Hannah Gadsby on autism, accommodations and performing live
If you’re one of the millions of people who watched comedian Hannah Gadsby fiercely take on homophobia, misogyny, sexism, and stereotypes surrounding disability and mental health in her award-winning Netflix special Nanette, then you’ve probably already marked your calendars for her latest show Douglas to make its Netflix debut.
I wasn’t quite sure how to take on writing this article, because on a personal level, I have all the feels about Hannah Gadsby. I developed a great deal of admiration for her ability to exude both vulnerable sensitivity and emotional strength during her show Nanette. Like Hannah, I’m autistic, and this commonality alone provides me with enough material to write an entire book about how amazing it feels to have on-screen and on-stage representation in the performing arts.
The disability community continues to be outspoken about the need to have disabled representation on screen and stage. It can be an especially painful and dismissive kind of erasure when we see actors and performers taking on roles or speaking on topics that they don’t personally live and experience. With Hannah’s unabashed revelations in Nanette, it was immediately evident that the disabled, neurodivergent, and queer communities have an expert spokesperson who won’t hesitate to call out discrimination and oppression.
Autistic people have long been stereotyped as humorless and unimaginative. Once Hannah came out as autistic to the entire world, it was like all of us in the autistic community could finally shout from the rooftops, “SO THERE!” as we embraced her alongside fans from all walks of life. Hannah busted the old autism stereotypes about humor, body language, and what self-advocacy should look like when she had millions of people rolling in laughter with her side-eye expressions and strategically timed punchlines that centered around her personal experiences with discrimination and violence.
After Hannah finished her Douglas tour, she agreed to answer a few questions for the Disability Visibility Project. She talked about what it’s been like to request disability accommodations during her international comedy shows with her no-phone policy, and how she realizes she still needs to work on improvements to address competing access needs for herself and her audience members.
One realization that was immediately evident when interviewing Hannah was that she recognizes her no-phone policy has been an overall success but still considers it a work-in-progress. Hannah first asked fans not to bring their phones as a way of accommodating her own access needs. What some don’t realize is Hannah also had other reasons for imposing the ban – including attempting to prevent any possible leaks of her material online before the Netflix release.
“There were several reasons that I decided to use a no-phone policy for this tour,” said Hannah. “First off, knowing that the show would ultimately be filmed for Netflix, it was necessary to make sure that no footage or imagery of the material was captured in advance.”
The most important reason for the no-phone policy is specific to Hannah’s sensory processing challenges, common among autistic people, which impact her ability to perform her comedy routine if there are unexpected and unpredictable stimuli in the room.
“Errant lights and sounds in the audience are incredibly distracting for me, so the no-phone policy dramatically limited this,” Hannah said. “With my autism, I find it near impossible to ignore disruptions in the audience during a performance, and would often (and still do) interrupt a show to figure out what was going on and try to put a stop to it. This affects the flow of the show for the whole crowd but could also make it really difficult for me to get back on track.”
I talked to a couple of people in the disability community who attended live performances of Douglas and their feedback seemed to be on track with the improvements Hannah said she and her team are working to address when it comes to continuing her no-phone policy and accommodation.
Kris Guin, an Autistic activist and founder of Queeerability, attended Hannah’s Douglas performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Kris said his overall experience was enjoyable., “Hannah was as witty as ever,” he said, adding that he’s “looking forward to more of Hannah’s shows.”
At the same time, Kris was concerned about the no-phone policy and the process for requesting an accommodation. People who needed to have their phone for a disability-related reason were required to wear a special identifying wristband during the show so that venue staff would know who was allowed to have a phone.
“Dissemination of the accommodation for people who need their phone for a disability or medical reason wasn’t shared to all the staff at the Kennedy Center,” Kris said, “which led to some initial confusion with the first staff member we encountered that was later resolved by a different staff member. I also felt singled out by having to wear a wristband. I also didn’t appreciate the judgmental behavior from the other fans in our area of the theater for having our phones.”
What could help, then? “Having someone make an announcement prior to the show starting about the phone policy would have mitigated that behavior,” Kris recommended.
Thankfully for those of us who are excited for future shows, Hannah is open to these criticisms and plans to make improvements to the process.
“One aspect of this system that we haven’t been able to find a perfect solution for is how to accommodate exceptions without asking the people who need them to actively identify themselves upon arrival to the venues,” Hannah said. “I know as well as anyone that walking into a crowded room and asking for special treatment is demeaning and exhausting. Sadly, it’s an unfortunate byproduct of the no-phone system that we need to ask already marginalized people to do just that. I’m hoping to find a more comfortable way to create an accessible space for those who require their devices, but for the moment, I continue to be grateful to those who are patiently and graciously following the protocols that are in place, as it really does create a significantly improved performance environment for me.”
Sandy Ho, a disabled leader and community organizer in the greater Boston, MA area, attended a live performance of Douglas. She said that although she did not experience or personally witness any issues with access, she is concerned about another way the no-phone policy could exclude disabled people. Sandy explained that not only do many disabled people need a phone for immediate medical related needs, but that many other disabled people rely on their phones for transportation – including transportation home.
