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Features / March 3, 2016

8 Things Everyone Needs to Know About Art and Disability

Number one, says Eliza Chandler of Tangled Art + Disability: recognize that disabled people aren't just audiences—they are artists, too.
“Persimmon Blackbridge: Constructed Identities” will officially launch Tangled Art + Disability's new Toronto gallery on April 28th. Photo: Della McCreary. “Persimmon Blackbridge: Constructed Identities” will officially launch Tangled Art + Disability's new Toronto gallery on April 28th. Photo: Della McCreary.

Though it often goes unnoticed by the wider artworld, the Deaf and Disability Arts movement has been gaining momentum across Canada of late.

In January, CRIPSiE (Collaborative Radically Integrated Performers Society) in Edmonton organized what is touted as one of the city’s first professional presentations of Crip Theatre with their piece Love in the Margins, shown at Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre Chinook Series.

In February, Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum for Human Rights opened “Sight Unseen,” the first major exhibition of work by international blind photographers, which has been touring global venues—but until now, missed Canada. (The CMHR’s program of related events includes a talk by Winnipeg’s own Tara Miller, a legally blind commercial photographer.)

This month, in March, the disability arts festival Tangled London kicks off at the VibraFusion Lab with an exhibition of work by Barbara Greene Mann on the 3rd, KickStart Disability Arts and Culture in Vancouver holds a Disability Arts Salon on the 13th at Renfrew Park Community Centre, and Winnipeg’s Martha Street Studio holds a panel on Disability + Curating on the 19th in association with its concurrent exhibition of work by disabled artists.

And coming up in April is Canada’s first national Deaf and Disability Arts symposium—titled Cripping the Arts—which will be taking place at Toronto’s Ryerson University. Cripping the Arts also coincides with the official opening of Ontario’s first fully accessible gallery dedicated to exhibiting Disability and Deaf Art at 401 Richmond in Toronto.

The latter two milestones—the symposium and the gallery—are major projects on the go for Eliza Chandler, artistic director of the non-profit Tangled Art + Disability.

Recently, Chandler—an alumna of NSCAD University—met with Canadian Art to discuss art, disability and the progress that still needs to be made. Here are seven points that stood out during our conversation.

1. Disabled people aren’t just audiences—they are artists and creators, too.

When asked what still bothers her most about the way disability is treated in the wider artworld, Chandler says it’s the idea that improving accessibility only relates to disabled people as audiences.

“Typically when galleries and theatres think about including disabled people, it is as an audience,” Chandler says. “Thinking about how to have wheelchair users in your audience is different than thinking about how we might include disabled people as producers of culture—as performers and artists and musicians.”

Chandler notes that, on the upside, there is increasing interest from museums and other organizations about improving accessibility—but it needs that crucial shift in perspective.

“While there is this big push to make things accessible, I think it is quite focused on audience more than artwork.”

2. Artists with disabilities need and deserve professional-development opportunities just as much as any other artist.

One issue that troubles Chandler is the unspoken assumption in the wider artworld that artists with disabilities don’t need to—or shouldn’t—try to get better at what they do.

“I think things like professional development only emerge as a possibility when you think disabled people can and should improve their art—which is a very obvious thing, but up until recently, it wasn’t even a thing,” Chandler says.

Previously, Chandler explains, the mindset in general was, “if I’m disabled and I produce something it’s like, incredible, or it’s a spectacle. There is no sort of thought that I should or I could improve my work. And maybe I can’t [do that] in the same way as somebody else—but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t or shouldn’t improve my art.”

To help correct this problem, Chandler and Tangled have organized a series of professional development workshops called the Art Mechanics Lab, which covers things like grant writing, artist statements and artist talks.

After all, developing and programming an artist talk “requires us to recognize that the artist has intention, and maybe even a political motivation, in creating their work,” says Chandler—factors which have often been downplayed in a limited-and-limiting mentality that just showing the work of a disabled artist is “enough.”

3. Financial accessibility is as important as physical accessibility.

Another thing that can limit disabled artists’ access to professional development—and disabled audiences’ access to art exhibitions and events—is financial limitations.

