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Social Circus: Reinventing Attitudes Towards Disability through Circus Arts

Social Circus 1
April 3, 2017

Over the past decade in Canada, we have seen the first generation of children born prematurely and those affected by genetic disorders or trauma saved due to medical advancements. Now, a lot of these children are young adults, and they face living in social isolation due to physical and mental challenges. Many of them haven’t finished high-school and haven’t had a chance to learn about social roles or life skills other than in clinical settings.

Social Circus is a method that was originally used by Cirque du Soleil to help at-risk youth living on the street to realize their potential through circus arts. Montreal based Occupational Therapist Frédéric Loiselle conducted research on how to clinically apply social circus principles to social rehabilitation for youth living with intellectual and physical challenges.

“Medicine saves lives, but in rehabilitation we reinvent those lives. I brought it into medical rehabilitation as a new way to develop and optimize social abilities and daily functional autonomy,” explained Loiselle.

The World Health Organization’s Department of Mental Health emphasizes the importance of life skills education in developing essential psychosocial skills to excel in everyday life and to empower people to protect their rights. These skills include decision making, problem solving, communication and interpersonal skills, self-awareness, empathy, creative and critical thinking, as well as coping with emotions and stress. Loiselle and his team use Social Circus to develop these skills in participants, as well as strengthen social roles, such as taking public transportation, creating social relations, and cultivating responsibility and respect for themselves and others.

Photo By: Hervé Leblay

“Nonconventional exploring through art opens up new ways of seeing, doing, acting and being. That’s why it transforms,” said Loiselle.

The Social Circus program was designed to build pride and inspiration from differences such as body, gait and speech. To demonstrate this, Loiselle shared the story of a young man who was bullied his whole life because of his gait due to paralysis.

“If we put hip-hop music on and have 12 back-up dancers walking with the same gait, it becomes a form of choreography. Suddenly, [he is] celebrated by the music and artists and is the inspiration of the choreography,” says Loiselle. This shift of perception in both others and himself helped to build confidence in the young man, and celebrate his atypical features rather than be embarrassed by them.

Participants come to Caserne 18-30, a circus arts training centre, twice a week, one morning and one evening. The morning meeting counts as a job and teaches participants about responsibility. Loiselle explained how being recognized as an artist and as part of a group for three hours has a powerful meaning in terms of acknowledgement, recognition and respect.

“We use the force of the group to promote these activities. It’s as if you’re going for a job. No matter the weather, if you’re tired or not…there’s a gang of artists waiting for you.”

The next session they attend is on a Friday evening. For the first time in most participants lives, they get to go out on a Friday evening, be social and have fun with their peers. The Friday evening sessions include acting, role playing, dancing, drama therapy, discussion and watching movies. Even after the Social Circus training is over, they often stay in touch via social media and socialize together.

The evening sessions also give an opportunity to discuss things such as sex and relationships. Loiselle started using Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to practice relationship therapy and drama therapy. Teaming up with speech-therapists, Loiselle focuses workshops on how to flirt and be seductive, as well as hold a space where the participants can feel safe to have open discussions about the topic. Activities like this also help to develop self-awareness and communication skills.

For instance, one young man was severely burned as a baby which resulted in a number of physical and mental injuries, as well as a hearing impairment. He would often scream and yell, leading to isolation and the inability to express his needs. After the “dirty talk” workshop on Valentine’s Day, the man started to lower his voice, talk smoothly and is now able to organize his own transport.

“Now this young man instead of talking really loud uses deep voices. He makes jokes. Now people thank him, saying thank you sir and this boosts his confidence,” explained Loiselle.

Photo By: Hervé Leblay

The workshops also give parents a chance to see and acknowledge their children in a different way, as adults.

“Imagine parents that have been parents of young adults that were rescued since childhood. For the past 20 years, they have been living and protecting young adults. Without knowing it, this overprotection becomes one of the major obstacles for youth’s emancipation and autonomy,” said Loiselle.

When the youth participate in Social Circus, they become more responsible and autonomous. As parents see their children transforming, it betters their relationship.

“This year shifts perceptions to the real potential that youth have. Parents will cry and say, ‘I was the one putting brakes on autonomy and participation. I never talked about sex because I never thought my child would have these ideas. You helped me realize I had a normal child,’” Loiselle described.

With over a hundred hours of training, the participants create a circus show, which they perform in front of a live audience. This not only challenges perceptions of people with physical and mental disabilities, but also boosts the confidence of the participants and gives them something to feel connected to and passionate about.

“Peoples’ idea of disability changes. They see an adult who is proud and courageous. Not as a person that can’t do anything. They see them rather as young adults with potential for doing their best,” explained Loiselle. “That is the point of social circus, to change social perceptions to enhance acceptance and integration.”

A young woman who was quadriplegic was so inspired by the program, she bought a mattress as a Christmas present to herself, to put in her room so she could invite people to dance with her to the music she loves. The woman passed away, but Loiselle remembered how the circus gave her back a sense of empowerment.

He recalled her saying, “I was able to reconnect to the woman that I am. For the first time at 20 years old in my life, when people stop and talk to me in the street, people say I am a beautiful woman. For the first time, I take these words personally and not as a vision of pity people had of me.”

Stepping away from self-pity is also an essential element of Social Circus. By developing self-determination through life skills and social role training, it serves as a fun, creative, and inclusive environment where all bodies are celebrated rather than marginalized.

Loiselle sums up the attitudinal changes he observed in the participants at the end of the program. “It’s not because I have a disability that I have a disabled life. If I have the right resources and strategies to manage, yes I live with a handicap but I am no longer handicapped.”