serve as an encouragement to move along these lines, to implement other evaluation tools and criteria, to make the appreciation of the positive (or even negative effects) of inclusive theatre and media a stable practice. As Diener recalls, “there is not a simple answer to what causes SWB. Studies of people with disabilities show that objective factors can matter, but people often adapt their goals to what is possible for them” (1999: 294). And if these goals can be made to grow, expectations can be boosted, along with an overall increase in safety and happiness, then inclusive practices in theatre and media can and should be encouraged, supported and made a standard as widely as possible.


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[1] See (accessed 10 April 2022).

[5] What was effective, in your opinion? What did this experience leave with you? What could have gone better?

About the author(s)

Elena Di Giovanni is Associate Professor of English Translation at the University of Macerata (accredited for full professorship as of 2020). She was President of the European Association for Studies in Screen Translation. She is one of the founding members - and Editorial Board member - of the open access Journal of Audiovisual Translation. In 2019, she was Fulbright Distinguished Chair at the University of Pittsburgh and is now part of the international Fulbright evaluation team. She was Visiting Lecturer at Roehampton University, London, and since 2013, she lectures on audiovisual translation and accessibility at the Venice Film Festival. She currently supervises many accessibility projects throughout Italy and in 2021, she delivered a TED X talk on accessibility and inclusion.

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©inTRAlinea & Elena Di Giovanni (2022).
"Inclusive theatre-making: Participation, empowerment and well-being"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Inclusive Theatre: Translation, Accessibility and Beyond
Edited by: Elena Di Giovanni and Francesca Raffi
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
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