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National Forum on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities

June 14-16, 1998

Final Recommendations

Executive Summary

The National Forum on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities, sponsored by five federal agencies and held at the John F. Kennedy Center For the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. on June 14-16, 1998, drew together staff from arts service organizations, government agencies, artists with disabilities, and disability rights activists to consider what concrete changes could come about to enable more people with disabilities to pursue careers in the arts. Approximately 300 individuals attended the Forum at the Kennedy Center while many more provided input via the Forum's Web site.

Among the current barriers to careers in the arts for people with disabilities considered by the Forum participants were: access barriers, including lack of availability of material in alternative formats; stereotyped perceptions of material with disability content by the general public; lack of access to education and training for people with disabilities; and the difficulties rehabilitation agencies have in understanding the path to a career in the arts.

In keynotes, panels, and breakout sessions, participants discussed the concept of universal design, which makes access for all intrinsic to the design process; possibilities for making changes to the financial disincentives in social benefit programs, including SSI and Medicaid/Medicare; different models for pursuing education and training; and heard about the career paths followed by successful artists with disabilities.

The Planning Committee for the Forum met several times during the course of the event and presented recommendations, distilled from the proceedings. At the Forum's final session, the committee recommended: vigorous enforcement of existing disability rights legislation to arts organizations; end financial disincentives; work with State departments of vocational rehabilitation to ensure that they are able to assist eligible individuals who chose to pursue careers in the arts; establish scholarship programs and internships targeted at the disability community in both higher education and professional arts organizations; include disability in understandings of diversity; and conduct a summit, composed of approximately 40 people including artists with disabilities, arts service organizations and rehabilitation professionals to consider how the Forum recommendations can be carried out.


Narrative Report


The first-ever National Forum on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities was conceived as a working forum to develop strategies to address the significant obstacles faced by people with disabilities pursuing careers in the arts. The National Endowment for the Arts initiated and developed a series of agreements with the U.S. Department of Education, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Social Security Administration to sponsor and convene the Forum, which was coordinated by Quest: arts for everyone.

An 18 member planning committee, composed of selected leadership from the arts, artists with disabilities, rehabilitation, human services, education fields and the sponsoring federal agencies, shaped and developed the Forum.

Focusing on three areas-education and training, money, and jobs-the Forum gathered together artists with disabilities (including visual artists, writers, and performing artists); arts administrators, leaders of the arts, educators, rehabilitation professionals, and policy makers concerned with disability issues. Prior to the start of the Forum, all participants received a packet of concept materials which laid out the issues faced by people with disabilities working in the arts and suggested ways of bringing about change. The two-and-a-half day gathering featured a series of keynote addresses, panels, and breakout sessions, along with performances and an "arts cafe", where videos were shown and written material was available.

History and Background

Many federal and state agencies, including the Department of Justice, the Department of Education, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Health and Human Services, have continued to educate and work to enforce accessibility laws. The AccessAbility Office of the National Endowment for the Arts has, for over two decades, worked with Endowment grantees (including the 56 state arts agencies and the seven regional arts agencies) and others to make the arts more available to individuals with disabilities, older adults, and people living in institutions. To do this, it has utilized a wide variety of efforts including panels, workshops, publications, and cooperative projects with other federal agencies and non-profit groups. In addition, non-profit groups-including independent living centers, Very Special Arts, and disability organizations-continue to advocate for, educate about, and support accessibility. Despite such efforts, and the efforts of other Federal departments and agencies, and despite the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the situation for many artists with disabilities remains difficult. The concept papers distributed prior to the conference detailed significant obstacles such as:

As Victoria Ann Lewis, an actor/director who leads Other Voices at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum and chair of the Forum Planning Committee, stated in one of the keynotes: "Despite two decades of change, the arts-the primary source of vision and imagination-is somehow stalled when it comes to representing or including our community. The depiction of disability tends to gravitate between the bitter and the pitiful cripple."

It was the aim of this Forum to move beyond statements of the problem and exhortations for improvements and to discuss how concrete changes in policies and funding could significantly improve the situation of artists with disabilities. Ms. Lewis stated, "We know that talent is distributed throughout any given population. Our task is to ensure that people with disabilities with talent are able to put that talent to use."

