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National Forum on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities

Concept Papers

Training Models: An Introduction

Ann Stocking
Master's Candidate in Theatre
San Diego State University

In this paper, four professionals in the fields of visual art, architectural design, and theatre have written their opinions on the opportunities for training disabled individuals in the arts. Many of their opinions have been formed by their own experiences of trying to obtain arts training as disabled people, and continue to be informed by their experiences as professionals in their various fields. The papers include practical advice for disabled people attempting to gain arts training, and also address the obstacles to training that are still very much a reality, even after thirty years of civil rights activism by the disabled and disability rights legislation. The papers attempt to suggest directions arts training must take if disabled artists are to be allowed to find their creative energy, cultivate their imaginations, and practice their respective arts.

Jacki Clipsham, a New Jersey-based visual artist, addresses some of the more prevalent reasons, both social and economic, that disabled people are dissuaded from pursuing arts training and careers. Ms. Clipsham gives real world advice to any young disabled artist attempting to begin a career in the visual arts. She also considers the assistance computers and their new accompanying technology can be to disabled visual artists.

Read Obstacles and Opportunities: Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities by Jacqueline Ann Clipsham

Renowned universal design architect Ron Mace of Raleigh, North Carolina writes of his own experiences as a young man trying to enter architecture school. He describes the importance of a support system in his quest for training, at a time when the educational institution he was attending provided no accommodations to students with disabilities. He also addresses the societal and attitudinal barriers design students are still facing as they attempt to become trained and employed.

Read Arts Access by Ronald L. Mace

Will Rhys, Artistic Director of the National Theatre of the Deaf, relates the fascinating genesis of that unique theatre program, and its partner program, the Professional Theatre School for Deaf Theatre Personnel (PTS). While not Deaf himself, he was part of the program since its inception, and is able to give insight into the evolution of the training program. He relates that the goal from the beginning was to train Deaf individuals to work in the established theatre community, not to create "Deaf theatre." From that work, however, the Deaf participants found a new, exciting language of theatre based in American Sign Language (ASL). Mr. Rhys stresses the continued value of both programs and hopes for continued broadening of the programs to reach the many potential young Deaf theatre artists the programs are missing due to their limited reach.

Read The National Theatre of the Deaf Professional Theatre School for Deaf Theatre Personnel by Will Rhys

Arthur Pepine is currently the financial aid officer at the Yale School of Drama and a former theatre professor there. Dr. Pepine describes the current program at the Yale School of Drama, and clarifies its identity as much more than simply an actor training program. His views are markedly different from the other writers in that he seems to suggest it is more important for us to focus on changing ourselves, rather than expecting the system to change. Dr. Pepine writes that the attitudes in place will change with time, and that patience is what is called for. This is quite different thinking from the views of Ms. Clipsham and Mr. Mace, who feel strong advocacy and enforcement of existing legislation are key to disabled people gaining access to arts training.

Read Disability and Training in the Arts by Arthur Pepine

The four papers nonetheless did have many similar themes. The existence of a supportive environment appeared to be the greatest asset for arts training among the papers, whether that support came from a theater company, parents, teachers, or mentors. Without such support, the artists are less likely to negotiate the many obstacles to arts training that arise. These obstacles include physical barriers, such as the lack of ramps into university arts buildings (the dance building at UCLA has no disabled access, for example,) and the exacerbated money and transportation problems that accompany disablement. However, they also include the barriers of societal attitudes that reflect the feelings that a Deaf or disabled person has no business in wanting to become an actor, painter, or any other kind of artist. Supporting the imagination and creativity of Deaf and disabled artists is just as critical as obtaining financial support for the training and mitigating the "life problems" that deplete our precious energy.

There also seems to be unanimity in the belief that quality work and the honest critique of such work is vital to the development of true artistry and skill. Such "real world" critique guards against cheery platitudes from those who may see the artistic works of the disabled as "art therapy." A patronizing acceptance of all work by disabled artists as good and "special" does not allow true talent to be recognized. Also real world experience through internships, contacts, and practice of the craft is necessary if Deaf and disabled artists are to be competitive artistically. This belief supports the argument for inclusion of Deaf or disabled student artists into existing arts programs rather than segregating them into their own programs. Some writers felt initial programs specifically designed for the disabled can be a safe place for us to discover our talent. Programs for the disabled can be the stepping off place for a career in the arts, but the majority feel training and working within the existing fields should be the goal of those striving to be artists. It was also generally felt that a large obstacle for Deaf or disabled students wanting training is the lack of experience that existing programs have with students with disabilities. It is easier to say no than to confront their (oftentimes subconscious) fears. It is easier to wish disabled students would just go away than to "upset" their programs by requesting reasonable accommodations. It is ironic that fear of the disabled would be exponentially lessened as more of us are allowed into the various training programs. A large reason for the fear is that we are unknown to the non-disabled community due to our isolation. It is important for disabled artists to claim our place among able-bodied artists and to assert our right to have access to the best arts training programs.

