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How can we support artists with disabilities?

Check out this guest post by IFC Board Member and alumna RescuePoetix, in belated observance of International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

A Filipino woman in a blue dress gestures as she performs on a stage. Her face shows intense concentration. In the background, we see a backdrop featuring an American flag rendered in different shades of pink.

Eileen Ramos, an IFC17 & 18 alumna, is one of the many Disabled artists we've highlighted.


As an arts and inclusion advocate, I searched what International Day of Persons with Disabilities encompasses and I learned more than I ever imagined: Things that are important to me as a person, sister, friend, artist, and community leader.


I started out by taking an online quiz to test my knowledge and understanding, then I dug deeper, did research, and reached out to artists in my community to ask some questions.


Interested in testing your knowledge? Disability Awareness Quiz 1

Another area of research was through podcasts:


To learn directly from persons who live with disabilities daily was very impactful for me. Their experiences, stories and perspectives provided me with a personal understanding that I may not have had otherwise.


A Black man in a white shirt signs I love you in American Sign Language. He is smiling and standing outside on a cloudy day.

Thyson T. Halley, a Disabilities advocate, signs "I love you."


In 1992, the United Nations General Assembly resolution 47/3 proclaimed the annual observance of the International Day of Disabled Persons[1]. The observance of the Day aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights, and well-being of persons with disabilities. Since 1992, the observance has been renamed International Day of Persons with Disabilities and is observed on December 3rd of each year.


According to a 2017 study by the Center for Talent Innovation, among white-collar, college-educated employees, 30 percent have a disability. But only 3.2 percent self-identify as having a disability to their employers. And of all employees with a disability, 62 percent have an invisible disability. In the survey, those employees responded: “Unless I tell them, people do not know that I have a disability.”


That means many people go through their day-to-day work lives without revealing what disability they may be experiencing or how it impacts them physically, emotionally, and mentally.


One of the biggest challenges in meeting the goals of IDPD as a day-to-day observance is the understanding, acceptance, diversity, and inclusion of persons with disabilities. Often, there are unconscious biases based on perceptions of enabled people. As described by one of the hosts of Life Fantastic Podcast[2] states, “Disability isn’t a special occasion thing, Disability is an everyday thing.”


The cover of "Borderlines" by hemophiliac musician Max Feisntein. The artist, a white man with curly hair and a black shirt, is shown putting his hands together and closing his eyes in concentration while surrounded by abstract black and red lines that suggest chaotic movement.

"Borderlines" is a music album by Max Feinstein, a musician and hemophilia advocate


In March 2016 Canadian Art published an interview with Eliza Chandler of Tangled Art that discussed 8 Things Everyone Needs to Know About Art and Disability. [3]


This interview covered practical real time issues, obstacles, preconceptions, and assumptions that artists with disabilities experience. One of the most impactful quotes I took away was a statement on how art is created:

“… it’s not just about translating art in accessible way—we are actually producing art with the intention that it can be experienced in a different way...”


Read the article here.


Center for Business and Management of the Arts, Claremont Graduate University (California) published Accessibility and the Arts: Reconsidering the Role of the Artist[4]in December 2020 that included 23 interviewees and opened with this:


“For people with disabilities, the fight for equal access to arts and culture is part of a broader struggle for access to both physical resources and intangible benefits in daily life…”


This research touches on Medical versus social model of disability, provides statistics and information about Rates of Disability, seen below, and interview responses based on the following disability criteria: Hearing, Visual, Other: Person with a short stature, Paraplegic wheelchair user, Mobility disability (motor neural disease), Joint condition (does not usually identify with it), Severe chronic pain, and Clinical depression, in addition to those who identify as Non-disabled.


Five themes emerged from this study:

  • Theme 1: Responsibility for accessibility could impact artists’ creativity

  • Theme 2: Taking responsibility for accessibility means thinking about audiences differently

  • Theme 3: Can all artworks be made accessible?

  • Theme 4: Artists and museums must be understood in their broader context

  • Theme 5: Museums must make accessibility and inclusion a priority


While this study focuses on visual arts, these themes resonate within Literary, Performing and Educational Arts. As arts organizations, venues and arts administrators expand the scope of diversity and inclusion, artists with disabilities, as well as audiences, must be included in the planning and execution of belonging.


A Hispanic woman with short black hair smiles at a camera. She is wearing an elegant cream gown and standing outside.

Samantha Benvissuto is a Disabled poet, vocalist, songwrite and performing artist.