A central understanding running throughout Forum presentations was the crucial role that the arts play in creating community, providing vision, and giving meaning to our lives both as individuals and as members of a broader community. John Kemp, the CEO and President of Very Special Arts, in his keynote address, emphasized, "The language of the future will be the language of arts." He referred to Carol Gill's pioneering work on disability culture which delineated certain core values: acceptance of human differences, matter-of-fact attitude towards helping, tolerance for lack of resolution, humor, and interpersonal skills, and emphasized the key role arts play in such cultural formation. In his keynote address, William Ivey, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, called American art "democracy's calling card." He underscored the need for broadly-inclusive arts policies, and paid special attention to the effect of financial disincentives on artists with disabilities.


In his keynote, Ron Mace, who was the access consultant involved in recent renovations of the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall, and the primary developer of the concept of universal design, explained that rather than seeing disability access as something that is added on to existing design, universal design seeks to create an environment which is usable by all people, and to have access an integrated and intrinsic part of the overall architectural scheme.

Ann-Ellen Lesser, Executive Director of the Millay Colony of the Arts showed how universal design is put into practice. Participants viewed a video about recent renovations at that colony, which provides a place where artists from a variety of disciplines can pursue their work for a month long period without distraction. Ms. Lesser underscored that the access regulations set forth in the ADA were a floor and not a ceiling: that we can and should go beyond the required minimums. At Millay, the design process was interactive-with input coming not only from the advisory committee of artists with a variety of disciplines and a variety of disabilities but also from the contractors and carpenters. Further, the design process was conceived as on-going and open-ended: as new problems present themselves, new solutions will be sought. In a refrain that would be heard throughout the Forum, Ms. Lesser spoke of how exciting and satisfying this work had been.

Financial Disincentives

In her keynote address, Susan Daniels, Deputy Commissioner of Disability and Income Security Programs for the Social Security Administration (SSA), said the SSA faced a paradox: that despite the passage of the ADA, more and more people with disabilities were receiving income supports from her agency. The SSA took the radical step of asking those who relied on benefits what their perceptions of the reasons for this were. In response, consumers said that they feared movement into employment would result in loss of health care and other needed services. They also saw an "all or nothing" attitude on the part of the SSA, which did not speak to realities of life with disability and did not provide for a transition from income support to employment, or for any on-going services. They further found the current system of work incentives confusing-and felt that those they interacted with in the SSA found them equally perplexing. Ms. Daniels spoke of several policy changes which she felt would ameliorate these problems. Two bills are currently before Congress: one would give recipients of benefits a voucher with which they could purchase services that would allow them to make the transition back to work. The other would allow for a Medicaid buy-in by people with disabilities.

Ms. Daniels' points were underscored by William Ivey, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who stated that in his experience working with folk artists and those outside the artistic mainstream he had sometimes seen a "chilling effect" on programs such as the National Heritage Fellowships caused by the reluctance of many such artists to accept funding for their art due to justified fears of losing their social benefits. Robert Cogswell, Director of the Folk Arts Program, Tennessee Arts Commission, encountered similar difficulties in his program's efforts to recognize folk artists. Cogswell suggested investigating the possibilities of negotiating waivers, engaging volunteer lawyers for the arts to assist with these problems, investigating the establishment of trust funds for artists, as well as united action by affected artists.

In the breakout sessions to discuss money issues, participants mentioned the need for access to centralized sources of information, both about SSI and other social welfare programs and about arts funding in general. One recommendation was to create a task force to resolve some of the problems associated with receiving government supplemental income and other benefits. The barriers include: (1) restrictions on receiving monetary recognition for excellence in one's career field (such as fellowships, apprenticeships, heritage and other monetary awards); and (2) restrictions on receiving irregular or infrequent compensation for work in the arts. Another concern was that state vocational rehabilitation organizations usually do not fund graduate education: because many artists support themselves by teaching at the post-secondary level, this is a particular barrier for those seeking a career in the arts. Participants also urged assistance with grant-writing for people who are fluent in sign language but not in written English; greater overall funding for arts in schools, the establishment of mentorships, and a greater awareness of arts among disability groups. The pivotal role that people with disabilities and those aware of disability issues can play on peer review panels and state and local arts councils was also underscored, as was the need for education so that grantors understand disability as a diversity issue.

