You Want An Inclusive Workplace? First, Reimagine ‘The Workplace’
Performer and activist Jenny Magenta gets personal about real accessibility Content warning: suicide, sexual assault, mental illness Jenny Magenta is hard to describe with only several adjectives. Although performer, activist, and trailblazer come to mind, she is the kind of person who defies categorization. This was perhaps best exemplified by the fact that the 2016 UnTapped Awards committee created a new category—the Strong Voices Award—after receiving Magenta’s nomination for a different award. She was blown away to receive an award that she hadn’t even known existed. “It really validated me—what I was doing, what I am doing,” said Magenta. Magenta has been an advocate for inclusion in work spaces—from offices to theatre companies—before she had the language to identify herself as such. At age nine, she ended up at the National Ballet School of Canada. “I realized that I didn’t fit into that world,” said Magenta. She noticed a culture of conformity in ballet that kept racial and gender inequality hidden. Magenta left the ballet world and developed a passion for theatre in her teen years, only to face more barriers in her work space. Magenta started struggling with mental illness, but noted that there wasn’t any language for what she was dealing with. She quietly attempted suicide at age 16. It was only in her early twenties while attending theatre school at SFU that Magenta saw a doctor and went on medication. “I realized, ‘Oh my god, this is what life is supposed to feel like,’” said Magenta. “But, at the same time, I was told: ‘Hide your medication.’” The stigmatization and worries of judgement led Magenta to hide her mental illness. She tried to keep her personal life separate from her work as an artist, but had difficulty holding down jobs. In her thirties, Magenta’s life pretty well fell apart. Over ten traumatic events occurred in a span of less than three years, including multiple deaths in the family and the end of her marriage. On top of her depression, Magenta was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. Things were dark—she had several suicide attempts during that time, visits in and out of the psych ward, precarious living situations, and was using drugs at parties to escape. “When I think about that time, it’s blank,” said Magenta. She was doing occasional performing, but it’s hard to imagine anyone holding down consistent work amidst such circumstances. The turning point came in the form of a callout for art submissions for the Kickstart Disability Arts Festival. “I had this…very raw theatre piece…[that] was basically about mental illness and going through distress,” said Magenta. For the first time, Magenta was invited to put her disability and work together in a conscious way. “It was a huge revelation for me,” she said. Since that festival, Magenta has been doing performing art that focuses on disability and destigmatization. In May, she choreographed Sexy Voices, a play about sex and disability. There were 16 cast members, all with disabilities of some sort, and 14 in wheelchairs. “That was just unbelievable…to see people’s perceptions of themselves, and break them,” said Magenta. That play was with RealWheels Theatre Company, a group Magenta still presently works with. Issues of accessibility were impossible to ignore while doing Sexy Voices, and Magenta notes that many “accessible” spaces in Vancouver are the opposite. The label basically just means that “you can get into the building,” she said—there often aren’t wheelchair accessible bathrooms in places like restaurants. As for theatre space, “there are three venues that are actually accessible for performers,” said Magenta, “and they’re very expensive to rent.” Even if a work space is physically accessible, Magenta argues that traditional concepts of work must also be reimagined for actual inclusion. “I have days where I’m just challenged by dealing with people in a face to face way, [even though] I’m completely capable of talking to people and doing my work,” she said. Options such as working from home and flexible hours should become a norm, not an exception. “All that nonsense about how it must be a pleasure for the person with the disability to be working from home—you know, it’s not actually a pleasure, okay?” said Magenta. The necessity of telecommuting for inclusive work spaces is demonstrated by the use of social media for community building amongst those with various disabilities. People may dismiss excessive participation on various sites, or attempt to invalidate those sitting behind a screen. However, social media gives a platform and voice to those with various barriers or disabilities, and Magenta was inspired to start sharing her experiences online after positive audience feedback. “It’s quite a powerful thing for folks with mental illness,” said Magenta. “You can be sitting in our underpants at home, just feeling like complete hell, and still be expressing yourself. And you can find allies and support without any judgment on how you look. You can talk people off the ledge, literally.” The power of social media also lies in its reach, and Magenta communicates and inspires people from different parts of the world. Once a workplace is both physically and structurally inclusive, then the real work begins: challenging biases and engaging daily, meaningfully, with everyone. “There are a lot of assumptions around disabilities,” Magenta said. Even when employers make an effort to hire folks with disabilities, they are often treated as second-class citizens. “I can’t tell you how many people I know with disabilities whose main reason for not applying for jobs is that they don’t want to do the shitty work—the work in the back,” said Magenta. Having a disability, either visible or invisible, should not limit employment to menial work or minimum wage jobs. “If we’re creating this world that includes people with disabilities, we must see them not only as the janitor, but also as the CEO,” said Magenta. Magenta hopes to begin keynote speaking in 2017 to educate people about options for workplace inclusivity, while continuing to perform in and with burlesque, queer, and disability communities. If you or someone you know deserves the Strong Voice Award this year, visit https://www.untappedseries.ca/untapped-awards/ for information on nominating.