Most of the writers pointed out that a career in the arts includes many areas other than simply performance. Designers, writers, historians, art restorers, art conservationists, and educators are other arts careers that the Deaf or disabled may not be exposed to simply because they are related to the arts, even though job prospects may be high.

Another area the writers found basic agreement on is the belief that little is being done in enforcing the existing legislation that prohibits discrimination against disabled individuals. This belief is supported by Lucy Gwin's editorial in the May issue of New Mobility magazine. She writes that that the Department of Justice has a 16% success rate in handling discrimination complaints under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Perhaps this is why, as Arthur Pepine states in his paper (regarding knowledge of the ADA at Yale) that "Not many people are fearful of its consequences . . . ." It is doubtful that with such a dismal complaint record that a student denied access to an arts training program would feel up to the challenge of filing a complaint under the ADA. In addition, it may be difficult to prove that one's disability was the cause of the rejection given the fact that the arts are very subjective disciplines. Rigorous self-advocacy and ownership of arising opportunities are what Deaf and disabled people can do to help themselves. However, as many other minorities have found through their own civil rights struggles, sometimes true change only comes about when those unwilling to embrace non-discrimination have their pocketbooks forcibly opened through large financial judgments.

A surprising consensus came up regarding the area of computers and their accompanying new technology. The writers discuss how computers and like technology have made the "nuts and bolts" work of being an artist much easier. However, they also feel that technology does not and should not replace the more important qualities an artist cultivates such as vision, imagination, creativity, and passion.

An underlying belief in the papers seems to be the fear that future artists with wonderful potential are falling through the cracks due to the limited outreach that is being done to disabled or Deaf young people. There is some very laudable outreach of course, but it is felt that it is not enough. Perhaps the biggest reason why disabled young people do not feel a career in the arts is a true option for them is that the words "disability" and "artist" still do not go together in the mind of society at large.

It has been said by disability historians that the two basic beliefs about the disabled are: 1) we can do anything and 2) we can do nothing. America is well entrenched in the belief that anyone can be successful in their chosen field as long as one has talent, perseveres, and works hard. We love the fact that Bill Gates was a science geek who started building computers in a basement. He had a love and passion for the idea, although he had no idea how successful he would become. We applaud men and women who dare to try new and innovative ideas, and applaud even more loudly when their bets pay off. However, when it comes to disabled people, America seems unwilling to allow us to take the same risks. In the name of protecting us, we are steered into jobs the able-bodied feel suit us better, and are believed to be more "stable." We are advised to be mindful of our disabilities first rather than to do what moves or excites us. A steady income and health insurance, it is felt, should be a higher priority for us than the non-disabled. After all, haven't we already been through so much? What if something happens? (I guess that would be, what if something else happens?) There is a feeling that failure would be more devastating for us due to the non-disabled's misplaced sympathy towards us, and belief that our natures are inherently more fragile. If anything, most disabled people already understand that life holds no guarantees. We understand fully that success is never guaranteed. In the end, is the psychic pain of failure greater than the psychic pain of not being allowed to be what you are? True tragedy is not having to handle the problems that accompany having a disability. True tragedy is having to constantly subjugate one's desires and talents to the vague and uninformed beliefs of the dominant society.

Among all the clamor for more and better arts training for Deaf and disabled people, the most important reason for such training should not be lost. We have a unique world view, and through our artistic pursuits, we can speak to many segments of society that are likewise disenfranchised. We can use our work to inform our own community about our own issues with disability, and use the work to continue our struggle for rights and full inclusion. As artists, we need to have a strong belief in our own values and judgments, and hold fast to them, even when it may appear foolhardy to do so. Courage is what is called for. While the title of "courageous" is one stereotype that has been routinely given to disabled people (usually for doing little more than successfully continuing to breathe), one can't help but feel that in the case of disabled artists, given the current level of acceptance of us as artists, the description is more than earned.


© 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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