Ali Stroker make history Sunday as the first actress using a wheelchair to win a Tony Award. As an actress with dwarfism, Tekki Lomnicki knows what it’s like to have directors look right past you at an audition. As a former theater camp instructor, she knows how fiercely some kids with disabilities want to act and sing and command the stage. So seeing Ali Stroker make history Sunday as the first actress using a wheelchair to win a Tony Award brought Lomnicki to tears.
“I was thrilled,” she said. “I’ve been in acting for 25 years, and I have a disability. And just seeing her up there made me realize that anything is possible.” Chicagoans with disabilities, including members of the theater community, reflected Monday on Stroker’s big win, calling it an inspiration and a major sign of progress. But they also pointed to remaining obstacles and barriers, such as Chicago theaters with backstages that are inaccessible to people in wheelchairs, and outdated attitudes that could cast Stroker as an exception, rather than yet another example of what disabled people can accomplish.
“People with disabilities are able to do many, many different things that people think they would not be able to do,” said Thea Flaum, founder of Facingdisability.com, a Chicago-based website for people with spinal cord injuries and their families.
“I know people with spinal cord injuries who are in wheelchairs who are lawyers and doctors and doing all kinds of things — including people who do wheelchair dancing. People with disabilities are often tremendously abled.”
Lomnicki, the artistic director of Chicago’s Tellin’ Tales Theatre, is 3 feet, 5 inches tall and walks with crutches. She said that the Chicago theater world has come a long way since the start of her career; now there are big casting calls for people with disabilities. But challenges remain, including an issue that Stroker highlighted in her remarks after the Tony Awards ceremony.
“I would ask theater owners and producers to really look into how they can begin to make the backstage accessible, so that performers with disabilities can get around,” said Stroker, who was paralyzed from the chest down in a childhood car accident.
Disability access is a problem in Chicago theaters, too, said Lomnicki: “We rent spaces that are accessible, and there are not many that we can work in.” Often, Lomnicki said, the issue is stairs; even one stair can be a problem for a person using a wheelchair. And often backstage bathrooms are too small to accommodate a wheelchair.
Kevin D’Ambrosio, a Chicago actor who recently appeared in the play “Utility,” produced by the Interrobang Theatre Project, posted a quote from Stroker’s acceptance speech on his Facebook page.
D’Ambrosio, who has cerebral palsy that affects mobility on the left side of his body, said he played a role in “Utility” that wasn’t specifically intended for a disabled person, and that’s great. But many performers with disabilities aren’t getting that kind of opportunity.
“There’s such a small percent of us that are getting on stages,” he said. “There’s a wealth of great performers who identify with having a disability that deserve stage time and aren’t getting it at the level they could be.”
Stroker played flirtatious Ado Annie in the Broadway revival of “Oklahoma!” Resplendent in a shimmering yellow gown at the Tony Awards ceremony, she told the audience:
“This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena. You are!”
That line got a strong response on social media, with some parents sharing images of delighted children with disabilities. Lomnicki was among those who thought Stroker hit just the right note.
“She spoke to the kids out there with disabilities, that if they want to act, if they want to go to Broadway, they can do it,” Lomnicki said. “And that’s what I’ve been working on my whole career, leveling the playing field for people with disabilities, and integrating them.”
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