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Artists with Disabilities

Karen Atkinson, GYST Inc.

Christine Leahey provides suggestions for artists with disabilities. 

 

This article was orginally published by GYST.

 

 

The arts can offer a unique opportunity for social and economic participation by people with disabilities. The removal of architectural and attitudinal barriers to their participation should be regarded as a vital extension of the Civil Rights Movement.
 

DEFINING AND DISCLOSING DISABILITY

The World Health Organization recently adopted the most progressive definition of disability in its history. According to the International Classification of Functioning and Health (2000), disability is now defined as a "dynamic interaction between an individual and the environment." This is a radical, paradigmatic shift away from regarding disability as a static, physical and/or mental disease towards an acknowledgment of disability as a highly individualized, lived experience that is profoundly influenced by social participation.

The fact that disability is no longer narrowly defined bodes well for artists with disabilities. As the above definition suggests, artists with disabilities have the prerogative to define their personal experience of disability, and to determine if and how it informs their artistic practice.

One thing is certain: an artist should never feel obligated to disclose to a curator that she or he is disabled. This is especially true if the artist’s primary objective is to have her or his work reviewed on its own merit.

However, if disability is a prominent theme in the work, or if disability is integral to the artist’s self-conception, then it may be appropriate. A subtle mention can be made in a resume or artist statement; a bold remark can be worked into a cover letter. Whatever the choice, it should be presented with confidence. 

This is not to say that it will be understood.

Invariably, artists with disabilities will be asked how they are able to produce their art. It is, in fact, the first and most frequently asked question, and it is a loaded one at that. Weighted by stereotypes about what it means to be disabled, it is often a veiled way of asking a very different question.

That is, why would someone with a disability ever bother to make a work of art, especially in a medium that the artist cannot perceive in the same way as a non-disabled person? When the question is posed endlessly—and again and again in a tone of disbelief—it can be emotionally exhausting to answer.

Yet, dealing with such honest, albeit naïve, questions may be the single most effective way to increase public awareness about the nature of disability, and about one’s artistic process.

In the long run, it can prove beneficial to be patient, generous, and self-reflective when asked about the relationship between art and disability, for the questions also create an opportunity for disability to be undefined and redefined, and for the artist to determine how to publicly engage with his or her own disability.
 

CULTURAL ACCESS AND THE LAW

Although enforcement mechanisms are sorely lacking, there are legal provisions that protect the rights of individuals with disabilities. Most notable is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA 1990). Section 504 of the ADA specifically addresses arts access. The Architectural Barriers Removal Act (ABU 1973) predates this legislation by nearly two decades. Both mandate that buildings cannot have impediments to the free and safe movement of people with disabilities, and they define such things as accessible restrooms, doorways, and parking spaces.

These laws are administered by the Department of Justice because they safeguard civil liberties. They are most strictly enforced in government buildings and institutions that receive public funds.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is somewhat vague, for it requires only "reasonable accommodations." The Supreme Court has made contradictory and incomplete rulings on how that term is to be defined. Controversy surrounding the term—including the very words it is comprised of and the intent of the legislation’s authors—is fascinating and important.

However, it is widely accepted by the disability community that attitudinal barriers can be more potent than architectural ones. The way in which an individual or a community with a disability is perceived, treated and portrayed can greatly impact their social and economic participation.

With respect to artists and art audiences that are disabled, a common attitudinal barrier is simply being treated differently than non-disabled folks.

For example, the predominant complaint of museum visitors who are disabled is that security guards stalk their every move—sometimes going so far as to follow them out of the building. (This is especially true of individuals who are partially sighted or blind.) The attitude betrays a misconception about disability: that it warrants dependence and mistrust, fear and disdain, and a host of other stereotypes.

Artists and their supporting institutions can reverse this trend by simply welcoming artists and audiences who are disabled, even if they are not entirely certain of the best practices for ADA compliance.

