Breaking Down Barriers in the Arts for People with Disabilities

By Beth Bienvenu

Wiz - Four Friends.jpg

Four disabled performers dressed as Wizard of Oz characters

A production of The Wiz by Denver-based Phamaly Theatre Company, which exclusively casts performers with physical, emotional, cognitive, and intellectual disabilities. Costumes by Mallory K. Nelson. Photo by Michael Ensminger, courtesy of Phamaly Theatre Company

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and I’ve been taking some time to think about how the NEA can help improve employment outcomes for people with disabilities.

In September I traveled to London to gain an international perspective on the work of artists with disabilities. By invitation from the British Council, the United Kingdom’s international organization for cultural relations and educational opportunities, I traveled as part of a delegation from the United States to attend the Unlimited Disability Arts Symposium and Festival. Hosted by three British organizations—Unlimited, ArtsAdmin, and Shape Arts—the symposium addressed how artists with disabilities can change the “mainstream” arts sector and break down barriers to full inclusion.

In the United States we have a robust field of artists with disabilities doing creative, bold, and expressive work, but given that the United States is such a large, diverse country, it’s hard to get a full picture of the field. The compact geography of the United Kingdom facilitates nationwide convening and conversation opportunities, and I was able to get a compelling picture of the support for disabled artists in both the UK and around the world.

Throughout the symposium I considered which factors led to the development of such a robust disability arts field in the UK, and what other countries can learn from them.

The first factor is leadership support. Arts Council England founded the Unlimited program in the lead-up to the 2012 London Olympics and the Cultural Olympiad to commission new work by disabled artists and to fund research and development. This investment has helped the disability arts field flourish and demonstrates that committed leadership is an important part of field development.

Second is strong partnerships. Unlimited’s work was accomplished with the help of two partners: Shape Arts, a disability-led organization that works to improve access to culture for people with disabilities through arts funding, exhibitions, and accessibility audits; and ArtsAdmin, an organization that supports artists through advisory services and support for creation and presentation. Together, these partners address the barriers found in both the disability and the mainstream arts environments to support disabled artists.

Third is a strong disability culture. The disability community in the UK were early adopters of the social model of disability, which asserts that disability comes from physical and attitudinal barriers, and not the individual. This is in contrast to the medical model, which believes that the problem is rooted in the individual, who needs to be fixed. I learned at the symposium that the disability arts field in the UK was aided by an environment in which removing barriers was more important than trying to fix people.

Finally, disability-led work, supported by not only allies but also accomplices. One recurring theme throughout the symposium was that the work of building the field must be led by people with disabilities. Those working in the field who do not have disabilities should step back and let artists and others with disabilities take the lead, “holding space” for them to be in the center of the work. This is why everything at the symposium was disability-led and the disability voice took center stage. Also, in addition to being allies in this work, people without disabilities should be accomplices by working to ensure that change is made.

The challenge for those of us who work in this field, including the National Endowment for the Arts, is to take these observations and listen, help facilitate partnerships, and act as allies and accomplices to support artists with disabilities and the organizations that commission and present their work.