“The barriers are so huge for disabled people,” says Chandler, “because disabled people are poor—not because they can’t work, but because there is a lot that can prevent us from working.”

Financial obstacles can be just as dire as physical ones.

“We hear all the time that, ‘I wanted to sign up for this printmaking class, but this venue was inaccessible,’ or, ‘I wanted to take a few classes at OCAD, but it’s too expensive,’” Chandler says.

As a result, Chandler tries to ensure that what Tangled offers “is totally accessible both financially and barrier-free.”

For instance, all of Tangled’s professional development workshops are free of charge, and the fee structure for the April symposium is “free for Deaf, Mad, and disabled people, attendants/personal support workers, under-waged/non-waged people.” And “$100.00 for everyone else.”

Bottom line: physical access is just the beginning of making the arts accessible.

“Including an elevator or ramp is great, but it is the first step of many,” Chandler says. “People think a lot about wheelchair access and I think that’s really important, but as we are learning, there are so many other ways that art and culture can be made accessible.”

4. Systemic change is needed to make a genuinely accessible artworld.

Systemic change “is something that Tangled works on every single day,” Chandler says—particularly in relation to the fact that a lot of artists with disabilities can’t even consider accepting newly available Disability-Arts grants for fear that it will put them at risk of losing governmental support for their essential long-term needs.

“Many people rely on ODSP [the Ontario Disability Support Program] for things like extended health care and wheelchair repairs,” Chandler explains, “and they can’t afford to lose these benefits.”

The problem is that many disability support programs—those in Ontario and elsewhere—cap the amount of money a recipient can make or receive from various sources.

“Systemic change is needed in order to allow disabled people to access this [new] funding.”

“If artists can’t sell their works, or feel they can safely earn it; if they can’t keep fees from artist talks or CARFAC fees,” that’s a big problem, Chandler explains.

“It’s already a struggle to get paid as an artist,” she admits. “Too many people assume that artists will work for free. But you have this added systemic barrier that needs to be addressed” in the case of disabled artists.

5. Best practices for accessible curatorial work do exist—even though most galleries and museums don’t implement them consistently yet.

As Tangled prepares to officially launch its own dedicated art space in April, Chandler has spent a lot of time researching best practices for accessible curatorial work.

The Smithsonian, for example, has “a very comprehensive set of guidelines which I am learning and following and expanding on,” says Chandler.

Tangled has a strong desire to set a standard, Chandler says, because “if you have a Disability Arts gallery, it has to be incredibly accessible and also done in a way that’s integral to the aesthetics of the show, so that it’s absolutely not an ‘add-on.’”

As an example, Chandler points to the preparation for the gallery’s first official show in April, featuring sculptures by Persimmon Blackbridge.

“We will install the show lower than you might typically see in a gallery,” Chandler explains, “for wheelchair users, or people of shorter stature—that’s a noticeable shift in the gallery, when things are hung lower.”

“We will have labels in print, but also in Braille, and we will have audio descriptions of every piece, so if you come in and you have a visual impairment, you can take out an iPod and listen to someone describe the whole piece.”

6. Creative problem-solving is key to making art accessibility a reality.

One of the best practices for exhibition accessibility is to create touch tours so that people can come into the gallery and experience the artwork through touch rather than simply through sight or sound.

But this presented a challenge for Chandler and Blackbridge while prepping for the April exhibition, as Chandler wanted to include a touch element, but Blackbridge’s sculptures are very fragile.

Initially, Chandler says, they thought about getting “a replica of one of the sculptures produced by a 3-D printer out of plastic or rubber.”

But what they ultimately agreed upon was that Blackbridge would “produce a sculpture herself out of rubber with the intention that it can be touched.”

It’s a solution Chandler is enthused about.

“I think that is really exciting, because it’s not just about translating art in accessible way—we are actually producing art with the intention that it can be experienced in a different way.”

Revisiting and revising a typical gallery install schedule is another thing Chandler is open to looking at as Tangled moves forward with shows by Blackbridge and others.

