One in four American adults has a disability. That’s 61 million Americans. 13.7% of them have mobility issues. 10.8% have cognitive issues. 5.9% are deaf, or nearly so. 4.6% are blind, or nearly so. Underneath the big top of America, there are many disabled people who might not be able to go to, say, the circus, and enjoy it as much as one could.
Anna Gichan is a circus performer. A member of New York’s Omnium Circus, she was born deaf. She’s a dancer who loves climbing, handstands, and motorcycle riding. “My mom says I learned to crawl on my back first instead of my hands,” she says. “It makes me wonder if baby me liked how the floor felt because it had a more vibrational experience. I still love being connected to the floor and sensing the environment.”
The environment of the Omnium Circus is one-of-a-kind. Jen Bricker-Bauer was born without legs. She’s an Omnium Circus aerialist. In her youth she was interested in gymnastics and so she went on to be the first person without legs competing in power tumbling, against non-disabled athletes, becoming state champion in her division.”
Bailey Anne Vincent is dubbed the Bionic Ballerina. She, too, is deaf. She also has atypical cystic fibrosis. These limitations don’t stop her from performing. She’s performed a lot. She’s even been in a Kelly Clarkson music video.
The circus is for them just as the circus should be for everyone. “The circus is so powerful,” states Omnium founder Lisa Lewis. She’s been in the circus business for decades. Having graduated from the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Clown College, she’s gone on to earn her Master’s Degree in Clown History at NYU. She has performed in her own circus and others’ circuses for years, most notably the Big Apple Circus. All the while, she began to see how limiting a circus’s reach can be if an audience member can’t see, or hear, or has mobility issues, or any of the other myriad of disabilities millions of Americans face. She was determined to make a circus for all. “This is my path,” she says. “This is what I am supposed to do.”
The organization is run, top to bottom, with at least 25% of the staff disabled. Age, race, sexual orientation, and disability, doesn’t matter, nor should it, within the ranks of the Omnium Circus. “We are genuinely extraordinary. We’re not a sideshow. We showcase incredible performers, some of whom happen to have a disability.”
“Performing is important to me,” Gichan says. “When I perform, I feel confident! I hope my performance with Omnium brings others confidence.” She says, “Performing feels like home.”
One of Lewis’s favorite memories was having Omnium perform for students who attend Gallaudet University, a college for the deaf or hard of hearing. “One young African American woman walked in grumpy. She didn’t want to be there. We all could tell. She didn’t know why she had come. She wanted to leave as soon as she walked in. When the performance was over, she was beaming. She was crying. ‘I have never seen myself represented on stage.’” Lewis says, matter-of-factly, “This circus changes lives.”
It has changed hers. “We want the world to be a more welcoming place,” she says. That place can be under a circus tent. It can be had with clowns, and ringmasters, and jugglers, and contortionists. “I feel like I stepped into power,” Gishan says of her circus performances. To give that power to others, she feels, is something special.
The Omnium Circus has full audio and ASL at every performance. They cater to those with autism and assist individuals with sensory adaptations. “Everyone can feel welcome,” Lewis says. “Everyone can come.”
The circus started in 2020, and while COVID put a damper on the festivities, it hasn’t dampened their spirit and mission to be the most all-inclusive entertainment available. They have shows in New York City this spring. They’ll soon, also, head out on tour, like those circuses of old, from small town to small town, big city to big city, delighting audiences. And they will provide the venues visited the tools needed, at no cost, to make them better adapted to cater to disabled audiences.
The circus will showcase, with a clown’s pratfall or a trapeze artist’s flip, that everyone has something exceptional inside them.