Deaf and disability arts
Arts practices and accessibility challenges and tips
Arts Research Monitor #180
(originally published in October 2021)
In this issue: Insights into the arts practices of Deaf and disabled peoples, their accessibility challenges, and suggestions for improvement, based on four recent reports from Canada and the United States. These resources could help artists and arts workers improve the accessibility of the works that they create and produce.
Deaf and Disability Arts Practices in Canada: Summary
Canada Council for the Arts, February 20, 2021
Authors: V. Leduc, M. Boukala, J. Rouleau, M. Bernier, A. Louw, A. McAskill, C. Théroux, L. Grenier, L. Parent, S. Bouscatier, S. Heussaff, D. Saunders, T. Tembeck, C. Grimard, E. Marcelli, and O. Angrignon-Girouard
Based on interviews and focus group sessions with 85 artists and cultural workers, as well as a literature review, this report provides an overview of the artistic practices of “Deaf artists and artists with disabilities, … and related findings concerning accessibility, equity, self-determination, and support”. The report is intended to “foster the development of culturally equitable practices” in the arts sector, assist arts organizations in their development, and aid the practices of Deaf and disabled artists.
The report, led by a team “predominantly made up of Deaf and disabled people”, uses “Deaf and disabled” to describe “people who are Deaf or disabled, have an impairment, are hard-of-hearing, are late-deafened, have Usher’s syndrome, are ‘mad’, are neurodiverse, are neuro-atypical, have a cognitive disability, have an intellectual disability, or live with a mental illness or mental health issues, etc.”
Citing the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability, the report indicates that 22% of Canadians 15 or older – or 6.2 million people – “had one or more disabilities that limited them in their daily activities”. However, the report also notes that some Deaf people may not view their deafness as a disability and may not have self-identified as disabled in the survey.
The report notes that disabled artists are “doubly disadvantaged”, given that disabled people are less likely to be employed and artists’ earnings are lower than those of other members of the labour force. As noted by one artist, “we struggle to find the money we need just to survive week to week, let alone to create our work as well”.
Beyond simple access to artistic culture, the self-determination of Deaf and disabled peoples is identified as a key issue: “artists shape culture, some claim to be politically committed, some share their imaginations and views of the world. They also want to be involved in all situations that concern them.” One artist indicated that self-determination involves “deciding for myself what’s important for me, my rights as an equal citizen of the world”.
Practices that could support “the self-determination of Deaf and disabled artists [include] equity policies, the funding of practices, events ‘by and for’ [i.e., with active participation in spaces for dialogue and networking], and tools and resources to develop exemplary know-how”. The report provides links to various resources “to support the development of Deaf and disabled artistic practices”.
Regarding the artistic practices of Deaf and disabled peoples, the report refers to a typology from the Deaf, Disability, and Mad Arts Alliance of Canada. The range of practices encompasses:
● Art and disability (“a traditional art form practiced by artists with disabilities”)
● Disability-inclusive art (art that provides “accommodations that allow non-traditional artists to adopt traditional aesthetics”)
● Disability-identified art (“which embraces and promotes disability politics, culture, pride, prioritizing things like resistance and affirmation and vision”)
The report identifies major challenges faced by Deaf and disabled artists and provides potential actions to lessen the challenges and promote Deaf and disabled arts practices. A summary of some findings regarding each challenge follows:
● Funding: Funding processes that are not accessible are therefore discriminatory. For example, an emphasis “on written materials puts Deaf artists at a disadvantage”. The report suggests “implementing equity measures” as well as “providing qualified mentoring and sensitive administrative support”.
● Accessibility: For Deaf people, accessibility challenges “impede full cultural citizenship”. Specific hurdles include “a lack of interpreters, of information in LSQ or ASL, of subtitles or picture-in-picture interpretation boxes in videos”. The report recommends that “the accessibility of training, production, and dissemination venues” be improved and that awareness of ableism and audism be raised.
● Cultural representation: Depictions of Deaf and disabled peoples are rare in the arts and culture. Those that exist are frequently stereotypical, overly negative, and lacking in complexity. The report suggests the development of “an ethics of cultural representation by including Deaf and disabled people in scriptwriting and validation of media content”.
● Communications: Complexity of the language of funding applications can be a significant challenge, “particularly for artists who are Deaf, neuro-atypical or cognitively impaired”. A participant noted that many people with intellectual disabilities are “structurally excluded from post-secondary education”. The report recommends that information be distributed “in simple and easy-to-understand language”.
The report concludes that, “drawing on their experiences of various types of oppression and marginalization, but also on pride in their belonging, the artistic practices of Deaf and disabled people contribute to the creation of representations of deafness and disability that go beyond – and even deconstruct – the medical paradigm by emphasizing the positive affirmation of their various experiences”.
BEING Studio, 2021
Organized by Ottawa-based BEING Studio, Artist Connect was “a series of online events” in early 2020 that brought together artists with disabilities from six Canadian communities. To enhance accessibility, event organizers created short video reports instead of preparing a conventional written report. As noted in one of the videos, “Artist Connect was a big community of artists, staff, and support workers collaborating to provide an online space that was accessible and supportive.”
The project’s insights into the perspectives of artists with disabilities and its tips regarding making online spaces as accessible as possible might be of interest to many artists and arts workers. The three videos, each between six and eight minutes long, are organized by theme: self-determination; interdependence; and connection.
