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National Forum on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities

Chat Session:
Victoria Ann Lewis



Monday, June 15, 1998 (11:15 - 11:45 AM EDT)

This morning, we are chatting with Victoria Ann Lewis, founder and director of Other Voices, a program dedicated to new voices in the American theater, at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum. Ms. Lewis, how is the Forum going? What did you discuss in this morning's panel discussion?

The Forum is going great - a lot of excitement and purpose. This morning's panel discussion focused on money - and we talked a lot about work disincentives for artists with disabilities, such as the problem that arises when employment removes people from SSI (Social Security Income). Probably the conference will take a position on this issue and advocate for change in Social Security.

What is the basic purpose of the Forum, and what are your expectations for its results?

The purpose of the Forum is to develop recommendations and strategies to increase training and employment opportunities for arts careers for people with disabilities. We hope that the Forum will end in employment opportunities - perhaps someone attending the conference will develop programming when s/he returns home.

Who will develop the training and employment opportunities?

Over one hundred arts service organizations that influence policy - as well as several governement agencies - were invited to attend the Forum. Our hope is that when theses organizations and agencies understand the needs and goals of artist with diabilities, they will eventualy create more opportunities for them.

What is on the schedule for the rest of the Forum?

For the complete schedule of events, including additional chat sessions and cybercasts, visit the Agenda section of the Forum Web site. One highlight will be this evening's speech by award-winning actress Phyllis Frelich. We are all looking forward to that. Phyllis is both a great artist and a powerful advocate.

What do you think of the chat and cybercasting technology being used at the Forum? Do you see any applications for it with regard to Forum issues?

Since only 250 people could fit in the room for this morning's panel session, I think it is terrrific that we have this tool to include many more people in our discussion and work. The Forum Web site will continue long after the Forum itself is over ... and so will many of the problems and issues discussed here.

Ms. Lewis, how did you become involved with the issues addressed in the Forum? Do many of your colleagues share your concern for these issues?

As an actress with a disability who was refused professional training because of that disability, I am deeply concerned with changing discriminatory practices in training. As the director of the Other Voices project in Los Angeles, I also develop plays that deal with the experience of disability from the new paradigm of independence and participation. I am the only disabled artist working within the Mark Taper Forum, a large theater in Los Angeles, so this conference is important to me because of the opportunities it presents to gain support from other professional artists who share my concerns.

Is there a primary resource for people sharing an interest in these issues? What resources can you suggest for each artistic discipline?

There are several publications such as Disability Rag and The Mouth. There is also an organization called ATA which is conerned with theater and disability. You could also contacyt local independent living centers and colege/university disabled student services agnecies. The Concept Papers on the Forum Web site also suggest resources. One of the papers specifically addresses your question, and provides the names of representative organizations for every discipline. You could also write to the authors of the papers via the Editor at ARTSEDGE.

How can an organization such as a professional theater be proactive in addressing the needs of disabled people?

First, if you maintain employment profiles that include gender and race, I would suggest adding disability as another category to track. Then, in terms of strategies to encourage the employment of people with disabilities throughout the organization, you could start with an intern program targeting young people with disabilities. These entry-level experiences can be pivotal for encouraging careers in the arts, disabled or non-disabled. Second, you might want to do a review of audience access programs, and perhaps establish a commnunity advisory board of disabled leadership. The board membership would be drawn from the university community, the independent living community, and disabled artists and educators in your area. (As an example, the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis has the best front-of-house accommodations I have yet seen.) Then you need to check the access to your backstage area and rehearsal halls to see if a disabled performer or technician would be able to work at your institution. Once you have that in place, you might want to develop specific programming to reach the disabled audience and the deaf/hard-of-hearing audience. Like most communities, people like to support their artists.

Are there institutions that would bear examination by other institutions as models for inclusion of artists with disabilities as artists rather than as individuals with disabilities?

One model institution is the National Theater of the Deaf, which is a great example of both artistic excellence and of an entire educational and training program which develops that excellence. You can read an overview of this organization in the Concept Papers section of the Forum Web site. Here at the conference, we are also interested in models from other communities - for example, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, which is dedicated both to excellence and to equal opportunity. Additionally, there are many isolated example of artistic inclusion, but one of the problems that we are addressing here is the encouragement of ongoing programming.

What are the main obstacles facing persons with disabilities in pursuing careers in the arts?

The biggest obstacle that we identified during the 9-month planning process for this Forum was the perception that disabled audiences are incompetent and inherently unable to compete. We feel that this is a result of a larger societal perception of disabled people as "patients" and as "sick." This prejudice is so pervasive, that if a disabled person achieves success, he or she is no longer considered disabled. This perception of incompetence appears very early. Children are given reduced expectations for their future and the development of artistic skills is seriously lacking. By the time disabled persons have arrived at an appropriate age to seek professional training, most of them have self-selected themselves out of the arts. I direct you to Carol Gill's position paper (in the Concept Papers section of the Forum Web site) - it is the first serious overview of the obstacles, and I think you will find it illuminating.

Ms. Lewis, thank you for being with us today!

Thank you - it was my pleasure to participate. In closing, let me say that the future of careers in the arts for people with disabilities is in the hands of disabled people. We have many allies, as this conference proves, but only we can speak from the life experience of disability and demand a more inclusive and humane society. Such a society will benefit all Americans.


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