Access begins with dialogue. Much as the general public asks artists with disabilities, "How do you make your art?," artists with disabilities want to know, "When will you open your doors?" so they can help realize full inclusion and share their art practice within a supportive community.

Organizations can be helpful not only by making their spaces accessible, but also advertising such inclusiveness on all press releases and announcements.  Many newspapers and publications add a wheelchair symbol next to Calendar Listings that means that the event is accessible to people with disabilities.  Many people who are in wheelchairs will come to your events if they know that they can get in.

Always indicate wheelchair accessibility on your exhibition announcements. This will increase your audience and, more importantly, will publicize your compliance to a wide audience—demonstrating a best practice for other institutions.
 

APPROACHING CURATORS

To be treated with equal consideration, artists with disabilities must approach curators and exhibition opportunities with a level of professionalism that is equal to that of any able-bodied artist.

There is no denying that obstacles persist, with limited mobility and financial constraints posing unique and major burdens. However, within the mainstream and high-end art markets, artists with disabilities must do much "leveling of the playing field" on their own accord.

That is to say, curators should be presented with exactly what they ask for—whether it means meeting a concrete deadline, preparing work so that it is completely ready to hang, or remaining active in the studio. The art market can be extremely competitive and unforgiving, especially when opportunities are prestigious or lucrative, so the best practice for any artist is to be a highly organized, consummate professional. 

For emerging artists with disabilities, the advice applies more or less without exception. It should be added, however, that curators need to be advised of any accommodations well in advance of their need—especially if they will impact an installation or opening reception.

In addition to traditional exhibition opportunities, there are numerous shows around the country that are specifically designed for artists with disabilities. Many of these are annual juried group shows that may require an entry fee and may award cash prizes. Their treatments of disability—as indicated by marketing material and the ways in which work is chosen and displayed—vary widely and depend, in part, on the degree of artist involvement in the concept, how long the exhibit has been produced, and whether or not the organizing institution is arts-related.

Not all of these exhibition opportunities are progressive, but many offer applications in an accessible format and excellent nationwide networking opportunities within the disability community. They may serve as an endpoint in themselves or an inspiration to pursue mainstream, integrated opportunities in the arts.

Perhaps it is easier said how not to approach a curator than how to approach a curator because there are countless variables to consider. However, the most important goals for artists with disabilities should be to:

•  Keep making artwork, in spite of any challenges posed by a disability.

•  Ensure that both the curator and the venue respect the integrity and value of the artwork.
 

COMMUNICATION

Language provides perhaps the most significant evidence of one’s attitude toward, and understanding of, disability.

There are a few simple communication practices that demonstrate respect for individuals with disabilities. First, make eye contact and speak directly to individuals with disabilities. Second, be mindful of how to refer to such individuals. For example, it is more considerate to speak of a "photographer who is blind" than of a "blind photographer." The former is known as People First Language because it privileges the individual over the disability.

Lastly, rather than make assumptions, simply ask about disability, for it is a highly individualized, lived experience best explained by first-person narratives.

To artists with disabilities: your artistic statements and self-expression need to be made known. If your message happens to be about disability, know that the subject is indefatigable and the audience vast.
 

DEALING WITH THE PRESS

Even though there have always been artists and art audiences with disabilities, the press tends to cover the subject of art and disability as a human-interest story more often than as an arts story. This is a reflection of our society’s systemic misconceptions and ignorance about the nature of disability.

Yet, all opportunities for public exposure should be carefully considered, even when the placement and tone of a piece is less than desirable. The reason is that the press can be used as a tool to send the message of full inclusion to the widest conceivable audience.

Individuals with disabilities and their advocates should have polished, concise phrases that best articulate their cause and that model appropriate language about disability. Although editorial input may not be permitted, artists can always be in control of their self-promotion. The ability to speak clearly about one’s artistic statement, and one’s relationship to disability is therefore imperative.

