Arts Access Flips the Standard Line on Artists with Disabilities by Celebrating the Art, Not the Disabilities | Arts Feature | Indy Week

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Arts Access Flips the Standard Line on Artists with Disabilities by Celebrating the Art, Not the Disabilities

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The title "A Series of Fortunate Events" seems obvious and kitschy. I hear it, I learn that it's organized by people with disabilities, I see what they did there. Proud and disabled myself, I'm initially skeptical that the Arts Access showcase "celebrating disability" throughout May will be any different from all the other valiant attempts to evoke a sense of pride in and about a life not chosen, but merely tolerated, and sometimes hardly sustained.

I, too, am guilty of perpetrating "disability awareness," efforts to let the world know who we really are and what disability really looks like. I know from experience that events like this tend to turn out as a lot of preaching to the disabled choir, and as an inspiration-porn gif for everybody else. As I prepare for my interview, I'm already wondering how to politely back out of attending any of the five events in the showcase, which begins with remarks by North Carolina First Lady Kristin Cooper and includes an art exhibit, an authors' panel, theater and music performances, and a documentary screening.

But then I meet Betsy Ludwig, executive director of Arts Access. For more than three decades, the Raleigh nonprofit has worked to make existing art and venues accessible to people with disabilities. The organization's focus is not necessarily to change the built environment for people with mobility disabilities, but rather, to bring people with disabilities (PwDs) into the art world and accommodate their disabilities so they can enjoy the art.

Say a patron and her caregiving family want to attend a performance at DPAC but need seat assignments near a family restroom, not necessarily in the accessible seating area. Arts Access works with DPAC to make that happen. Should someone who is blind need audio description of an exhibit at a museum that doesn't already provide it, Ludwig is the one to call.

A Series of Fortunate Events might sound like one of those events where people who live with disabilities are encouraged to "buck up, little campers," while typically able communities around us get a chance to be "aware" of us and offer their guilty support. But, as Ludwig explains it, it's not a celebration of disability, but rather a celebration of beautiful, impactful art made by folks with disabilities.

"It's the art that drives me. We're advocating for the arts," Ludwig explains, spelling out a subtle but important difference. The fortunate events we are encouraged to celebrate are not the obstacles overcome along our disability journeys; that's a story I've heard and written too many times. Rather, we celebrate the events and people that lead a PwD to create good art, compelling content, and a marketable product.

It's about the teachers, parents, siblings, and influential art and artists who led Doug Kapp to the stage, Chris Hendricks to a recording studio, and Kelly Bouldin Darmofal to author panels. As Kapp, one of the performers in the May 11 theater showcase at Raleigh Little Theatre, tells other PwDs who are hungry to create and experience but feel that their disabilities are roadblocks: "There's a place for you. The barriers are of your own making."

Doug Kapp - PHOTO COURTESY OF ART ACCESS
  • Photo courtesy of Art Access
  • Doug Kapp

Hendricks elaborates on how A Series of Fortunate Events flips the disabled-artist narrative. "So often, the affliction or condition comes before the output," he says. Many times, when someone who lives with a disability accomplishes something—anything—it elicits an entire cloying disability-awareness celebration. That act is old and tired.

"But the emphasis here is on the art," Hendricks goes on, "and I think that makes us feel valued, taken more seriously as artists, because the art is placed in front of the affliction."

Ludwig was careful to make this distinction when inviting organizations to sponsor, but that can be a hard sell. When "disability" and "art" occur in the same sentence, organizations are often inclined to view the pairing as charity.

But for Ludwig and the showcase's artists, art is life, which is why she insists all the artists get paid for their work—a novel idea for many organizers and art patrons. Ludwig explains that these artists don't need your support with their disabilities. They're not participating in this series to make people "aware," though, of course, the events will model ease of access and inclusive practices, contradicting any notions event planners might have that people with disabilities are high maintenance.

"That was the easiest part," Ludwig says with a shrug. Now comes the hard part. "I hope the artists sell stuff. I hope they get exposure. And I hope that people with disabilities come away knowing that the arts are welcoming and are trying to include them. But if they don't show up and ask [for accommodations], then [venues] will think it is not needed."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Ready and Able."


FORTUNATE EVENTS

VIP KICKOFF RECEPTION

Thursday, May 4, 6–9 p.m.

Visual Art Exchange, Raleigh

Sneak peak of Ultralight exhibit, meet-and-greet with the artists, comments from First Lady of North Carolina Kristin Cooper.

AUTHORS READING

Sunday, May 7, 2–4 p.m.

United Arts Council, Raleigh

R.V. Kuser, Kelly Bouldin
Darmofal, and Barton and Megan Cutter will discuss their books and what it means to write your own narrative as a person living with disabilities. Moderated by Piedmont Laureate Mimi Herman.

HOUSE CONCERT

Thursday, May 11, 7–9 p.m.

The Paramount, Raleigh

Castle Wild, featuring North Carolina native and singer-songwriter Chris Hendricks and electronic producer Andre DiMuzio, performs in the home of local accessibility advocate Alex McArthur.

THEATER SHOWCASE

Monday, May 22, 7–9 p.m.

Raleigh Little Theatre, Raleigh

Theater performances featuring artists with disabilities who range in age and performance style.

FILM SCREENING

Wednesday, May 31, 7–9 p.m.

The Cary Theater, Cary

Tommy! The Dreams I Keep Inside Me, a documentary about adults with autism and the jazz world, directed by Rodrigo Dorfman.

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