Education and Training

Access to education and artistic training remains a serious concern for people with disabilities wishing to pursue careers in the arts. Victoria Ann Lewis spoke of being refused acting training two decades ago because the program where she sought training believed she would never find work because of her disability; sadly, such attitudes are not ancient, pre-504, pre-ADA history: she knew of actors who had recently been refused training because of their disabilities.

In the face of this, some artists-notably deaf theater artists-have turned to training programs which are tailored for them. Camille Jeter, Artistic Director for the National Theatre of the Deaf, said she had been part of a rich cultural community during her years at the National Theatre of the Deaf, which trains not only deaf actors but also set designers, lighting technicians, and other ancillary professions. Two representatives of mainstream training programs, Israel Hicks, Dean of Theatre Arts and Film at the State University of New York at Purchase, and Arthur Bartow, Artistic Director, Tisch School of the Arts, both said that relatively few students with disabilities apply to their highly competitive programs. It was apparent to many Forum participants that strategies must be developed to insure quality arts training for students with disabilities attending primary and secondary schools in order to provide these students with real opportunities for admission into advanced training programs. During the discussion portion of the panel on education and training, one of the members of the audience made the point-to enthusiastic applause-that if there was no effort made to reach out to the disability community, if programs merely continued with "business as usual," then the problems of exclusion of people with disabilities will continue.

The problems lie not only in the reluctance of some training programs to extend equal opportunities to students with disabilities. In a panel session, Patrick Farley of Rose Resnick Lighthouse of Oakland, CA, reported that he had been unable to get funding from his state's department of vocational rehabilitation to go to art school. In both formal and informal discussions, others echoed this point.

In the breakout sessions on education and training, the point was made that "the medical model"-which sees the disability as residing within the individual-is still prevalent among educators, who thus are often trying to "fix" their students with disabilities. If more teachers were exposed to and understood "the social model"-which sees disability as existing in the environment-then educators would understand how important it is to validate students with disabilities' contribution to culture. It was emphasized that this does not mean lowering standards. Another issue addressed in the breakout session was that arts students frequently participate in and attend magnet programs, summer institutes, private classes, auditions and competitions: how can such programs be made accessible to people with disabilities? Participants answered that question by suggesting "educating the educators" so they can develop an inclusive attitude; and also the establishment of active programs that sought enrollment of students with disabilities. Also suggested was state level collaborations between vocational rehabilitation agencies and arts organizations.


In the opening session, Frederic K. Schroeder, Commissioner, Rehabilitation Services Administration, underscored that the aim of rehabilitation was not merely to place people with disabilities in jobs that would lift them from poverty, but also to assist us in undertaking vocations that challenged us to rise to our highest capabilities. However, as Phyllis Frelich, the actor who starred in Mark Medoff's Children of a Lesser God-first at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum and then on Broadway-said, "What careers?" Despite having won a Tony Award, she has had enormous difficulty getting work and making a living. Yet she stressed, "There is no better way to have an impact on the public than through our art."

In the jobs panel, John Lancaster, the Executive Director of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, saw four major areas impeding employment: (1) lack of access to health care, (2) lack of economic incentive, (3) need to remove barriers such as problems with transportation and personal assistants at worksite, and (4) the failure to prepare people with disabilities for the jobs of tomorrow.

Sharon Jensen of the Non-Traditional Casting Project explained that the concept of non-traditional casting addresses not only disability but also other diverse populations. In addition to urging the casting of actors of color and actors with disabilities in roles not specifically written for them, the Project also lobbies for more balanced portrayals. Twelve years ago, Jensen noted, the project had no requests for actors with disabilities; in the last five years, they have had hundreds of such requests.

Jordan Thaler, casting director for The Joseph Papp Public Theatre, who has worked with directors and choreographers with disabilities, saw one of the obstacles as a small pool of trained and talented people with disabilities on which to draw. He acknowledged an enormous amount of fear among non-disabled performing arts professionals and a lack of knowledge about the mechanics. For instance, theater professionals without experience with people with disabilities may wonder, how does a person with a visual disability pick up a cue? How do we block with an actor with a mobility impairment? Forum panelists and participants felt it was enormously important for people with disabilities to serve on production and artistic staffs. Thaler added that when people see exciting work it reaches out to them.

