New NEA Research on Arts Participation among People with Disabilities


An older woman sits in a chair and holds a small sculpture.

Visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago interact with 3D objects that bring the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine art galleries to life. Courtesy of AIC.

WASHINGTON – Nearly 28 million U.S. adults have some type of disability related to hearing, sight, cognition, walking, and other activities of daily living. The latest NEA research offers the first, nationally representative analysis of arts-participation patterns among people with disabilities.

A Matter of Choice? Arts Participation Patterns of Disabled Americans offers several insights on how adults with disabilities engage with the arts. Among the key findings:

  • In 2012, 23.3 percent of U.S. adults with disabilities (or 6.2 million people) attended a live performing arts event, 14 percent below the share of all U.S. adults who attended live concerts, plays, and dance performances (37.3 percent) in the same year.
  • Adults with disabilities are underrepresented among both performing arts and visual arts audiences. While adults with disabilities compose nearly 12 percent of the U.S. adult population, they make up just under seven percent of all adults attending performing arts events or visiting art museums or galleries.
  • Nontraditional art venues are attractive to adults with disabilities, who are just as likely as adults in general to attend an art exhibit or a live performing arts event if it takes place in a place of worship.
  • Adults with disabilities are just as likely as all Americans to create visual art and do creative writing. They are more likely than adults in general to create fiber arts such as weaving or quilting.
  • Adults with disabilities are just as likely to use radio, TV, or the Internet to consume art, but they are less likely than adults in general to use hand-held or mobile devices to consume art.
  • Although 45 percent of people with disabilities are older adults (65+years old), age appears to be less of a factor in their arts participation than are educational level and childhood arts experiences.

Education and arts exposure

Some factors holding back arts attendance by adults with disabilities could be related to their generally lower levels of education. In 2012, 19.6 percent of all U.S. adults (25 and older) held bachelor's degrees. Among people with disabilities, that rate was 8.2 percent. This in turn may relate to historically lower education levels among older adults, who comprise 45 percent of people reporting disabilities in this report. This finding tracks with an earlier NEA report, States of Engagement: Arts Participation by Geography in which childhood arts exposure is noted as a major predictor of arts attendance in adulthood.

Physical access to arts participation remains a challenge. The latest findings support another NEA study, in which retired people said that "difficulty getting to the location" including because of disabilities was a top barrier for arts attendance.

Arts participation and mobile devices

Smartphones, e-readers, tablets, and other mobile devices are extremely popular among the general population, but their use among adults with disabilities lags behind. In 2012, nearly one-third of all adults used mobile devices to watch, listen to, or download music, while less than half as many (15 percent) of adults with disabilities did the same. Disparities between the two groups were similar for downloading, reading, or listening to literature. One likely reason for the gap is that a large portion (45 percent) of people with disabilities are older adults, and older adults are statistically less likely to use mobile devices. At the same time, mobile devices are rapidly improving in functionality and ease of use and they offer promising opportunities to engage adults with adults, especially when access to an arts venue or location is a barrier.

About the report  

A Matter of Choice? Arts Participation Patterns of Disabled Americans gleaned its findings from the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the NEA’s long-running survey on Americans' arts engagement habits. Starting in 2012, the SPPA began gathering information on disabilities among the non-institutionalized, working age civilian population. Because of the relatively small populations of people with individual types of disability, this research combines data on adults with any reported disability, who comprised 12 percent of the U.S. population in 2012. 

The findings can be found on the latest Arts Data Profile from the National Endowment for the Arts. The web-only feature includes a summary brief, arts participation tables, technical information, and additional information about Americans with disabilities. NEA Arts Data Profiles offer user-friendly introductions to arts-related datasets through summary statistics, tables, visualizations, and links to other tools and resources. 

NEA Arts celebrates the Americans with Disabilities Act

Beyond the NEA’s research efforts, the latest issue of NEA Arts magazine observes the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The magazine looks at innovative ways that individuals and organizations are accommodating those with physical and cognitive disabilities by making art accessible to every American. The NEA is a leader in promoting these efforts through its Office of Accessibility.

The NEA is the only federal agency to conduct periodic analyses of the value and impact of the arts in American life. For nearly 40 years, the NEA Office of Research & Analysis has produced research publications, conferences, and data sources on arts-related topics of interest to policy-makers, educators, journalists, cultural researchers and practitioners, and the general public. In recent years, the NEA launched a new research grant opportunity to support research that investigates the value and/or impact of the arts.

About the National Endowment for the Arts

Established by Congress in 1965, the NEA is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the NEA supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America. For more information, visit

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Sally Gifford, NEA Public Affairs
202-682-5606 |