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National Forum on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities

Concept Papers

Developmental Obstacles to Careers in the Arts for Young Persons With Disabilities

Carol J. Gill, Ph.D.
Chicago Center for Disability Research
Department of Disability and Human Development
University of Illinois at Chicago


There has been little formal study of the barriers confronting young people with disabilities who dream about careers in the arts. In fact, there is very little known about these individuals at all. Until recently, investigators rarely asked persons with disabilities, particularly students, to offer their perspectives on their own experience (Davis, 1989). This paper diverges from that tradition. In attempting to list, describe, and analyze the major obstacles to arts careers for young persons with disabilities, the present author has relied heavily on data from interviews and correspondence with artists and aspiring artists with disabilities. Also included are responses from family members, teachers and other allies committed to those artists and their dreams. The author is grateful to all the key informants who made this work possible and whose generosity illuminated a particularly overlooked struggle within the disability community.


Even the most innately gifted artists must develop their creative potential by interacting with the world around them. However, young persons with disabilities commonly encounter barriers to their artistic aspirations at the very earliest stages of development. According to performance poet Cheryl Marie Wade:

Art... isn't all just some cerebral activity, it's an intense relationship to the world. Skills for language, for acting, for dance, for painting don't happen by being isolated and distant. We learn to be artists first by rubbing up against the world through all our senses, through our physical movement into and out of this and that. How many children who have physical limitations of movement or of their senses are put in environments which assist them in exploring fully, using what they have? We institutionally deprive disabled kids from discovering the delights of their humanness, thus depriving them of the foundation of sensual openness that is the fertile ground, so to speak, for creativity.

Whether a developing child's creative interaction with the world is supported or thwarted depends on both the response of others and the qualities of the environment.

Response of Others

A major cluster of barriers to early artistic development involves discouragement from family and professionals, including:

Qualities of the Environment

The second major impediment to early artistic development in children with disabilities is the lack of a stimulating environment that invites exploration and creative expression. Contributing factors include (Also see "Access and Accommodation" section):


Although for many children, school provides outlets and supports for creative expression, children with disabilities may find school to be another environment that stifles rather than encourages interest in the arts. Some school barriers to careers in the arts are: conflicting activities during the school day; inability to engage in after-school activities; goal-setting issues; and framing the arts as therapy.

Conflicting activities during the school day

Many children with disabilities spend considerable time in therapies and skills-training--time that nondisabled children spend in "elective" classes, such as art, music, dance, video-making, and creative writing. Parents often view art opportunities as less important than clinical remediation or may feel the child has ample time to pursue the arts as an adult. Disability-related activities that compete with arts electives include:

Inability to engage in after-school activities

Students with disabilities often have fewer opportunities than nondisabled students to participate in arts activities after school, such as dance rehearsals, band practice, drama try-outs, working on school publications, etc. The barriers may involve:

Goal-setting issues

When schools implement federal requirements for educational planning and goal-setting for students with disabilities--i.e., the Individualized Educational Plan (IEP)--a student's interest in the arts may be neglected or undermined in several ways:

Framing the arts as therapy

When arts activities are available to students with disabilities, too often their primary value is measured in terms of their capacity to improve the student's physical, sensory, psychological, or social functioning, rather than simply "art for art's sake." This goal-oriented, therapeutic approach to the arts and disability trivializes the intrinsic value of the arts while it discounts the creative potential of students with disabilities. It can lead to several negative outcomes:


Society's fear and devaluation of disability and the stereotyped images of people with disabilities featured in popular media can be powerful barriers to the creative efforts of young persons with disabilities. In the frank words of an artist disabled since childhood, "We're told we're ugly and awkward and feeble and pathetic these are not exactly stepping stones into a spotlight center stage."


Public conceptions of art are inextricably interwoven with notions of physical beauty. Unfortunately, persons with disabilities who look or function differently from average receive a strong social message that they fail to meet the majority cultural standard for beauty. Parents, anticipating their disabled child's rejection by peers, may inadvertently contribute to the stigma by urging the child to function more "normally" or by attempting to hide disabled body parts. Classmates and even strangers encountered in public may make disparaging remarks about the child's appearance. The popular media equate beauty with physical perfection and broadcast generally negative images of people with disabilities. Consequently, children who have learned to be ashamed of their disabilities may avoid music, dance, drama, and other art forms that focus a spotlight on them. After years of hiding significant parts of themselves and submerging their identities and voices, it is difficult to switch gears and suddenly see themselves or express themselves as artists. In the extreme, young persons with disabilities may feel unentitled to participate in the arts. For example, one individual recently speculated that disabled people were not visible in the arts because their presence would "turn people off."


Artists with disabilities report many instances in which they or their projects were characterized by stereotypes rather than seriously assessed on their own merits. One recalls hearing academics stereotype arts students as "dyslexics--people who can't read but can draw." Others remember instructors who prejudged students with disabilities as lacking the necessary stamina for performing or who felt that an actor with a visible disability would distract the audience's attention from the stars of a play. Many have encountered similarly disparaging attitudes in the staff of art programs. Students with disabilities feel such staff lack disability knowledge and are visibly uncomfortable in the company of persons with disabilities. Furthermore, the students sense little motivation in arts staff to learn more about disability accomodations. Although hostile and demeaning attitudes are troublesome, students also resent being treated as "a pet" or special project by instructors rather than a "real artist." In a similar vein, one college student says publishers have expressed an interest in marketing her work for its human interest potential. She characterizes their angle as, "Look, crippled kid can write."

