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Meredith Aleigha Wells paves a path for disabled performers

Meredith Aleigha Wells (they/she) is a touring actor, singer, dancer and writer, best known for their performance as Punky Who in How the Grinch Stole Christmas the Musical, marking the first performance by a wheelchair user in a Broadway National Tour.

AJ: Tell us about yourself and what brought you to where you are today?

MAW: I am a Chicago-based actor, singer, dancer and writer. I am originally from Massachusetts where I performed in my first musical and fell in love with singing, acting and dancing. Despite a number of road blocks along the way, I’ve been pursuing my craft ever since. Writing came later for me, around the time I became disabled. I came to it out of necessity – as a way to create opportunities for myself and to process my experience.

There are a million small decisions that brought me to where I am today but a few that stand out include:

  • When I became disabled, instead of leaning into unaffected skills in hopes of overcompensating for my limitations, I dove head-first into my dance training and re-learned how to dance in my wheelchair, completely changing the trajectory of my career. Now dancing is something I do professionally and outside the context of musical theater, which is something I never could have imagined pre-diagnosis.
  • Not taking no for an answer, learning to create my own opportunities
  • Quitting drinking
  • Getting Scout, my service dog
AJ: What is dysautonomia, and what do you wish people knew about it?

MAW: Dysautonomia is dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system. It’s an umbrella term for a group of disorders that affect the ANS – the system that controls everything that happens automatically in the body. Something I wish people realized about POTS specifically is that tachycardia is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many other symptoms. I often get asked, “why do you use a wheelchair if you can walk?” I am reminded how far we still have to go in regards to dysautonomia awareness, especially since the most crippling parts of my disability are invisible. 

AJ:  How has living with dysautonomia affected how you travel?

MAW: Traveling with dysautonomia is a PROCESS. Whether I’m traveling solo or with my cast, there’s so much planning required. Air travel requires notifying airlines of mobility equipment, my service dog and any assistance I may need. I have a living document on my phone that I add to each time I fly. It has an info section for each airport, including where the pet relief and sensory areas are located. I also take notes about the type of aircraft I’m flying and whether or not my wheelchair was able to fit inside the in-cabin storage. When possible, I try to take photos for future reference. I also have links to all of the laws regarding mobility equipment and service dogs handy for when I run into staff who are uneducated on the subject and insist wheelchairs or my service dog cannot stay in-cabin. Despite all the extra work, it’s absolutely worth it to get to travel and tour!

AJ: How is touring for you, as a person living with a chronic illness? What tips help you on the road?

MAW: I think it all comes down to planning. I have a lot of food sensitivities, gluten being the main one. So I always do research before we get to each new city to make a list of places with options for me. That way when a group of cast-mates wants to go out, I have places to suggest. Bonus points if I crowd-source recommendations on Instagram and cross reference those with my list of gluten-free friendly restaurants. I also always travel with my Magic Bullet mini and Vivo Life protein powder. Knowing I always have an option in a pinch gives me peace of mind. As a wheelchair user, my adaptive suitcase from Phoenix Luggage has been an absolute life hack. It hooks onto the back of my wheelchair so I can get around the airport independently.

AJ: Can you share a hit or fail wow travel experience?

MAW: Before booking my first national tour, I was a digital nomad for about a year. I had always dreamed of being on a Broadway national tour but wasn’t sure how my body would handle all the travel. I set out on my nomadic year as a trial run, to prove to myself that touring and living on the road was possible for someone like me. In the way I trained to sing, act and dance, I also trained in the traveling aspect. I knew this would be important because, at that time, a wheelchair user had never been a part of a Broadway national tour before. I had no idea what I was doing but I’m so glad I did it anyway. That year allowed me to identify what the biggest hurdles would be. By the time I booked the Grinch tour, I was able to put my best foot forward because I had spent a year identifying what accommodations I would need. I could advocate for myself accordingly when the time came. 

AJ: Tell us about the one-person musical you wrote, Dysfunctioning Just Fine.

MAW: Dysfunctioning Just Fine is a queer and disabled coming of age story. Disheartened by the lack of opportunities available to me post-diagnosis, I took matters into my own hands and created an opportunity for myself. Dysfunctioning was cathartic. Channeling that script allowed me to process my diagnosis as well as accept my queerness.

The response was nothing I could have ever imagined. We sold out before we even opened, brought the show back by popular demand to another theater on campus. After graduating, we took the show on a northeastern school tour that culminated in a run at the My True Colors Festival, where I received the Purple Skies Playwright Award. It was an incredibly special and exciting year of my life. 

AJ: Tell us about your advocacy for people with disabilities and the impact of your work? What advice do you have for others hoping to become advocates?

MAW: My activism has evolved a lot over the years. I ran a student coalition to advocate for accessible arts facilities in college. I think with the rise of social media and influencer culture, especially after the civil unrest of 2020, I felt like people were turning to me as a source of disability education for their feed. I felt like I was making a difference for a while but at some point, I realized that for me, engaging in this medium of advocacy was flawed.

I believe we can champion disabled people best when we advocate in ways that are aligned with our purpose. Being an online disability educator was not my lane. My lane is creating art and in turn opportunities for other disabled artists, paving a path for more disabled artists to be a part of this industry, using art as a platform to spark radical empathy and social change. I have an opportunity to have a large platform and do a lot of good if I remain committed to my craft as the vehicle for my advocacy. My advice is to find your lane, align with your purpose, and a kinder world will follow. 

AJ: What’s next for you?

MAW:  You can catch me at the MUNY in St. Louis August 14-20. I’ll be playing Sister Mary Robert in Sister Act!

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