Moment of Inspiration: 23-Year-Old Brings Theater to Kids With Disabilities

Sep 24, 2010
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.

Micaela Connery is the founder and executive director of Unified Theater, a theatrical program that brings together students with and without disabilities.

Her inspiration came from her cousin Kelsey who has physical and developmental disabilities. As Micaela grew up, she noticed students with disabilites were often excluded from the school community and didn't necessarily participate in school activities.

Micaela Connery has touched the lives of thousands of kids with disabilities. (Photo: Julie Rigby)

Micaela had an interest in theater. When she was 15 years old, she decided it was time for kids of all abilities to take the stage together. 

That was in 2002. Eight years later, Micaela is in the midst of spreading Unified Theater's mission.

Her program supports passionate youth leaders across the country as they implement inclusive, student-led, performing arts initiatives in middle schools, high schools and colleges. 

To date, more than 1,500 students with and without disabilities have participated in Unified Theater productions. Along with being inspired by her cousin, a select few books, films and plays have motivated Connery to bring theater to kids with disabilities.

Q: Which film or book was a wake-up call and made you truly aware of an issue?

A: There are several books that describe the experiences of individuals with intellectual or physical disabilities. One that comes to mind is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. This book eloquently follows the perspective of an adolescent boy with autism (or aspergers, potentially). I enjoyed the book. It was a novel; so it wasn't meant to be completely true or realistic, but it helped share the story and perspective of those who have autism in what I thought was a respectful and true-to-life way.

I remember so many people who read the book saying, "Oh my gosh! How incredible." or "I had no idea."  And, while it's great that Haddon brought light to what it means to have autism, or a disability in general, it is frustrating that it took a book for people to have their first encounter with disability. 

At Unified Theater, kids with and without disabilities come together. (Photo: Julie Rigby)

When you write about disability, you're not talking about an issue that's historic or far-off. Chances are, everyone who found The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time surprising or eye-opening also lived in communities alongside people with disabilities. I started to realize that people need "real life" encounters with their peers with disabilities; there needs to be an opportunity for us, as individuals, to learn about disability (and inclusion) through actual relationships and day-to-day experiences.

Q: Which film or book inspired you to take action and get involved in an issue?

A: In the most literal sense, a play (or a musical for that matter) inspired me to take action. It was the 10th grade, and I auditioned for my high school musical Annie Get Your Gun.  And, gasp, I did not get a part. My life, as I knew it, as a 15-year-old theater lover, was over.

And then it dawned on me, if not being involved in this one show was so devastating to me, what must it be like for students with disabilities who never have the chance to perform in a production or be a member of a cast alongside their classmates? I had always thought it would be an interesting concept to bring students from a school together through the performing arts. At that moment, thanks to Annie Oakley, I took action to turn that idea into a reality.

Q: Is there a book or film out right now that particularly inspires you?

A: Temple Grandin, which cleaned up in the miniseries category at the 2010 Emmys, is a great film on HBO that tells the story of a girl growing up with autism. Claire Danes played Temple and represented her with grace and respect.

Temple taught the world about autism and what it's like to grow up in the world with the anxieties, talents, and

You can start a Unified Theater like Micaela in your community. (Photo: Michelle Gardella)

unique perspective of someone with autism. She's also an expert in animal science and has helped redesign slaughterhouses and other farming systems. Most importantly, Temple teaches us the value of accepting people for who they are and the contributions they can make even if, at first glance, all you see is what makes them different or less capable. If you haven't seen this film—watch it! Today!

Q: What is your favorite escape and guilty pleasure?

A: I'll admit it—I'm a GLEEK! I absolutely love that show. I love everything from the cast, to the music, to the hysterical writing, to the celebrity cameos. And, who doesn't just adore Jane Lynch?  I know, I know it's cliched and even stereotyped at times, but I think they're equal-opportunity offenders on all counts. 

I would appreciate if the actor cast as Artie actually had a physical disability, but at least they're taking the first steps toward awareness and inclusion. Becky, played by Lauren Potter, adds to the show's inclusiveness.
The bottom line is it's just a feel-good, toe-tapping show that so many can relate to! Is it Wednesday yet?

See Who Else Is Inspired

Show Comments ()

More on TakePart

A Start-up Builds on New Orleans’ Culinary Foundation