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Original photo by Morgan Billingslea
Life

Harmony at Penn State — Disability and Inclusion in the Performing Arts

Despite being burnt out college students, I saw no visible lack of energy at Harmony’s last rehearsal before Thanksgiving break. In the HUB, children of all ages waited anxiously, holding their parents’ hands tight, before the volunteers arrived.

“Show me your smile!” Morgan Billingslea, Harmony’s director of outreach, exclaimed over and over again. With every smile came compliments, jokes and laughter from performers and volunteers.

Harmony is a nonprofit, multidisciplinary performing arts organization at Penn State for individuals with and without disabilities. Volunteers (Penn State students) are paired with the performers each semester to practice for their showcase.

Children can also participate in Harmony as “HarMINIs.” Their involvement is crucial so young performers can be exposed to individuals who have diagnosed or undiagnosed disabilities. In this way, disability learning is more accessible to these young age groups.

While the volunteers were patient in working with energetic children, I was most surprised by the HarMINIs. Regardless of their ability, the children willingly wore masks throughout the entire rehearsal and listened to the volunteers. It dawned on me that this is how children act in a comfortable environment where they feel advocated for.

“People with disabilities are people first,” Billingslea told me prior to inviting me to Harmony’s rehearsal. Billingslea is a third-year student at Penn State with a major in special education and minors in psychology and social justice.

Part of Billingslea’s job is to advocate for the organization while spreading their mission and recruiting more volunteers and future directors.

During our conversation, she told me how beneficial the performing arts (dancing, singing and theater) can be for individuals with disabilities. Social interactions between volunteers and the performers help with conversational behaviors and eye contact. Acting also allows individuals with disabilities to express their emotions through dramatic interactions.

I was equally intrigued in what the benefits for volunteers were. Billingslea told me that being around people with disabilities help to promote inclusivity and take away the stigmas around disability.

One of the most common stigmas surrounding disability is the perception that people with disabilities are not capable of doing the same things as others. Oftentimes, this bias can be enabled when people use language like “different ability” or “differently abled.” Language and phrases like these suggest that there is a norm.

While assistance and accommodations are sometimes needed for performers, they are still capable of working with volunteers to have a spectacular show. During rehearsal, I saw performers who communicated through sign language or used a wheelchair. By no means did this affect their performances in a negative way.

“Coming to our shows takes away the idea that performers with disabilities can’t do certain things.”

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Billingslea to tell me what she wants more people to know when it comes to disability learning and awareness.

“I’m not an expert,” Billingslea said. “The best thing you can do is to listen to people from disability communities.”

Be sure to watch Harmony’s next showcase: Lights, Camera, Action! You can watch Harmony and the HarMINIs on Sunday, Dec. 4 at 5 p.m. in Schwab Auditorium. If you cannot attend, be sure to follow their Instagram to keep up with their recent events and fundraisers!

If you are interested in volunteering with Harmony or collaborating with them, please reach out to harmony.psu@gmail.com or visit their website through this link.

Arden Ericson will graduate Penn State in May of 2023. As one of the Campus Correspondents for Her Campus at PSU, she is a double-major in Public Relations and French Language. After graduation, she will pursue a career that combines her passion for educational equity, social justice and French.