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All too often the discourse on disability gets very caught up in all the work we as advocates seek to accomplish. While this is understandable, it’s also true that we can forget to celebrate the people with disabilities who have already accomplished a great deal. Over the centuries, there have been many people with disabilities who refused to allow this to prevent them from their artistic dreams. A few of these are well known to the public such as Sarah Bhernhardt, Beethoven, and others. But, who are the artists with disabilities today who can inspire us as they focus on their creative talents?
One of the most famous, of course, is Academy-Award winning actress Marlee Matlin. She is the first woman from the Deaf Culture to win this award. Still, there are many other artists to celebrate:
- Cher: Multiple award-winning actress and singer has dyslexia, a learning disability which makes it difficult for her to read
- Django Reinhardt: Famous Roma guitarist who struggled with a deformity in his left hand to become one of the most famous musicians of all time
- Renoir: Famous painter coped with severe arthritis
- Teddy Pendergrass: Quadraplegia
- Jackson Pollack: Mental illness
- Howard Hughes: Tourettes Syndrome
- David Beckham: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
- Hugo Weaving: Epilepsy
This is by no means an all-inclusive list, but rather a brief set of names to illustrate the fact that an artist does not have to be limited by their disability, and having a disability does not mean one cannot pursue their artistic dreams. Canadian artist, Eliza Chandler, director of Tangled Arts + Disability comments on this fact:
“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.”
The current reality in Canada as it is in many countries around the world is that a high percentage of people with disabilities are either unemployed or under-employed. But, this doesn’t hold true for everyone. Here is an inspirational story on one individual who would not allow her disability to interfere with her intent to live the creative life:
“Mary Verdi Fletcher was born with Spina Bifida. She came from a house of actors and dancers and was determined to become a dancer herself. Impossible, you say? She is a tiny woman with strong arms who uses a manual wheelchair. Working in the face of much discrimination, she took classes in dance, and over time she founded Professional Flair and Dancing Wheels. Today this wheelchair dance company tours the world and trains dancers with disabilities that would seem to restrict their ability to dance.”
Today, we see more people with disabilities on television shows, in film, and as artists in other creative endeavours. Perhaps it is time that the community of advocates for disability rights begin to celebrate these successes. Indeed, it is not about the lack of talent but rather the way society perceives us as creative artists and the opportunities for us in the creative world.
“As we look at careers in the arts, the talent of artists with disabilities should not be the first question. Instead, our first concern should be changing a society that does not encourage and nurture those talents, and enabling more people with disabilities to express themselves artistically and professionally.”
In the U.K. there is a unique initiative taking place called The London Theatre Consortium. The purpose is to:
“[…] engage in a pilot project (thanks to funding from Unlimited) opening doors and getting artistic directors to talk directly with disabled actors, directors, writers and more to change what we see on our nation’s stages. Join the debate via the #Equalstages.”
In the U.S. there is the National Center for Arts & Disability. This initiative provides a number of key areas of support for artists with disabilities, such as grants, resources, information, a library, a directory of artists for people to access (such as producers or directors), an online art gallery, links, and a place to submit work. These kinds of online portals are crucial for artists who may have limited mobility, or financial restrictions that prevent them from pursuing their artistic endeavours more publicly. There is a constant need for these kinds of initiatives, but also, there is a need to celebrate.
In San Francisco in March 2016 there was an auspicious event entitled Celebrating a Vision: Art and Disability. Events such as these need to be duplicated the world over but perhaps especially in countries such as Canada, where we have the resources to do so. The Province of Nova Scotia announced such an initiative entitled Celebrating Nova Scotian Artists with Disabilities. In B.C. there is the Society for Disability Arts and Culture. In Edmonton, Alberta there is the initiative called Celebrating Persons with Disabilities. In a previous article in this series of articles for Disability Credit Canada, I wrote about the push for a Canadians with Disabilities Act. It is my firm belief that one of the sections of such an act should be the strategies and funding to support and encourage artists with disabilities. While it is nice to be supported, artists require funding to realize their creative goals. The arts world is already saturated with so many people applying for arts grants that it is difficult for anyone to attain them. But, targeted funding is one way for the Canadian government to ensure that artists with disabilities can become full members of the Canadian artistic/creative community. As with other aspects of life, artists with disabilities are uninterested in hand-outs, but rather real opportunities that make a practical, meaningful difference in their lives.