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Essay by Thomas Ellenson ’23

My name is Thomas Ellenson. I’m 20 years old. I have Cerebral Palsy and use a power wheelchair to get around. Not surprisingly, that’s the first thing most people notice about me.

The second thing is that I use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). I can’t speak typically, so I talk using an app on my iPad (like Stephen Hawking).

I also communicate with my eyes. I look up for “yes” and down for “no.” I can say a few words: “I don’t know” and “more”. Otherwise, I push buttons on an iPad to speak. Sometimes I use sentences I’ve stored. Sometimes I create sentences word by word, letter by letter, like I’ve done for this essay. When I speak, words come out in a synthetic voice. But don’t let that fool you: faces speak volumes. People learn what I think pretty quickly.

You probably never had to choose what your voice sounded like. Or maybe society told you your voice wasn’t mainstream or normal. What does voice mean? If you ask me, a voice is more than what’s audible.

In my life, my voice has developed through theater. Theater lets me escape from reality for a while. My world is hard to navigate and sometimes I need a breather. Like everyone.

When I was 6, I saw the Broadway show Hairspray! Since then I’ve seen over 50 shows. My favorite show is Fun Home. I’ve seen it six times.

Fun Home is a musical with a deep and remarkable story. It’s about a young woman, Alison, who’s gay and feels alone. Often, I feel like Alison. I feel people don’t see me, don’t even want to see me, and don’t want to face my truth. We are outsiders, Alison and I. We share a bond. Theater allows me to explore the complexity of my emotions and experiences. For example, what happens when a performance shines a light on the very thing you are trying to forget?

My love for the theater has brought me so much joy and so many wonderful experiences, among them, a friendship with the lead actress of Fun Home, Beth Malone, who has written me a letter of recommendation.

For years, Broadway was at the center of my life, but I never used to think I could be on stage myself. In 2013, my dad suggested I try acting. Me? An actor? But how? Where? Who would take a chance on me?

One day I learned about a theater company in Manhattan called Creative Arts Team, which fully embraced diversity. Next thing I knew, I had entered my first acting class. So many thoughts went through my mind. I didn’t know if I could do it. How could I act if I was in a wheelchair and couldn’t talk?

I’ve now been in my fifth production with Creative Arts Team. I’ve starred in a play at City College. Last year, I landed a small role in an episode of the ABC show Speechless. And I’ve just completed my first one-man show, with which I won a competition.

My journey into acting has helped me become a braver person. My life is difficult because of my disability. Acting allows me to share my voice in different ways, as many different characters. For me, acting is freedom. And freedom is something different than escape. In fact, the stage is the only place where people stare at me for the right reasons.

What defines a voice? Maybe it’s not about whether it comes from vocal chords or a speech device. Maybe what defines a voice is authenticity, truth, and honesty. I have found my voice in theater and the lessons it has provided about accepting others and being kind and positive. Maybe my voice is not traditionally audible. But I wake up every morning knowing it will be heard.