Rejection of disability content as too narrow

Publishers, gallery owners, casting directors, and other "gatekeepers" to the arts often reject work by young persons with disabilities because they believe it would not appeal to a wide audience. The problems include:

Low standards

It has already been mentioned that due to generally low expectations for young people with disabilities, they are not encouraged to become artists or performers. A related problem is that once they begin to pursue the arts as a vocation, they are prejudged incapable of producing good work. As one performer with a disability reflected: " I think the biggest problem, which underlies all the rest, is that we have a deep, long held belief that disabled people are significantly less in every way to nondisabled people. That belief is institutionalized." The result of this "institutionalized" lack of faith in the talent of young people with disabilities is that they are subjected to lesser standards than are nondisabled students. This widespread practice fails students with disabilities in several ways:


To sustain their dreams of careers in the arts despite all the barriers, young persons with disabilities must be able to envision their role in the arts world. In the process of constructing the identity of one who contributes to the arts, a young person with a disability must navigate two dilemmas: finding models and mentors, and determining how the disability experience fits into the creative work.

Models and mentors

In many cases, neither arts students with disabilities nor their educators know any successful artists or performers with disabilities to use as exemplars and sources of information. This problem is particularly keen in areas far from large cities with high levels of disability rights and disability culture activism, such as San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. In areas without a strong disability community presence, students with disabilities may never know that others with their disabilities have pursued the arts successfully. As one adult with a disability recalled of her teen years, "Well, I wanted to go into theatre, but never saw any role models so I didn't even try." A teacher observes, "Knowing others have done it is crucial to young adults who live in familial and school environments that have eroded their confidence in their visions." Connecting with other artists with disabilities can be profoundly affirming. One woman remembers, "My life and art expanded when I met other disabled women artists. It helped me get a reality check about being 'scorned by the mainstream' and how society treats us, instead of feeling my frustrations were about me personally." Another artist explains, "There is a common identity... It has been a huge learning experience for me to be involved with other disabled artists and I have gained something really valuable from them that I really missed out on when in [college] for example...It has been a useful, valuable experience, [and] taught me a lot."

Incorporating disability into the creative process

Disability is a complex matter, leaving many young people stumped about how their disability experience relates to their creative work. Some resolve the question by avoiding disability themes entirely in their work. Young persons with disabilities can be significantly affected when others devalue the legitimacy of disability subject matter. That message reinforces the disability stigma they have already shouldered throughout their development. An adult with a disability who has spoken to aspiring artists reports, "most disabled people I spoke to [felt] that they wanted 'to get away from their disabilities through the arts,' not to use it as a medium for exploring disability." Knowing the reality of disability devaluation, some students wonder if they should even identify themselves as disabled at all when applying to universities or arts training programs. Despite the stigma, many young persons with disabilities are open to incorporating disability in their work because it is a significant part of working with "what they know." Others feel drawn to focus deliberately on their experience of disabilty in order to examine its importance through the arts. These intentions evoke some challenging questions: Can I play a role written for a nondisabled actor? Do I perform it as though my disability doesn't exist and hope the audience will overlook it, or can I be this character and be a person with a disability, too? How do I explain disability to others? Do I explain my private disability experience, or the collective experience of the disability community? How do I explain how my disability relates to my writing, music, drawing? Am I an artist who happens to be disabled, or a Disabled artist? How do my marginalized statuses--artist, young student, person with a disability--converge or overlap?


Access barriers present a variety of impediments to young persons with disabilities on their paths to arts careers. Moreover, accommodations can be difficult to obtain for a variety of reasons. The following list gives examples of some common access issues [related to access barriers and impediments to accommodation]:

Access barriers

Impediments to accommodation



The typical circumstances in which young persons with disabilities grow up serve to suppress rather than encourage their participation in the arts. Aspirations of young artists with disabilities must survive myriad hazards: pervasive social messages of unworthiness, family concerns about the impracticality of the arts as a vocation, the lack of accessible arts programs in the schools and in the community, barriers to assistive technology and other accommodations, and estrangement from role models and mentors who can encourage, inspire, and inform. Yet the voices quoted throughout this paper testify that those aspirations survive after all. The fact that a strong cultural movement has emerged in the disability community despite these obstacles argues powerfully for the importance of the arts for all human beings. The establishment of disability anti-discrimination laws and the vitality of the disability rights movement have given many young persons with disabilities good reason to believe their obstacles can be overturned and their aspirations turned into achievements. The convening of this national forum on careers in the arts for people with disabilities is further reason for optimism.


Bach, J. R., & Barnett, V. (1994). Ethical considerations in the management of individuals with severe neuromuscular disorders. American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 73, 134-140.

Davis, W.E. (1989). The Regular Education Initiative debate: Its promises and problems. Exceptional Children, 55, 440-446.

Gething, L. (1992). Judgments by health professionals of personal characteristics of people with a visible physical disability. Social Science and Medicine, 34, 809-815.

© 1998, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Reproduced by permission.
No part of this publication may be reproduced by any means without the written permission of The Kennedy Center.

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