At the time of this writing, three artists were kind enough to provide their insight and share their experiences. The artists are New Jersey based and contribute to our community across a variety of genres and disciplines.


Some of the responses are edited for length and clarity. Represented here are

· Thyson T. Halley (Hard of Hearing)

· Samantha Benvissuto (she/her or they/them)

· Maxwell Feinstein (he/they)


Their experiences and perspectives on the world we live in, perform in, interact in on a daily basis, through the business and enjoyment of the arts lead me to ask the following questions:


RescuePoetix: As a person with a society described, an unseen or unacknowledged disability, what is something you believe people should consider when interacting?


Samantha: There is no standard to illnesses. Each person has a unique experience with their health due to their body, environment, and circumstances. People tend to oversimplify what disabled or chronically ill people go through because they take for granted how their body works. We also tend to think everyone’s body works the same and tend to imagine that our privileges are standard.


Never minimize another person's experience if they've been open enough with you to share the truth of how hard it actually is. We often don't want others to worry or treat us different, so we minimize our own experiences for the sake of others.


Thyson: Communicate from the top that all people, including people with disabilities, have value and are respected and openly welcomed. Acknowledge, understand, and embrace the widespread nature of disability. Disability touches every demographic category – gender, age, race, sexual orientation, etc. and impacts most people eventually through accident, illness, or aging.


Maxwell: I hope they will consider letting us set the pace for how it is we use our disability to interact.


RescuePoetix: Where can accessibility improve for persons with disabilities for better public access?


Thyson:

· People with disabilities themselves. People with disabilities can demonstrate how lack of accessibility affects them and speak eloquently about their experiences.

· Organizations concerned with disability rights. The folks who staff them – often themselves people with disabilities – know both the political and the architectural territory, as well as the laws concerning accessibility.

· Employers. Making their workplaces accessible allows them to hire the best person for a job without worrying about accommodating a person who happens to have a disability.

· Educators. Accessibility is not only the law, but it vastly increases the chances that learners with disabilities of all kinds will be successful.

· Organizations that provide public services. Being as accessible as possible reflects the value that many of them put on diversity, equity, human rights, and fairness.

· Architects, planners, Developers. Architects and planners can incorporate accessibility into all their designs if they’re aware of the issue and attentive to the needs of people with disabilities. It’s to the advantage of a developer to consider accessibility from the start of a project.


Samantha: Design with disabilities in mind. We need people with disabilities to make decisions when designing public access or programs. But due to ableism, lack of privilege, and of course our disabilities/illnesses, we are not often put in positions to be able to do so.


Maxwell: A friend of mine who is a double amputee recently said that even places that claim to be accessibility inclusive when it comes to lodging have little more than ground floor rooms and certainly many don't have safety seats. It would be great to know that hotels did have those on location at request.


RescuePoetix: Where do you believe that media or the public can improve on helping to understand unseen disabilities?


Maxwell: It is my hope that the media would take more interest in interviewing people with different disabilities as part of their awareness months. It would be lovely to see more of a disability highlight.


Samantha: Less inspiration, more integration. I think media needs to move away from using disabled stories as inspiration. While it is good to have positive representation and stories of overcoming, it can cause a "no excuses" mentality that further supports ableism. This puts a lot of pressure on the disabled individual to push themselves past their limits.


Thyson:

  1. Include image descriptions.

  2. Make sure your video content has open or closed captioning.

  3. Write your hashtags in camel case.

  4. Use emojis sparingly.

  5. Avoid ablest language like "I stand with" and “insane/crazy.”

  6. Remember that disability representation matters.


What we should be doing is coming more to an actual understanding of what these illnesses and disabilities do, how they work, and working on accommodating them so that we as chronically ill and disabled individuals can have a place to function in society without killing ourselves to do so.


Two dancers hold their arms outstretched and look to the sky. They stand next to each other contrapposto, facing opposite ways. One is a white woman wearing a pink tanktop and pants. The other is a Black woman with her braids in a ponytail, wearing a white top with a green and yellow floral skirt. They are outside in a lush backyard garden.

Two Disabled artists -- Anna Gichan and Naja Gordon -- perform an original dance as part of "Amamantar" by Eloísa Pérez-Lozano in IFC2020.


Why is International Day of Persons with Disabilities important?


It builds awareness of people with disabilities

People with disabilities sometimes feel invisible in our society. People rush around them in their daily routines, barely noticing them. Today, try to make eye contact and smile and be available to help should they seem to be having difficulties.


