Wherefore art thou ableist?

Content Warning // References to mental health and suicide.

To campaign against trigger warnings and visual stories in theatre is to wish disabled audience members harm. Just say you’re ableist and go.

‘Wokeo and Juliet’ is the mainstream media’s feeble attempt to disparage what is, in fact, a really good production from Shakespeare’s Globe for its decision to issue trigger warnings and a visual story for Ola Ince’s “bleak” (my words, not theirs) take on the tragedy. This is despite the fact that the play had, actually, had its press night performance more than a month ago, and the warnings and visual story are of great benefit to disabled people. The only tragedy here is how misinformed these fellow journalists are in an attempt to fan the flames of a discriminatory culture war.

I am cautious not to make points which are expressed so perfectly by the phenomenal disability activist Jess Thom (otherwise known as TourettesHero) in a blog post published on Monday afternoon, but one particular fact she points out is that “none of the stories I saw about the Globe’s Visual Story acknowledged that most of the quotes being mocked came from a document created specifically for disabled people”. Visual stories, for those unaware, are guides which can help prepare autistic people, neurodivergent people and those with learning disabilities for a new experience, such as a theatre show.

Rather convenient, that – almost as if acknowledging the purpose of a visual story in writing (The Sun and The Mail shared pictures, but that was it) completely undermines their argument and makes them look fairly… *ahem*… ableist.

Somewhat understandably, people may raise an eyebrow when seeing the Globe warn viewers of Romeo and Juliet that the play contains depictions of suicide. It’s one of the oldest stories going, with the devastating ending known to millions. I remember pointing out the trigger warning prior to the performance, only before realising that it was quite a well-known fact already, but that isn’t the reason that it’s there.

A key point noted in my review of the production, and by the Globe itself, is that Ince’s version of the Bard’s ill-fated romance seeks to present its conclusion in a way which is bleak and deromanticised. I’ve certainly seen a few retellings in my time which fail to cover the lovers’ decisions with the severity it deserves. Ince does that here, and its impactful. And when performances have a powerful impact, theatres have a duty of care to mitigate negative and adverse reactions to the content before it is performed. The inclusion of Samaritans’ contact details and information about The Listening Place is not only justified, but essential and necessary.

Let’s reframe the debate. People who need trigger warnings, or indeed, any general pre-show information about difficult subject matters or actions, are not “snowflakes” or “sensitive”. They merely want to be aware of scenes which could trigger a trauma response, a meltdown (in the case of autistic people) or another kind of reaction which could cause emotional, physical or mental harm. In some cases, I know that just being aware of this can help to mitigate its impact, and individuals sensitive to these subject matters can still enjoy the performance, so to argue that the warnings and visual stories should be done away with and they should just now watch the play is dismissive and discriminatory.

Not only that, but to argue against trigger warnings and visual stories is to argue that the production be performed without this – at times, lifesaving – information being provided. That could lead to autistic people having dangerous and distressing meltdowns, and those sensitive to discussions of suicide experiencing a mental health crisis, for example. Providing this information isn’t a ‘spoiler’, either; it simply lessens the impact of a scene which could otherwise be incredibly damaging to an individual’s emotional, physical or psychological wellbeing.

Offence and harm are easily conflated these days – the former being a more characteristic issue compared to the physical and emotional issue of the latter – and instead of waging this dangerous culture war and attempting to undo years of progress in the field of accessibility, journalists should be working to emphasise that distinction.

Photo: Marc Brenner of The Shakespeare Globe’s 2021 production of Romeo and Juliet.

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