“Maybe we need to have two weeks, or maybe we need a month when the gallery is closed and the artist can install their works,” Chandler says. “Because maybe asking the artist to install in a week doesn’t meet their needs if they can’t work a 10-hour workday. Maybe they can only work a 3-hour workday.”

“I think all of those things are about changing our culture to fit people’s needs, rather than expecting them to fit the way culture has always been done.”

7. We can all learn from the growing national and international networks related to art and disability.

Asked for inspiration for the work that she does with Tangled, Chandler points to the biannual Unlimited Festival in London, UK, which is “very highly attended…with lots of venues,” and commissioned nearly 30 new Disability Arts projects during its first outing in 2012.

Chandler also cites DaDaFest in Liverpool, which in addition to programming a biannual festival also organizes social justice lectures and participates in public art projects, among other activities.

DisArt in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is another part of this growing network. In 2015, it organized the US premiere of “Art of the Lived Experiment,” an exhibit that, as DisArt’s website describes it, “included some of the top international and US contemporary Disability Artists.”

Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, among other venues, is now hosting what are called “relaxed performances”—a growing practice originated by UK playwright and actor Jess Thom.

As Chandler explains, “Jess Thom is a playwright and actor and she has Tourette’s, so she noticed that she wasn’t really welcome at theatre events” because of “her verbal tics.”

“Relaxed performances,” as Thom originated them, are when “theatres open their plays to folks who might not be able to sit still for whatever reason—this means folks with Tourette’s, folks with autism, kids.” Chandler hopes it will spread to even more theatre spaces in Canada and elsewhere.

In Canada, other Disability Arts organizations that have blossomed include Gatineau’s Spill.Propagation, which “works to ignite an explosion of Deaf cultural presence rooted in signed language, within the Canadian arts and cultural landscape”; Ottawa’s Propeller Dance, whose tagline is “If you can breathe, you can dance”; Calgary’s Momo Dance Theatre, which offers inclusive dance classes for adults and children; and Vancouver’s RealWheels Theatre, which is currently organizing a Burlesque Theatre Cabaret “to challenge the myths surrounding the sometimes-taboo topic of sex and disability.”

Thanks to support from the Trillium Foundation, Tangled’s own arts activities have also expanded in recent years from Toronto to London, Thunder Bay, Ottawa and Peterborough.

8. It’s a good thing that interest in accessibility is surging, because we still have a long way to go.

Chandler notes that for whatever reason—possibly because the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act is aiming to make the province’s buildings more accessible by 2025—Tangled is now fielding calls from all kinds of arts organizations and centres “wanting to know what we do, and how they can do it as well.”

Some of the things Tangled has been looking into for performing arts organizations, for instance, is not just having an ASL interpreter visible for a given theatrical production, but going beyond that.

“What we discovered we could do with a scripted event is that Deaf ASL interpreters could take the script, translate it into ASL—because ASL is a different language—and then perform the script… in a way that looks a lot different than just having an ASL interpreter in black, standing there.”

But one thing that Chandler remains cautious about is the way artists with disabilities might be programmed in arts venues as a desire to simply check a box or fulfill part of a quota—or worse.

“We [at Tangled] are not tokenizing people, and we are not turning them into a spectacle, and I think that’s how disability art has been programmed for so long—like, if you think about outsider art, it’s [been presented in the context of] ‘Isn’t it fascinating what this crazy mind can produce?’ Apart from being offensive, that doesn’t imagine a [better way] of programming art based on disability,” Chandler argues.

“Once art galleries and cultural spaces desire to program disability art not because it’s attached to funding, and not because it’s rounding out their diversity plan, but just because it is good art—you know, I think that will be when I know that we’ve arrived.”

Tangled London runs March 3rd to 5th at various locations in London, Ontario, while Tangled Art + Disability will officially launch its gallery with “Constructed Identities: Persimmon Blackbridge” on April 28th. Cripping the Arts runs April 28th to 30th at Ryerson University.

This article was corrected on March 7, 2016. The original stated that CRIPSiE developed Edmonton’s first piece of professionally produced Crip Theatre. In fact, it is one of the first—there have been others.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via