Jeremy Alliger, Artistic Director/Producer of Dance Umbrella, spoke about his organization's overall mission to increase the visibility of underrepresented dance forms such as hip-hop, aerial, jazz tap, and wheelchair dance. A recent international dance festival organized by Dance Umbrella brought together 14 wheelchair dance companies. Not a single theater in Boston could accommodate this project, so they had to construct their own theater. "For me," Mr. Alliger said, "this is not about political correctness or affirmative action, it is about excitement and creating art." He noted that the identification "wheelchair dance" was found too limiting for some companies, but it was important for outreach to the disability community. Ultimately, he felt that his goal was to include wheelchair dance in ordinary festivals.

Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum, spoke of the spade work that the Taper has done in creating new work through its programs such as Other Voices, Blacksmyths, the Latino Theatre Initiative, and the Asian American Theatre Workshop. Davidson used the image of an iceberg: much must go on beneath the surface in order for the pinnacle to rise.

Following this panel, a breakout session was held on jobs issues, with people grouping themselves by discipline (literary arts, media arts, performing arts, etc.). A number of issues were raised across disciplinary groups: for instance, lack of information in alternate formats (Braille, large print, computer disc) made it difficult to get information about grants and funding sources and information about marketing one's work. The need for more internships and mentoring programs targeted at people with disabilities was especially stressed by those in the arts administration workshop. ADA compliance was another persistent theme, and the suggestion was made the NEA work more actively to assist state and local arts agencies and grantees with compliance; another solution was the creation of incentives for non-profit institutions to hire people with disabilities. In the performing artist workshop, Fred Beam said he had a "double disability-I'm both black and deaf. I don't get work as a deaf artist because I'm black and I don't get work as a black artist because I'm deaf."

A particular barrier in design art is access to computer operating systems for people with visual impairments; getting training on highly specialized equipment is also difficult because of communication barriers with people who are deaf/hard of hearing. Other kinds of barriers were seen as individual low self-esteem, limited real-life experiences, and limited social skills; self-help groups were seen as being a solution to those issues. Media festivals and funders need to include people with various disabilities on their judging and peer review panels.


During the course of the Forum, the Planning Committee met several times, reviewing the information presented and distilling feedback from the participants. At the final session, the Planning Committee made the following recommendations:


Planning Committee


Victoria Ann Lewis

Chair of Forum Planning Committee
Director, Other Voices
Mark Taper Forum
Los Angeles, CA


Patricia Laird

Program Specialist
Administration on Developmental Disabilities
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Washington, DC

Tamara Bibb Allen

Director Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation
Tallahassee, FL

Kitty Lunn

Executive Director
Infinity Dance Company
New York City, NY

Darrell M. Ayers

Senior Program Manager, Education
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC

Dr. Ruth Mondschein

Disability and Arts Consultant
Tucson, AZ

Valerie Capers

Composer, Arranger, Performing Artist
Professor Emeritus
Bronx Community College/CUNY
Bronx, NY

Emeka Nwokeji

Director of Consumer Involvement Program
Massachusetts State Rehabilitation Commission
Boston, MA

Jacqueline Clipsham

Visual Artist, Ceramics and Artist Books
Califon, NJ

Debra Sonnenstrahl

Writer and Educator
Professor Emeritus
College of Fine Arts, Gallaudet University
North Potomac, MD

Joe Cordova

Director, Division for the Blind
Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services

U.S. Department of Education
Washington, DC

Beverlee Stafford

Director, Planning, Policy, and Evaluation Rehabilitation Services Administration
U.S. Department of Education
Washington, DC

Anne Finger

Writer and Professor
English Department
Wayne State University
Detroit, MI

Laureen Summers

Visual Artist
Program Associate
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Washington, DC

Derek E. Gordon

Vice President, Education
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC

Paula Terry

Coordinator, Office for AccessAbility
National Endowment for the Arts
Washington, DC

Sharon Jensen

Executive Director
Non-Traditional Casting Project
New York City, NY

Lisa Thorson

Musician and Educator
Associate Professor, Berklee Colllege of Music
Boston, MA

John D. Kemp

President and CEO
Very Special Arts
Washington, DC

Pamela Walker

Media Artist
President, Northern District Corporation on Disabilities and Telecommunications
Berkley, CA


Forum coordination provided by Quest: arts for everyone

Tim McCarty, President

Paul Harrelson, Forum Coordinator

Erin McCarty, Assistant

Joseph Santini, Assistant

Final Report written by Anne Finger.

September 1998

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