Accessible dance studio helps deaf wheelchair user from Wallsend finally perform again

A disabled dancer has returned to the stage after a ten-year hiatus, having finally found an accessible studio and teacher in Newcastle.

Jasper Williams, 27, who is a Deaf wheelchair user, said the opportunity to re-engage with his craft has “worked wonders” for his mental health and well-being.

He is deaf with a capital “D”, which refers to people who have been deaf all their lives or since before they started learning to speak.

For years, the dancer searched for a suitable studio, but a mix of physical inaccessibility, social attitudes and lack of funding prevented him from pursuing his hobby.

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Jasper, who is originally from Oxford but now lives in Wallsend, started musical theater at the age of six, where he sang, acted and danced.

His skills flourished and at 17 he was at a professional level and ready to head to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

However, the same year he fell ill with a disease that weakens his connective tissues and became a wheelchair user.

Jasper explained: “Being sick ruined my plans and I had to stop dancing for a decade.

“Dancing wasn’t as accessible to me anymore, and a lot of places turned me away. Very few studios are physically accessible, with no ramps or stairs to the stage.

“And then you have to deal with social attitudes towards disabled dancers. When you say you’re deaf, managers or teachers may assume you suck or even wonder if you can dance without hearing the music.

“Or they don’t want to work with you because of communication barriers. It’s not always due to a negative attitude, it’s often because there isn’t enough funding for an interpreter.

“It’s a problem in all the arts. Deaf people often fall through the gaps because of how funding works.

“For example, the access to work scheme does not cover it because it is not paid work, and then the personal health budget attached to the council has very strict criteria.

Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice

It wasn’t until he came across the work of Kate Stanforth online, a wheelchair user specializing in teaching disabled dancers in Newcastle, that he decided to get back into acting.

Jasper has been attending his academy for a year and a half, where he performs a mix of contemporary and ballet.

Jasper added: “I had pretty much given up but when I saw Kate dancing on Twitter I knew it was fate and I had to get in touch.

“I had forgotten how amazing it was, so I’m glad to be back, and it’s done wonders for my mental health and well-being.

“Unless you dance, you might not understand how you feel. It’s part of who you are and it can be a great way to express your feelings when you can’t find the words.

“And as a dancer with a disability, it’s also important to find the right partnership, with others who are willing to accommodate your needs.”

Jasper said this was clearly illustrated by the winners of this year’s Strictly Come Dancing: Rose Ayling-Ellis, who is deaf, and Giovanni Pernice.

“Giovanni made such an effort to learn sign language and change the way he danced,” Jasper said.

“However, it wasn’t about teaching him to be fluent in BSL, he was more open to adapting and understanding that there isn’t just one way to teach and dance.

“With access in place – deaf and hearing dancers can thrive together.”

Dancer Jasper Williams in a wheelchair with his leg up
Dancer Jasper Williams – who is back after a 10-year hiatus

Jasper said that in addition to her brilliant dancing, he appreciates Rose because she used her platform to break down barriers and change public attitudes towards deaf dancers.

He said, “She included BSL dialogue in her dances, spoke about issues with theater access, and why people could use interpreters and talk at the same time.

“It was important because unlike the United States, we don’t have as many high profile deaf celebrities.

“She increased searches for sign language by 488% in just a few months and really bridged the gap between deaf and hearing people.”

He added: “What she is doing to raise awareness is incredible, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the majority of people with disabilities feel like they’ve been swept under the rug during the pandemic.

“I never saw myself as vulnerable, we are often told not to talk about our disability and focus on our strengths, so to be forced to categorize ourselves as clinically vulnerable was quite condescending and demeaning.

“A lot of times there has been a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, people seem to think it’s okay to take their mask off because I’m a deaf person, thinking I’m somehow exempt from catching Covid.

When he’s not dancing, Jasper runs D/deaf and disability awareness training for organizations and also helps d/deaf and disabled people claim PIP.

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