The self-determination video explores “what a disability-led space looks like on Zoom”. The video describes an accessible discussion space as one where everyone feels safe and valued. In this context, meeting facilitation is important “to make space for more people to share their ideas”. Another strategy in this regard is to use breakout rooms “to make more opportunities for people to share”. In Artist Connect, however, that technique “had mixed results”, with some participants feeling disoriented by the timers on breakout screens. The video recognizes that, for artists, artwork is a different and “really important way to communicate”.
With the theme of interdependence, the second video “explores what it means to be recognized and appreciated”. The video links interdependence to support, which all humans give, receive, and need. Support can be multifaceted, involving encouragement, challenge, direction, materials, teaching, and inspiration. During the artists’ conversations, many participants spoke “about feeling seen, often ‘for the first time’.” People who are truly seen feel “recognized and appreciated for who [they] are”. The video outlines how organizers tried to create welcoming and supportive spaces, thereby allowing “for sharing, support, and inspiration”. One technique in this regard was making time for greetings at the beginning of each conversation.
The final video, on connection, “explores how Artist Connect brought people together and helped to create community”. The project offered structure, ideas, a place to connect and create, and a community, which is especially important during the pandemic. “Connection is the fabric of community…. Connection gives us strength, laughter, inspiration, and energy that continues to grow.” In coming together, the artists also helped create disability culture, where people are not frowned upon because they are different. The video shows how there is substantial diversity in the disabilities that people may have. (The 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability found that over 6 million Canadians 15 or older have a disability.)
Art can provide connections for and public understanding of disabled artists, who indicated that “we want to show our art, show how we are stronger … and bold…. Art will show to the public what we are right now in this world.”
Theatre Passe Muraille, July 2021
With the idea that “making theatre accessible makes the work better and leads to more exciting experiences for everyone”, Toronto-based Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) tested a range of accessibility methods in workshops that took place months before a work would be put on stage. TPM’s Accessibility Labs explored “how accessibility initiatives can be a more ingrained part of an artistic process”. The online summary of the project indicates that each week-long workshop, dedicated solely to accessibility, allowed artists to “create work that is more innovative, aesthetically aligned and accessible”.
TPM created a seven-part video documentary series to report on their explorations related to challenges such as making dance shows accessible to Deaf and Blind audiences, incorporating Deaf culture and American Sign Language (ASL) into the narrative and form of a new opera, and providing ASL interpretation via augmented reality on various devices. For brevity, this summary provides examples from two of the seven videos.
The fourth video highlights discussions regarding how a Deaf artist and a hearing artist can work together without ASL-English interpretation, specifically in low-budget environments. The artists readily admit that there were substantial challenges in trying to figure out how best to communicate with each other. Challenges can be rewarding, however: their initial communications difficulties led to a script idea regarding how a hearing person in real-world conditions (without an ASL interpreter) could communicate with a Deaf person. In the end, perseverance was key to their artistic progress.
The seventh episode explores the development of a virtual show in which two disabled artists played key creative roles (playwright/performer and set/costume designer). The set and costume designer was not able to be present in the theatre, and the collaboration proceeded with most artists present and the designer contributing virtually. To counter the tendency for people to relate more easily to those who are physically present, TPM’s technical team worked to give set and costume designer a strong presence, using microphones, a large screen, and speakers. Still, it was sometimes challenging to remember to fully engage with the person who was only present onscreen. Because the play was going to be filmed and distributed online, the team had to shift their approaches to storytelling and visual elements.
Accessibility and the Arts: Reconsidering the Role of the Artist
Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture with the Center for Business and Management of the Arts at Claremont Graduate University, December 2020
Authors: Katrina Sullivan and Bronwyn Mauldin
Targeted to the visual arts but of interest to the broader arts community, this report examines the accessibility of artworks for disabled people. The findings are based on 23 “interviews with disabled and non-disabled artists and art professionals” in Los Angeles.
The report argues that “public perception and attitudes toward disability and people with physical and mental impairments mean that accessibility continues to be a secondary concern or even an after-thought in much of the arts and culture sector”. While individuals’ experiences with artworks may differ greatly, the report concludes that “it is possible to provide ways for all people to have a personal experience with an artwork”, if accommodations are provided.
A particularly useful section of the report provides recommended practices “to expand and normalize disability access to arts and culture”. Recommendations are directed toward individual artists, museums and galleries, educational institutions, as well as public and private arts funders.
Artists can work to incorporate accessibility into their works and push for accessibility at their exhibiting institutions. Artists (and arts workers) can reach out to disabled-led organizations to better understand their needs and suggested practices regarding accessibility.
Museums and galleries can provide “alternative experiences of artworks, while also continuing to expand accommodations and auxiliary aids”. Report appendices include a list of common auxiliary aids and a glossary of potential accommodations for Deaf, hard of hearing, blind, low vision, and disabled individuals.
At the level of organizational processes and policies, museums and galleries can “include disability and accessibility as part of their hiring processes. They can include it as a factor when recruiting new board members. They can include accessibility for disabled people as part of their diversity, equity, and inclusion policies.”
Educational institutions can increase awareness about disability and accessibility by incorporating teachings on disability and universal design, which “builds in accessibility from the beginning, taking as given that what works for disabled people works for all”.
Public and private funders can fund and help raise the profile of disabled artists, fund accessibility initiatives, “strengthen accessibility requirements when they fund artists and art projects”, include accessibility requirements when commissioning public art, and ensure that accessibility is part of their equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives.
This publication was originally funded through a pilot project with the Azrieli Foundation, the Metcalf Foundation, and the Rozsa Foundation. It is reproduced here for ease-of-access only (and without any paywall).