Illustration by Patrícia Palma

Social inclusion of people with disabilities in professional circus

Rui Leitão


Inclusion is a topic that is increasingly being debated and transformed. Performing arts are not out of this equation and tend more and more to look at the issue and create new opportunities for those who are often left behind by physical, intellectual or social issues. In this article I propose a critical analysis of a programme of inclusion of people with disabilities in a professional contemporary circus production with the aim of understanding its impact on the participants and the surrounding community, as well as the difficulties in implementing it.

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Rui Leitão


He was born in 1979. Graduated in Anthropology in 2004, from Fernando Pessoa University, where he defended the monograph “Theatrical Anthropology – An Anthropological Study on the Art of Representation”. He is co-founder and artistic director of Fértil Associação Cultural since 2010, where he currently works. He was the author and director of several Fértil plays. His shows stand out for the relationship between anthropology and the creative process. He is responsible for Fértil’s community projects, not only as an artist, but above all in managing and liaising with communities. He has worked as a researcher at the Centre for Applied Anthropology of Fernando Pessoa University on projects related to ethnography, rural world, and

Patrícia Palma


Patrícia Palma grew up in the south of Portugal, in Alentejo, and currently resides in Lisbon. Years after her Architecture degree at ISCTE-IUL, she decided to take the leap and follow her
love for drawing, discovering her voice in Illustration and Sequential Art. Her inspiration comes from the human experience, daily life and surroundings, routinely
captured in sketchbooks. Her language is expressed through intentional but imperfect lines, and strict colour palettes, sometimes mixing analog textures with digital art. Patricia focuses in editorial illustration and publishing, and currently she’s working on a Graphic Novel. When not drawing, you can probably find her taking care of plants and drinking tea.


Historically, the attention given to people with disabilities is very recent. We can point to the beginning of a more serious discussion of this issue in the 1970s, when Michael Pachovas and his colleagues, in an episode that could be considered civil disobedience, created a ramp to the pavement one night. This act gave rise to the term “the curb cut effect”, which transformed the entire history of accessibility (Blackwell, A. G., 2016). In the same 1970s, the discipline of Disability Studies was created (Rios, Pereira, & Meinerz, 2019). Still, it took until 2006 for the United Nations to create the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was ratified by a wide range of countries, including Portugal, in 2007. It is thus clear why this issue began to take on new proportions from the beginning of this century.

The history of the modern circus is of a different magnitude, beginning in the 18th century with a knight named Philip Astley. The evolution of the circus goes through many phases, two of which I would like to emphasise for a better framing of this study. The first phase that I would like to emphasise is the inclusion of people with abnormal characteristics as models of exhibition for their specific characteristics. The so-called “Freak Shows” start in the 19th century and last expressively until the 1970s. You can see that this decade is undoubtedly a turning point in how society begins to change the way it deals with people with disabilities. Although nowadays this business model is totally repressed – but also certain that there are still some shows of this kind – the truth is that we can consider it as the first act of inclusion of people with disabilities in the circus. At the time they were shown for their “anomalies” and in a derogatory way, however these circuses provided them with work and remuneration, which in many cases was quite high. The second phase in the evolution of the circus that I will note is the creation of the “Contemporary Circus” or “New Circus”. Very much driven by the May 1968 (Costa: 2005), a series of independent artists not belonging to any circus family creates a new concept of circus outside the sphere of traditional and family circuses. This model comes closer to theatre and dance, even crossing with these disciplines, initiating a new language and a new working model. Unlike the traditional circus where one is born within it and is rather impervious to outside artists (Afonso, 2002), the new circus works with artists coming from different backgrounds and contexts.

This introduction serves to locate the “Panorama” programme carried out by the National Institute of Circus Arts (INAC) under the PARTIS & Arts For Change funding line of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and La Caixa Foundation. “Panorama” is a two-year programme in which the main focus is the integration of people with disabilities in two professional artistic productions of new circus. A feature relevant to the case is that the selected participants are users of institutions supporting people with disabilities and their families.