“[Many people] depend on paratransit where rides need to be scheduled in advance,” Sandy said, “and sometimes we don’t know exactly when a show ends or other times – the crowds getting out could make us late.”
Hannah explained that a company called Yondr oversees implementation of the no-phone policy and that they have experience executing these systems internationally in venues all over the world. Disability consultants have instructed Yondr about many of the possible reasons that people might need to keep their devices. And Yondr staff don’t actually confiscate people’s phones or require people to put their phones in a locker or a coatroom – attendees who are not receiving an accommodation simply put their phones in a special pouch, but can keep the pouch and their phone with them.
“If someone needs their phone for a medical purpose, a heart or glucose monitor, or hearing aid, for example, Yondr has a system to make sure they can access it without issue during the show,” Hannah said. “It’s really important to me that everyone feel welcome at my shows, and I don’t want this accommodation to be a hindrance to anyone wanting to attend. When people have medical exceptions, I get a list of where permitted devices might be visible in the theater, so that I know to expect it. It’s the surprise lights that really get me.”
But even though many disabled people have been concerned about the no-phone policy, and possibly having to disclose their disabilities to be able to bring their phones when needed, other feedback has been positive. Hannah and many fans have pointed out many possible benefits to the no-phone policy that extend beyond Netflix’s copyright concerns or even Hannah’s individual access needs.
“It turns out people really appreciate turning their phones off for a bit!” Hannah said. “And we’ve been delighted to see that the hubbub is back in the auditorium before a show. Because no one is trying to finish this last text or email, everyone is talking to each other and much more present.”
As many autistic people know from painful personal experience, it’s often rare for us to be able to both express our access needs and to have the people around us agree to respect them. Hannah recognizes the significance of this support from her fans – and we hope that as she helps normalize the need to respect sensory differences, other spaces will also become more accessible and welcoming for autistic people too.
“My audience generally has been incredibly supportive about the no-phone policy, which, by the way, also extends to any other electronic device – smart watches, Fitbits, iPads, basically anything that can make a light or sound in an otherwise dark, quiet room,” Hannah said. “I’ve been really grateful to see how respectful that vast majority of the people who come to my shows are.”
With all the support Hannah has received with respect to honoring her accommodation request, she did admit that there have been a few times when some people have tried to keep their phones for non-medical or non-emergency reasons.
“Of course, there are always going to be a few people who do not want to cooperate,” Hannah said. “We have had some instances of audience members trying to sneak in phones or other devices, sometimes more subtly than others. The response to this varies – venue staff are instructed to eject any patron seen using a device, especially if they are recording or taking photos. It’s very rare that we’ve had this happen, though. If a device becomes too distracting, and the front of house staff haven’t seen it or can’t easily access the patron, then as I said above, I’ll stop the show to investigate what’s going on, and usually after I call someone out in front of a couple thousand people, they don’t do it again.”
Appreciative of her fans for understanding her accommodation request, Hannah ended the interview with words of gratitude. “I continue to be grateful to those who are patiently and graciously following the protocols that are in place,” she said, “as it really does create a significantly improved performance environment for me.”
As founder of the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network, I can’t pen an article about Hannah’s Douglas Show without expressing how all of us at AWN will be forever grateful to Hannah. After learning about our work, she took her “why you might want to get a pet-rock” joke from her Douglas Show and turned it into a fundraiser to support our mission at AWN during her month-long run in New York City. If you missed Hannah’s hilarious pet-rock fundraiser announcement on the Colbert Show, you can catch a clip of it here.
It is impossible to underestimate how powerful it is for Hannah to thoughtfully and strategically use her platform by shining a spotlight on the abuses and violence experienced by disabled, autistic, and LGBTQIA+ people, as well as calling out everyday ableism, anti-queer and anti-trans oppression, and misogyny! She’s talked openly about her own struggles with mental health, coming out as autistic, and living in the world as an out and proud queer woman. Oh, and did I mention she somehow manages to tackle all of this by provoking gut-wrenching laughter in less than an hour?
Long live Hannah Gadsby (and pet rocks)!
Sharon daVanport is Founder and Executive Director of the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network (AWN). Sharon’s work encompasses several aspects of the wider disability justice movement, including steering committee member of the National Disability Leadership Alliance, represents AWN on the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, serves as treasurer for Crushing Colonialism, and is on the advisory board for Felicity House in NYC. Sharon is co-editor along with Emily Paige Ballou and Kristina Thomas of What Every Autistic Girl Wishes Her Parents Knew, self-published by AWN. They have spoken before the United Nations and the White House and received recognition from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network for their contribution to the self-advocacy movement, and the Autism Society of America’s Dr. Temple Grandin award for outstanding literary work of the year. Outside of Sharon’s work in autistic advocacy, they have nearly a decade of experience as a social worker, and they are a parent of four diversely neurodivergent adults.
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