The Power to Build Confidence

By Beth Bienvenu

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Woman standing in front of a photograph at an exhibition.

NEA Accessibility Director Beth Bienvenu at the Tom Olin photography exhibit at the DisArt Festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in April 2015. Photo courtesy of the DisArt Festival

When I was a junior in high school I auditioned for the spring musical. I’d auditioned every year and always ended up in the chorus, never getting a part. I stuttered my way through the audition, not because I was nervous but because I’d stuttered since childhood. That year was particularly difficult because I’d been hoping for a part, any part, but ended up, once again, in the chorus.

Flash forward a few decades and I’m now giving speeches and delivering trainings to audiences of dozens if not hundreds of people. Yes, I still sometimes stutter, but I have confidence in my ability to stand up in front of people and speak, regardless of my tendency to repeat a syllable or get stuck on a word here or there. I now know that I have a voice and I have something important to say.

How did I find this confidence? I believe that it was by singing in those choruses and choirs, playing in piano recitals, playing in the concert and marching bands, and singing at weddings. My performing arts experience gave me the confidence to stand on stage and make my voice heard.

I am envious of kids today, as they have resources I didn't have when I was young. There are several self-help support groups for kids, teens, and adults who stutter. And there's an organization where kids can get up on stage and express themselves in a safe environment. The Stuttering Association for the Young (SAY), an NEA grantee, is an organization that helps young people make their voices heard through arts education. Their Confident Voices program offers after-school and weekend programs for kids to develop projects around the arts—songwriting, playwriting, acting, storytelling, directing, and creative writing. I've seen these kids become confident, talented young people, all through the power of this program.

Two kids singing on stage.

A performance by Stuttering Association for the Young Confident Voices songwriters Antonio and Mac. Photo by Mikiodo, courtesy of SAY

While the arts have the power to build confidence, they also have the power to change perceptions. I recently attended the DisArt Festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As a Michigan native, I enjoyed seeing the city come together for this festival, and was pleased to see that the city's mayor, George Heartwell, declared this year a Year of Arts and Access. The festival featured the NEA-funded exhibit The Art of the Lived Experiment, featuring art by professional contemporary artists with disabilities, and an exhibit of the work of Tom Olin, a photojournalist who documented the disability rights movement in his photography. I enjoyed seeing the festival ignite conversation and connect the disability and arts communities in a way that will help foster lasting change in perceptions and ideas about disability.

Both the DisArt Festival and SAY are featured in the current NEA Arts magazine, which celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Passed in 1990, the ADA has expanded opportunities for Americans with disabilities by reducing barriers, changing perceptions, and increasing full participation in community life. The recent NEA Arts Data Profile reports that people with disabilities are less likely to attend arts events than people without disabilities (although people with disabilities make up 12 percent of the population, they make up only 7 percent of adults attending performing arts events or visiting art museums). This can be caused by many factors, one of which is the lack of accessibility of facilities and programs or the lack of information on accommodations available. Part of my work at the NEA is to help ensure that arts organizations have the tools they need to make their programs and facilities welcoming to everyone, and that people with disabilities in the community are aware of the cultural opportunities available to them.

Whether it's helping young people find their voices or helping arts organizations become more welcoming, I love the work that the NEA does to promote accessibility and full inclusion in the arts. I look forward to celebrating another 25 years of the ADA.