Philanthropists in the arts need to change their perception of disability. Let’s start by collaborating with disabled artists
Traditional thought tends to view disability in the arts as a deficit of one form or another. It recognizes a lack of visibility of disability, a lack of professional and training opportunities, a lack of support and a plethora of long-standing, seemingly intractable problems. He acknowledges that the challenges facing creative people with disabilities, from employment to accessing resources, have been laid bare and made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Americans for the Arts pandemic research, creative people with disabilities expect a lower annual income ($ 16,000 total per year) and a higher full unemployment rate (67%) than their non-disabled peers.
But these data points are only part of the story. And if, as a culture, we allow this information to be the main determinant of contemporary philanthropic and artistic practices, it risks aggravating inequalities.
the Real Problem
Framing disability in this way — as a series of deficits — adds to problematic thinking that interprets access as issues of user services, facilities, or technology. Disabled artists have been identified as absences and, with the best will in the world, some organizations with the means to do so have sought to compensate for this absence by welcoming selected disabled artists. But the inclusion or presence of a few artists with disabilities does not remedy years of iniquity and inattention. Such gestures are performative and symbolic.
If we focus on disability as a problem, we will never know the artistry, ideas and sheer genius of much of the creative world. The question is not how to include artists with disabilities. The fundamental question is how to build our cultural spaces and our aesthetic frameworks in such a way as to evolve towards equity and adopt a framework of justice for people with disabilities?
We want to consider intersectional handicap in the arts in all its raw, confrontational and provocative multiplicity, and to draw attention to our history of cultural production, our artistic sensibilities and our aesthetic intuitions. Part of the wisdom of disability and the expertise of artists with disabilities is that we are not monoliths with unique cultural narratives.
What future if we are committed to disability as an artistic and generative force? What does it look like if the arts, disability and philanthropic communities work together?
Time is something people with disabilities experience expansively, and dreaming about our future shouldn’t be a drastic act.
We are writing this together, as an artist and a funder, to invite you to dream big with us. We are part of Disability Futures, a new scholarship initiative funded by the Ford Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by United States Artists. The apprenticeships of the first year of this scholarship could offer a model of change that would transform the practice of supporting artists with disabilities.
Nothing without disabled creations
There is a mantra, ‘nothing about us without us’, coined by disability advocates in South Africa in the 1980s. Cropped by contemporary activists as ‘nothing without us’, this principle attests to the fact that people with disabilities know what is best for us and our communities. When it comes to the arts, that means reinventing everything about the way business has been conducted.
There are simple recommendations: Employers should hire staff with disabilities. Boards must elect members with disabilities. Funders should invite creatives with disabilities to join advisory groups and panels that decide funding allocations, and pay us for our time.
But before you even get to these places, there has to be space and a willingness to transform. Adding disabled staff does not create change unless an organization and its employees are prepared to change. A deep structural transformation is needed. Deep rehabilitation is necessary. A complex new view of the very things that seem immutable is needed. Now is not the time for provisional measures or window dressing.
To build a new future, funders must collaborate with creatives with disabilities to reinvent fundamental principles such as application and review processes, limited and unlimited funding, time, process and product, as well as ‘other creative support structures. Nothing can be assumed. Nothing should be left unchecked. Everything is – and should be – open to reimagining.
Disability Futures is aimed at, by and with disabled creations on several levels. Each of 20 inaugural fellows received an unrestricted grant. For the Disability Futures Festival, which runs July 19-20, Ford and United States Artists have employed a “nothing without us” curatorial approach, inviting fellows to highlight their art and say yes to the production, access and financial resources they need. The result is a dance, performances and conversations led by people with disabilities that could spark a new kind of dialogue between creatives, funders and gatekeepers.
Understand what access really means
The transformation in support for disabled creatives can start by looking within. We need to educate ourselves about ableism and audism, be vulnerable, and understand how our personal relationships with disability have influenced our public work.
For Lane, the work took them from identifying as non-disabled to claiming their disability identity and anxiety and depressive disorders, and exploring how that identity relates to their white privilege, their homosexuality and their gender expression. Introducing yourself is an ongoing process; it can be joyful, it can be painful. Everything we learn will affect the way we work.
Disability cuts across all contemporary issues, from abolition to education in healthcare, policing, transport and climate justice. Through Disability Futures, Ford had to learn to see access as a language, not a solution, and to analyze its impact on the institution as a whole.
Access is fundamental to our human relationship with one another. If the funders can’t invest in there, it’s no good.
Investment and innovation in this space, including technology focused on people with disabilities, is a way to connect creatives and audiences with disabilities. But we can’t rely on technology as a solution; access is more than a matter of compliance, checklists or the technologies used to make creative work accessible to clients. Instead, we need to put aside our assumptions about what works and prepare for a period of artist-led discovery.
Disability Futures was designed before COVID-19, but the meaning, configuration and experience of brotherhood took place during the pandemic. The virtual festival of conversations and gatherings invites the public to meet a powerful group of deaf and disabled artists in a format well known to the disability community even before the pandemic. And so it is at the crossroads of the festival, funders, the pandemic, and artists with disabilities that we begin.
Lane Harwell is Program Manager at the Ford Foundation. Alice Sheppard is a choreographer and the first Disability Futures Fellow.
the Futures Handicap Festival will take place online July 19-20.
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