This is part 3 of a series on Milena Khazanavicius, a Halifax woman who is blind and is working to make the city more accessible for others who are blind and partially sighted. In this story, we learn how Khazanavicius makes fun and entertainment accessible for herself and others.
The day I interviewed Milena Khazanavicius was also her last day with the circus.
Several weeks before we met, Khazanavicius started a weekly program with LEGacy Circus, a troupe founded by Vanessa Furlong and Erin Ball, who describe themselves on their website as a “contemporary circus arts duo combining the use of leg attachments, mobility aids, traditional and non-traditional circus apparatuses.”
For Khazanavicius, this circus program — and some of her other adventures — are a reprieve from fighting to make everyday life, like navigating the city sidewalks and the health care system, accessible.
“Just about anything and everything is accessible, especially when it comes to life’s adventures,” Khazanavicius said. “And with this, I don’t have time to think about construction [in the city] because I am thinking of hanging on for dear life so I don’t fall on my head.”
Khazanavicius first met Furlong when Khazanavicius was on the board of the Friends of the Public Gardens, where they ran a Pose as Diana contest during the first summer of COVID. Through casual conversation, Furlong told Khazanavicius about LEGacy and Khazanavicius told Furlong about seeing she and Ball perform at the Halifax Fringe Festival. Khazanavicius then told Furlong she wanted to learn how to walk on stilts, which Furlong does as part of her circus act and training. Furlong took on the challenge to teach Khazanavicius.
That chat was two years ago, and while Khazanavicius didn’t learn how to walk on stilts, she did learn to dangle from silks, and got into a hoola hoop hanging upside down.
Learning circus tricks when you’re blind means the instructor and student really have to been hands on. It’s also about listening and not assuming. For Furlong, this was easy since this is LEGacy’s mandate; Furlong told the Examiner everyone in LEGacy’s troupe identifies as “mad, Deaf, or disabled.”
As for working with Khazanavicius, Furlong said there was a lot of collaboration. For example, during the warm up, Furlong described what she was doing with her body, so the Khazanavicius would follow along. Khazanavicius suggested if students had a mat they would always know they were in their own safe space. Furlong would offer her elbow so Khazanavicius could hold onto her and move around the room. And Khazanavicius would touch the apparatus and Furlong’s body to understand how she was working on that piece of equipment. All eight students in that class had a disability, and Furlong worked each through the routines and tricks.
“I think when folks think of access, they’re thinking of who is in the audience and they’re forgetting about who is the stage,” Furlong said. “Particularly adults. You see so many programs for youth when it comes to adaptive anything. I find for adults when it comes to learning new skills, very rarely is access considered.”
“At the end of the day, I would love it to be normal to see and experience a disabled circus performer on the stage. And the only way to do that is to train them.”
Khazanavicius said she’s always been adventurous and the thirst for adventures didn’t stop when she lost her sight.
She’s tried pole dancing, sky diving, and she raced in the Windsor Pumpkin Regatta. She once went zip lining in Whistler. One of her most beloved projects is volunteering with Common Roots Urban Farm, where she is one of the core team members and helps make the community garden accessible to people who are blind and partially sighted.
And still another favouite hobby is backwoods camping. With her friends and a backpack on her back, Khazanavicius follows a rope along a trail leading to a campsite deep in the forest.
“It’s great. When you’re out there, there’s nothing. No traffic. It’s dead silent,” said Khazanavicius. “There’s a campfire and you’re with good friends and you know when everyone is asleep it’s almost eerie because it’s so, so quiet. All I think is, ‘don’t everyone die because how do I find my way out of here?’”
But finding ways to have fun that are accessible is not always easy. The key, Khazanavicius said, is to find people who are willing to try to work together.
“It’s about opening your mind and opening your eyes,” she said.
When Khazanavicius was looking into trying pole dancing, she called several studios before one agreed to take her on as a student. She said many said they didn’t know how to work with a student who was blind. The owner of that fifth studio simply asked her how they could make it work. Furlong at LEGacy Circus did much of the same.
“What I loved about this group, and particularly with Milena, is a lot of what we were doing was because I was approaching this not as a class, but as a collaboration; a lot of what we were doing we would never have done in a typical class setting with someone who was a beginner,” Furlong said. “There was a lot of daring stuff going on.”
“Milena was great for that. It was bold. It was fantastic. I am keeping Milena to run away with the circus.”
“Everyone gets to participate”
Not all of the fun stuff Khazanavicius has worked on to make accessible has been quite as daring as joining the circus. In late 2021, she worked as a consultant to help Neptune Theatre incorporate audio description into one of its shows of a Christmas Carol before the theatre had to shut its doors because of new COVID restrictions.
Julia Topple is the theatre school administrator and the school tour coordinator at Neptune Theatre, but over the years she’s also been an actor on its stage and work in the front of years.
Laura Caswell, the director of education at Neptune and Topple’s boss, brought forward the idea of the audio description shows. Topple said one of Caswell’s goals at Neptune is bringing in equity, diversity, and inclusion at the theatre company and to make sure the theatre is accessible to everyone. For example, a couple of years ago, Neptune started its “relaxed” or sensory-friendly performances. Those shows have no strobe lights, reduced sound, reduced fog, and the house lights are kept up a bit.