In this research I adopted a methodology based on the ethnographic model where, through fieldwork as a participant observer, I was able to experience the entire development of the programme, which I will specify later. During the fieldwork I was focused on trying to understand how this project was applied and developed, what its virtues and weaknesses were, but also to understand how the whole community surrounding the participants acted in the face of a proposal such as integrating them into a new circus show. I was interested in knowing how the professionals directly involved in the project acted, but also the relatives and friends of the participants, the technicians of the institutions where they spent their days, the local politics, the media and finally, civil society based on the sample of the public who attended the show. In addition to participant observation, open-ended interviews were conducted with the various stakeholders and informal conversations were noted throughout the process.

Before presenting the “Panorama”, I should note the nomenclature used in order to understand the parties involved and their roles in the process. I call the individuals with disabilities who participated in the programme “participants” and the professionals who directed or accompanied the process “artists”. In fact, in the end everyone was an artist, but for the ease of reading this article I have chosen this distinction.

The “Panorama”

This presentation will follow a chronological line of the implementation of the programme, which will allow us to understand the narrative of the whole process. The programme proposed four phases: 1) selection of participants;  2) technical preparation;  3) creation; 4) public presentation. After these 4 phases, a round table was held to share the challenges of the programme.

The first phase, the selection, was organised as follows: 3 institutions supporting people with disabilities in the municipality of V. N. de Famalicão were invited, each of them made a pre-selection of 8 individuals of both genders and with multiple disabilities. This totalled 24 individuals who participated in a 3-day workshop at INAC’s facilities. This workshop was led by the two circus artists who would later complement the cast of the show and its director. Some of the pre-selected participants had already been part of other social circus and inclusion programmes promoted by INAC, such as “Envolvarte”, others were making their debut. At this point in the process I realised that the technicians of the institutions supporting people with disabilities were counting on the selection of some of their users, however, the artistic direction had a different view. The final decision was made by the director, Carolina Vasconcelos, and she knew very precisely what she wanted from the participants. Not only did they have to have some aptitude for the circus arts, but they had to demonstrate other characteristics, such as autonomy and understanding, so that they could develop a professional level show, unlike programmes such as “Envolvarte” in which all the users of the various institutions participated. In the end, 5 participants from 3 institutions were selected. These 3 days of work were very exciting and at the same time very confusing. It was not clear whether the participants understood what they were doing, i.e. that this was a selection process. For the vast majority it was just another day out of the institution, trying different things.

The second stage was the physical and technical training of the selected participants in some techniques of circus arts. On the first day of this stage one of the participants shares with great enthusiasm the following expression: “we have been selected, here we are”. It becomes clear in this second phase why they are working on this project. In this first working session, the artistic direction shows the participants a selection of videos of other creations of the same kind produced in other countries. After showing the videos they have a talk with the selected participants explaining the objectives of the programme for which they were selected. This briefing session was not only important for them to better understand the programme, but also motivated them to be part of this journey. Some of the participants projected themselves in those images and aspired to be artists, especially two of them who had participated in such programmes before. The circus techniques selected for the training sessions were: the German Wheel, Juggling, Acrobatics and Globe. The selection of these techniques was due to the fact that these were the specialities mastered by the artists who would follow the whole process and later be part of the cast. The training process lasted about three months with a routine of 3 days a week, with 2 hours of training each day. At this stage, the artistic team realises that time is too short to work with people with the difficulties they present. The time of the learning process, although very fruitful, is much longer than expected. This feeling was amplified and already at the moment of creation the director shared her difficulties due to the lack of time she had to work with the participants.

It is also in this second stage that I see a great divergence in the way the technicians of the institutions of support for people with disabilities and the artists who accompanied the process treat each other. We must understand, for historical reasons, that people with disabilities who spend their free time in disability support institutions are still people segregated from society (Aydos, 2001). This segregation creates a very paternalistic, or maternalistic, language between the carer and the cared for. Even if the institutions develop various activities outside their establishments, these individuals are practically always among themselves, i.e. the process of real inclusion with society is still very meagre. On the other hand, because the artists involved are not aware of this language, and because one of the motives of this programme is to break down barriers, I realise that their language is much more horizontal, one-to-one. In the first sessions I felt a certain discomfort on the part of some of the technicians who tried to translate what was said to the participants or in reverse. As time went by, and with the artists gaining confidence, this discomfort disappeared, and at the moment of creation the techniques no longer even accompanied their users in rehearsals. Trust and autonomy were gained and the process of inclusion began to unfold.