We better understand the difficulties people with disabilities have

The treasured parking space right in front of the pharmacy, the sloped curbs at intersections with the textured mats in place so the vision impaired folks can feel the curb end, the buttons to open doors automatically, even elevators on the Subway —are all in place to make a difficult life a little easier for a person with disabilities. Notice these accommodations today, and then notice how few of them there are.


It’s more than a day —it’s the law

The Americans with Disabilities Act was created to define the rights of people with disabilities and the design standards which businesses and municipalities must incorporate to comply with the law. Called the ADA, it is quite explicit in the standards required, and a familiarity with it could be most helpful to anyone in


What is an Invisible disability?

Not all disabilities are obvious to the eye. An invisible disability is a physical, mental, or neurological condition that can’t be seen from the outside. But it can impact someone’s movements, senses, or activities, according to the Invisible Disabilities Association.


Some examples of invisible disabilities include autism spectrum disorder, depression, diabetes, and learning and thinking differences such as ADHD and dyslexia. Invisible disabilities can also include symptoms such as chronic pain, fatigue, and dizziness.


Why people are often silent about invisible disabilities?

Fear of being discriminated against or treated differently are at the top of the list of reasons. Most persons with unseen disabilities remain silent because those around them may not believe that their disability is real, and it’s impossible to convince them without disclosing private information. Job Seekers remain reluctant to disclose and invisible disability for fear that it would reduce their chances at obtaining a job.


As the world has shifted over the last few years to virtual meetings and content, much of today’s online hosted content can be difficult or virtually impossible to understand, use, and enjoy for persons with disabilities, How can we adjust for accommodation, comfort, and inclusion?


Some Examples of Challenges:

  • Image details are often hidden from the blind or visually impaired. This affects charts, graphs, text rendered as images (buttons, some scanned PDFs, etc.) and hard-to-detect hyperlinks.

  • Navigation can be difficult for those who can’t view menus or who struggle with fine motor movement.

  • Multi-media impact may be diminished for those who can enjoy only portions of the presentation.

  • Motion timeouts, and other dynamics can startle or distract those with cognitive impairments.

Content should meet WCAG and Section 508 compliance standards.

Section 508 was made part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 in 1998. Its purpose is to “…require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities.”


There are several laws related to Section 508, including laws that prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. When talking about communications, the three most relevant related laws are:


· Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities.

· Section 255 of the Communications Act: requires telecommunications products and services to be accessible to people with disabilities.

· 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010: requires advanced communications services and products to be accessible by people with disabilities.


What solutions can we implement?

UC Berkely shares Top 10 List for web accessibility.

1. Choose a content management system that supports accessibility.

2. Use headings correctly to organize the structure of your content.

3. Include proper alt text for images.

4. Give your links unique and descriptive names.

5. Use color with care.

6. Design your forms for accessibility.

7. Use tables for tabular data, not for layout.

8. Ensure that all content can be accessed with the keyboard alone in a logical way.

9. Use ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) roles and landmarks (but only when necessary)

10. Make dynamic content accessible


Resources

[1] United Nations | Department of Economic and Social Affairs: Disability | International Day of Persons with Disabilities – 3 December https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/international-day-of-persons-with-disabilities-3-december.html [2] Life Fantastic Podcast, Episode 18: Disability in the News https://www.sanchia.org/life-fantastic-podcast [3] 8 Things Everyone Needs to Know About Art and Disability | Canadian Art | https://canadianart.ca/features/7-things-everyone-needs-to-know-about-art-disability/ [4] https://www.lacountyarts.org/sites/default/files/accessibilityandthearts-reconsideringtheroleoftheartist.pdf


About the Author

A Hispanic woman with red hair, a cream shirt and beaded jewelry looks at the camera with a knowing smile.

RescuePoetix™ is the Poet Laureate of Jersey City. She is a New Jersey native with deep family roots in Puerto Rico. Writing since she could remember, she found her performance voice and fell in love with Jersey City’s underground Arts diversity. She has over fifty original works recorded and developed collaborations from all corners of the world. Releases are available at a variety of online portals. RescuePoetix™ poetry is motivational, uplifting and empowering; designed to connect on a level far deeper than what the eye can perceive. Spinning verses in Spanish and English, her words weave stories of strength, growth, experience and love in its many evolving forms. In Full Color fans will recognize has as a Board Member and IFC19 & 2020 alumna. @rescuepoetix

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