Audio description was the theatre’s next goal. Caswell and Khazanavicius know each other through the Friends of the Public Garden, where both served on its board.
“When I first met her it was over a Zoom call and I said, ‘This lady is amazing,’” Topple recalled.
Neptune got funding through the Bluenose Ability Arts and Film Festival (BAFF) and Reachability, and Kat Germaine was the audio describer. With permission from all the actors and everyone in production, the project went ahead. It took two weeks to plan.
Fourteen seats were set aside for people who are blind or partially sighted to attend the show. Most of those guests were invited through contacts of Khazanavicius. Neptune also posted a message via its social media. Topple said they sent out emails to those guests a week before the show. That email included details on where to go, directions to the theatre, where to get tickets, and how to use the audio devices.
On the day before, the team had a training session with Khazanavicius where some team members were blindfolded and led through the theatre by other staff members, so they could understand how the show’s guests would navigate the space.
On the day of the show, Neptune opened the house early so the guests could get a rundown on how to use the earpiece through which they’d hear the audio descriptions. Through the audio description, Germain described how many actors were in the show, what the set looked like, the time frame the show took place, and so on.
In the pre-show announcement as the other guests arrived, there was an announcement that included details the audio description was taking place. Khazanavicius said the show and audio description was a rousing success.
“One of the participants said to me — and this person has partial sight — they have never listened to a live audio description of a play before. Her words were ‘I didn’t realize how much I was not seeing,’” Khazanavicius said. “Probably a sad thing for her, but it made me feel good to provide and open up, to show what was there, and that you were missing things, but you don’t have the miss thing. If you put all these things into place, everyone gets to participate.”
After the show, when the entire house was cleared, the guests went on stage, put on latex gloves, and joined puppeteer Simon Henderson for a touch tour of the puppets from the play.
Henderson held up the puppets and the guests got a chance to touch the puppets to get a sense of that character. He held hands with the puppets and the guests to give them a feel of their personalities. The ghost of the past is a gentle spirit, so Henderson’s hand would be soft. Jacob Marley bit more anguished character, so Henderson’s grip was firmer and his fingers were curled, so the guests could get a sense of that puppet’s rigid personality.
Henderson said if theatregoers see a show in a particular way, they can also imagine how it feels, but also if they can feel it, then they can also imagine how it might look. That was the purpose of the touch tour.
“If I lay the puppets on a table and people pick them up, that’s fine,” Henderson said. “But I felt like I wanted to be there to actually hold them, bring them into character, and interact with them as they are meant to be. Things are supposed to look and feel alive. I was really glad to be able to do that. The thing I enjoyed most about it was how much they enjoyed it.”
While Neptune is closed now, Topple said they will offer shows with audio descriptions again and they’re looking at what shows in the remainder of the season will work. They want to get up to having one audio described performance per show. She said it’s all “doable” and the theatre has already heard from other theatres who want to learn how to include audio description in their shows.
“We had a really, really good team of people who were open to educating us and not afraid to tell us when we were doing things wrong. That’s mainly what Milena did. She made it very clear there are no stupid questions; ask me anything. I will give you an honest answer. I really appreciated that.”
“Everyone needs arts and culture. Everyone needs entertainment. Everyone needs to have that moment to enjoy something. I think a lot of folks from that community have been fighting for that for a very long time. It’s great to have as many options as possible.”
“My blindness is not the worst of life right now”
Khazanavicius said she will often ask someone new what disability would they not want to have, if they had a choice.
“And generally most of the time, very few say otherwise, they don’t want to go blind,” Khazanavicius said. “To me, and it’s only me, and I am only one person, my blindness is not the worst of life right now. That is not my biggest problem for me in my head. I deal with depression. I am a person like everyone else. My parents are aging. How will I navigate when something happens to them? Those are my bigger fears right now than anything else.”
It’s not that she doesn’t think about her blindness, especially, she said when she injures herself walking near those construction sites in the city.
“Then I am mad at the world, and I don’t want to waste my energy being mad at the world,” she said. “The world doesn’t deserve my madness. I don’t want to give it to them because it’s sucking out my energy. I would rather spend all this energy to ‘holy shit, we just did this.’”
“And I did it not because I am blind but because someone gave me an opportunity and someone opened their minds, somebody thought of other ways to do things.”
Khazanavicius said it’s not on everyone to assume they know how to accommodate her in anything from navigating the city’s streets to finding a place on a circus stage.
“I cannot stand when someone tries to do something without asking me first,” she said. “In the end, those with good intentions end up making things a lot worse.”
Khazanavicius said she does have her limits on what she’ll try in her big adventures.
“You will never, ever, ever get me on a bungee cord,” Khazanavicius said. “To me, all I think is I will go down this bungee and with my luck my body will split in half or my legs will get ripped out of my hip hinges.”
And while she has a bit of a fear of drowning, she’d like to try parasailing
“I have to figure out how to make more money so I can do more of that,” she laughed. “Everything does cost.”
“I get off on the high. It’s a high for me. That tension and anxiety, which is a different tension and anxiety than when I am dealing with HRM. It’s an instant release. I still have the mental capacity to do this.”