Written by Hanna Lee

Like most relatives similar in age, 25-year-old Micaela Connery grew up playing with her cousin Kelsey. Connery never viewed Kelsey differently despite that Kelsey has physical and developmental disabilities. “The blessing of growing up with someone with a disability was that it wasn’t something we ignored,” Connery explains. “I’ve always been comfortable around people with disabilities and treated them as equals.”

Connery grew up entrenched in the practice of inclusion, and at age 15, she developed a program at her Connecticut high school that would celebrate all different types of students to bring them together as a community.  She founded Unified Theater as a club in her school cafeteria, spurred from her personal love for drama and Kelsey’s love for music.

Connery saw theater production as an activity everyone could participate in, no matter a person’s circumstances.  A Unified Theater production is a completely student run endeavor.  If someone is interested in starting a Unified Theater production at their school, the nonprofit offers training, curriculum and support to the group, but leaves the entire production up to the students. Students are responsible for everything from script, set design, costumes, casting, lighting to choreography.

“It was natural at first that Unified Theater would be run by students because I was a student myself when it started, but I realized when students are left to their own devices they have an amazing ability to push boundaries with fantastic results,” recalls Connery.

Unified Theater’s motto is that a disability isn’t something that defines an individual, it’s something that is apart of who you are as much as any other characteristic. The nonprofit doesn’t focus on the disability, but rather focuses on working hard as a team. “Theater is a great unifier because all kids can get involved at different levels. Some want to be big performers while others want to work backstage or design sets,” says Connery. “It allows [participants] to focus on the end goal rather than what makes them different.”

To date, Unified Theater has served 3,000 students in 35 middle and high schools in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Oregon, and California. Additionally, school districts across 18 states have asked for support in bringing Unified Theater to their community.

Connery says many students are shocked at first by how much control they have over the entire production process. In the beginning, the size of such a large project can be daunting, but Connery says students are in awe at how much they’ve accomplished by the end. The personal impacts are clear: 98% of participants agreed/strongly agreed that Unified Theater improved their self-confidence and 67% of student leaders called Unified Theater their most significant leadership experience to date.

Connery also believes Unified Theater’s initiative speaks to the ongoing dialogue about bullying in schools. “We discuss how detrimental bullying is to our communities and that kids need to be nicer to one another, which is great,” Connery asserts. “However, I think that our program focuses on anti-bullying in the context of being pro-community.” Connery thinks kids hear anti-bullying messages, but are unaware of how to take action.  She says Unified Theater offers a space to include everyone and practice being kinder individuals.

One valuable lesson Connery’s cousin, Kelsey, and her work with the organization has taught her is the importance of unity in every aspect of life. She believes that everyone is stronger when they work together than they’ll ever be if they work divided. “There is so much focus in our culture now in politics etc. to zero in on identifiers that separate people, but learning how to work with people who are completely different from us is how we need to operate in the long term,” says Connery. “The nonprofit’s motto is ability over disability, creativity over conformity, collaboration over competition, and I think that is a statement that speaks true to what we do at Unified Theater and to the rest of greater society.”

 

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