After three months of intensive training in circus techniques, it is time to move on to the actual creation. As it is a creation made from scratch, the game gains a very important importance at this stage. Even if based on a real story, the show “Elephant Island” will always be a performative interpretation of that story. The dramatic game allows another involvement among the participants because it is a collective practice (Salgado, 2014). It is a physical and temporal space far from everyday life, where the rules are created as the participants get involved in the game and where the imagination can wander wherever it wants. The act of pretence in dramatic play is a natural act for these participants, perhaps because of the type of disability they were attributed, the imaginary world is a space they know well. Artaud (in Cesariny, 2021) in his “Letter to the Chief Doctors of the Asylums for the Alienated” refers to this liberation of the prisoners of these asylums, saying that they were people with just another vision of the world. Artaud suffered atrociously from the treatments of the mid-20th century and only much later did they realise his genius. It is not our human condition, physical and intellectual, that limits our imagination, but the environment in which we often develop as people. After the premiere of the show I visited each of the participants to see how they were doing and one of them shared with me that he missed INAC because “I can talk there, not here [in the institution]”. Perhaps it was not the question of “speaking”, but of “being” that he wanted to convey to me.

The whole creation process was a process of great development for all parties, especially for the participants and the artists. The relationship between them was generating towards a new language between them, where no translation was needed anymore. Nor was there a need for the patronising usually adopted with people with disabilities. Little by little, each one of them gained their autonomy and responsibility. It was quite noticeable their development as more autonomous, responsible and capable human beings.

The opening day, the culmination of the whole process, was a day when I was faced with a question “Why are these young people in institutions?”. We are talking about 5 young people with a certain degree of autonomy and capacities. As I reread my notes, the conversations and interviews I had with relatives and directors of the institutions, I realise that it is not by their will that these young people do not pursue a career. The director of one of the institutions shared with me that she “dreams of seeing some of her users achieve a loving relationship in their lives and live independently”. The sister of one of the participants would also like to give her brother this opportunity but says that “nobody gives him a job, the country is not prepared to receive these people”. It was from these testimonies that I later raised the question at the round table: “how far are our investments sufficient to deal with young people like these?”. When I refer to “our” it is everyone. The responsibility is not only political, family or institutions, but the whole society that does not engage with these issues because it does not even touch them.


I reinforce the thought, which I have been developing over the years, about the power of the performing arts in the process of building and transforming the human being and, consequently,
society. In this specific case, I realise that this work is not only a way of developing new skills for the participants, but also the development of new readings for the problem of the inclusion of people with disabilities in society. The participation of people with disabilities in a professional production of contemporary circus has generated several adaptations of discourses and relationships with the participants, especially in the two most involved parties, the institutions supporting people with disabilities and the circus artists who carried out this project. I also conclude that civil society, politics and the media, at least at the local level where the project took place, are still very distant from this issue and that although they empathise with ideas like this, their support is far from being possible and necessary. These kinds of projects require a lot of energy, commitment and time, which consequently also require substantial funding. As has already happened with theatre and dance in projects of the same scope, i.e. of a professional nature, circus is now added in Portugal as a new tool for the development of new possibilities for transforming society on the issue of social inclusion of people with disabilities: questioning, problematising and creating new opportunities.


Afonso, J. (2002). The circuses do not exist: Family and labour in the circus milieu. Impr. de Ciências Sociais.
Aydos, V. (2021). Building the “good worker”: Inclusion of people with disabilities in the labour market. Ethnographic, vol. 25 (2), 289-314.
Blackwell, Angela Glover (2016). The Curb-Cut Effect. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 15, 2833.
Cesariny, M. (2021). Textos de afirmação e de combate do movimento surrealista mundial (2nd edition, November 2021). Documenta.
Costa, I. A. (2005). The arts of the circus. Sinais de Cena, 1(3), 49-56.
Rios, C., Pereira, É. L., & Meinerz, N. (2019). Presentation: Anthropological perspectives on disability in Brazil. Anthropological Yearbook, v.44 n.1, 29-42.
Salgado, R. S. (2014). The Politics of Dramatic Play: Decentred Marginality as Creative Resistance. In Anthropology and Performance: Acting, Performing, Displaying (pp. 77-113). 100Luz.

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