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National Forum on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities

Concept Papers

Arts Access

Ronald L. Mace
Architect, FAIA
Raleigh, North Carolina

There have always been people with disabilities actively involved in the arts. Access to arts careers has not always been easy, but people with disabilities found a way. Some years ago, a funded project of the National Endowment for the Arts identified an impressive list of famous artists who had disabilities. The list did not include the larger number of people with disabilities who were undoubtedly involved in less visable roles such as arts administrators, teachers, or other like supporting jobs. Careers in the arts for people with disabilities are known to be possible and individuals have proven this against difficult odds. Many people believe, in general, that a career in the arts for anyone is more difficult to establish than in other fields because of the subjective nature of art and the perceived financial dependency on the whims of art patrons. These attitudes are partially due to the pervasive stories of starving artists who must work at "real" jobs to support their artistic works. Negative notions about arts careers for people with disabilities often come from people who lack vision and experience in how individuals with disabilities might function in an arts career.

The rigors of a dual job may indeed be difficult for some people with disabilities, but alternatives and other options should not be easily ruled out.

My own story is a case in point. When I applied to architecture school, I was told by the dean not to try. He felt I did not belong in architecture, that a person with a disability could not make it through the program, and did not have any business trying. Further, he reasoned that I could never do the work successfully nor find and maintain a job. I have no idea what experience he had with anyone else with or without a disability upon which to base such strong opinions. I completed school as a result of the tenacity of my family. They devoted a large portion of their lives for the six years I was in school to ensure that I was carried whenever necessary through an inaccessible, and even hostile, environment. There was no assistance nor accommodations made. It was difficult, but not impossible to successfully complete the program. When I did find a job, my mobility limitations allowed me to spend more time on design and planning a career advantage to any young designer. Over the years, the use of technology such as videotaping and teleconferencing have compensated for field work, as I have experienced increased limitations and reduced stamina as part of my aging process. I entered my field before physical and programmatic access were required and discrimination prohibited, before any assistance or advanced technology could be of help. This situation has radically improved.

Access to education and training for careers in the arts for people with disabilities, like that for other fields, has been improving steadily in recent years as a result of significant legislation and increased experience and understanding. The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 requires that any building receiving federal money for construction or leasing meet minimum accessibility requirements. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires any programs receiving any form of federal financial assistance be accessible for everyone. In the mid-80s, the Right To Education Act (known as IDEA) stipulated that children with disabilities had a right to an appropriate, free, public education in the same settings as other children. In 1991, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) broadened the mandates by prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in all aspects of society. The ADA requires accommodations in employment, state, and local government activities, public services provided by businesses, transportation, and communications. It is a civil rights law and it is mandatory in every community and location in America, and supercedes local, state, or other laws. It mandates accessible programs and facilities, and prohibits discriminatory policies or practices. People with disabilities are taking advantage of the new opportunities provided by these new laws. Other societal changes that have taken place in recent years add to the reasons the disabled are showing up in greater numbers in both formal and informal educational programs. There are no records that I know of to prove this point, but in my field, I have noticed a marked increase in the number of disabled individuals in architecture. Where once there were very few architects with disabilities, there are now many throughout this country and around the world. We also know that the number of students with disabilities in architecture and other design programs is increasing each year.

Advances in technology have also contributed to this movement in the arts by making communications, documentation, and production tasks easier to perform. Computer software including computer aided design, three-dimensional modeling, graphic design, authoring software (in all disciplines), programmed learning, distance learning, the Internet, voice-recognition and voice synthesis systems, as well as other forms of computer and telecommunications technology have provided incredible new opportunities for people with all types of disabilities to be creative and to communicate more effectively.

Personal assistive technology has also advanced and opened more doors. Personal communicators, individual support systems, automation devices, such as power door operators and power adjustable height tables, now provide greater individual control of one's environment at a more reasonable cost. Opportunities that include people with disabilities along with others are, to me, preferable and most desirable because of the exposure and the two-way learning development that takes place. Inclusive programs, however, need sensitive leadership and accommodations for participants with disabilities (when needed) to facilitate equable participation.

Exclusive programs may be too special for some and could tend to label and segregate people with disabilities from the mainstream. However, recognizing that there are some cultural disability issues that may best be fostered in exclusive programs, I suggest that it may be advantageous to provide, find, and have access to, a choice.

The exposure and learning experiences that are created as people with disabilities take advantage of these new opportunities are changing attitudes and helping to eliminate opinions such as those of my college dean.

Since I am at the risk of painting too rosy a picture here, let me hasten to say that despite recent progress, society is still not fully open, and opportunities are not so easily made equal. There is still a serious need for strong advocacy, a need for champions of inclusive programs, and a need for broad-minded and nurturing mentors. Success is not guaranteed. The ability to make career moves, to respond to opportunities, and to be where decisions and relationships are made, are all the more difficult for people with disabilities because appropriate housing, transportation, and important private environments are not accessible to everyone. Other negative factors include subtle as well as deeply emotional personal fears, biases, and prejudices, that some people will act upon no matter what is mandated by law. The fact that technology, and especially personal assistive technology, is not always affordable or adequately supported, is another obstacle that people with disabilities must address during their career development.

These issues, however, are the same in all fields of endeavor and are not unique to arts careers. Committed people with disabilities need to take advantage of the improved environment, view the law and new technologies as tools, connect with their peers and supporters, and self-advocate for their career of choice.

Other Papers in this series - "Training Models"

© 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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