Also, do not be intimidated by the media. The press generally need and want to be informed about how to address disability issues. Headlines, pull-quotes and emphasis may be crafted for shock value, but it should be remembered that these elements are not often determined by journalists, but rather by their editors.

Above all, the press should be acknowledged for any stories on disability, and especially those on art and disability. A thank-you letter can reinforce that the subject is meaningful, and can rectify any misstatements for the benefit of future press.  
 

ADVOCACY

It should go without saying but, as noted above, there have always been artists and art audiences with disabilities, and there always will be. The revolution lies in the fact that their prominent inclusion in the arts has happened only very recently—first getting major public attention in the 1970s (coincident with the Architectural Barriers Removal Act) and more forcefully in the 1990s through today (coincident with the passage and enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act). 

Artists play a vital role in this social change because they keep political discourse alive, and they offer creative means for calling attention to inequality. All artists have the wherewithal—and, indeed, a moral imperative—to influence the full inclusion of artists with disabilities. They need only to be aware that disability exists within artistic communities, and to ask that those communities value equal opportunity.
 

FORGING COMPLAINTS

Individuals with disabilities will inevitably encounter discrimination from both people and places in the arts world because—to quote my website's title—certain people and places in the art world may not have "gotten their shi*t together!"

Acts of discrimination can be emotionally charged, as they are often rooted in fear and ignorance. In additional to attitudinal barriers, explicit and willful civil rights violations may be experienced. A common infraction is the denial of gallery or museum entrance to individuals with service animals.

An individual’s response to such negative experiences can dramatically impact the mission of full inclusion of people with disabilities in the arts. Points for consideration include:

•  Did the discriminatory act happen in a public or private space?

•  What may have been the intentions behind the discriminatory act?

•  Have I attempted to communicate the wrongdoing—to give an initial benefit of doubt?

•  Does this person or place have prior experience with the disabled community? 

•  Am I the best person to forge the complaint, and should I forge it alone?

•  How might my reaction impact public perception of the disabled community as a whole?

Many different tactics can be taken—and it is not uncommon for such experiences to become fodder for an artistic statement—but most important is the understanding that every individual has the prerogative to advocate for him- or herself.

Pete Accrete, a Sacramento based photographer who is totally blind due to Ruttiness Pigments, says of his conditional approach to advocacy, "I bring Gandhi in the gallery and Malcolm on the bus." That is to say, he generally takes a patient and sympathetic stance when addressing cultural barriers in an artistic setting, where dialogue has proven to be a productive means toward inclusion.

By contrast, breaches of safety in public transportation–such as not calling out bus stops and not strapping down wheelchairs—can pose serious health risks. Accrete notes that city transit operators are trained and mandated to enforce the Americans with Disability Act and so should always be held accountable for violations.

It is generally advisable to make a written statement when a discriminatory experience is based on one’s disability. This allows time to reflect on the incident and to make the most cogent, respectful response. A polite but firm letter can serve as a document of the incident and may help eliminate future barriers to cultural access.
 

RESOURCES

Many organizations provide resources specifically for artists with disabilities and have comprehensive web sites.   Often these organizations provide career development, adaptive resources lists, artists registries, publication resources, calls for entries, grant opportunities, and job listings.  For more information, visit:

The National Arts and Disability Center            
http://nadc.ucla.edu

Very Special Artists                                    
http://www.vsarts.org

Art Beyond Sight                                   
www.artbeyondsight.org

National Exhibitions for Blind Artists           
http://nebaart.org

Light House for the Blind and Visually Impaired
www.lighthouse-sf.org

 

 

Christine Leahey is a disability rights advocate whose area of scholarship is the confluence of art and blindness. Ms. Leahey graduated from Swarthmore College in 2000 with High Honors in art history and special education, and she has since provided consultation to the Berkeley Art Museum, J. Paul Getty Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Philadelphia Museum of Art on the topic of cultural access, specifically for individuals who are partially sighted and blind.