How to create a more inclusive art community.
The arts belong to everyone – including people with disabilities. So, whether you’re an accessibility practitioner, theater or art student, or just part of a school or community theater looking to be more inclusive of those with disabilities, this blog will introduce you to the topic of disability inclusion in the arts and link out to useful KIT resources that can be helpful for anyone working to expand access to the arts for those with disabilities.
Have people with disabilities been included in the art communities before?
The quick answer – yes! But, not as much as we’d like to think.
A recent report by the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California indicates that less than 3% of characters in the 100 highest-earning movies of 2016 had disabilities. A 2018 report from the Ruderman Foundation showed that disability representation on television is equally underwhelming – of all of the TV characters that year with disabilities, only 12% were played by actors with disabilities.
Actors with disabilities are constantly demonstrating that they have the talent, skill, and ability to engage with non-disabled performers on stage and onscreen. Writers with disabilities are writing new plays based on their own life experiences. Directors with disabilities are taking the helm of companies who want their work to be creative responses to modern life. Designers with disabilities are producing sets that not only contribute to the storytelling but also enhance the audience experience.
But while actors with disabilities and disability inclusion in the arts are making great strides, we have to admit that there is still a long way to go. In fact, according to another recent report by the Ruderman Family Foundation, 95% of the time, actors without disabilities portray the roles of disabled actors when, in reality, many disabled actors can fill that role just as well – or even better!
Even if there is still a lot to work on, we can certainly see that big changes for art and disabilities are on the horizon. In a KIT blog posted in August of 2019, for instance, it was our pleasure to shine a well-deserved spotlight on The National Disability Theatre (NDT), whose mission is to raise the bar of inclusion in professional theaters. And when NDT founders Talleri McRae and Mickey Rowe came to our KIT Summer Intensive to tell us about their vision, we were all blown away! The changes they seek are long overdue and clearly life-transforming.
Then, we have Hollywood and big industry names like Paramount Pictures that fully support inclusion in the arts. NBCUniversal vowed to hold more auditions for actors with disabilities, and two prolific actresses, Taraji P. Henson & Octavia Spencer, have respectively made waves in the movement towards inclusion in the arts. Taraji was recently awarded the Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion, while Octavia has called for a more authentic on-screen representation of people with disabilities in various recent interviews.
Theater and the arts are vibrant social spaces where people gather to explore their humanity. Acting, visual arts, playwriting, singing, and dance help us expand our perspective and see the world in a new way. People – artists and audiences alike – gather inside these theaters to share an experience and (hopefully) leave with a better understanding of themselves and each other. So there is no justifiable reason why those with disabilities should be excluded from basking in the glow of a beautiful theater production, art exhibit, or from participating in plays, performances, or films.
How to create a disability-inclusive art space
Art is truly for everyone, but many people with disabilities face serious barriers if they want to participate in art and culture. So aside from physical improvements such as wheelchair access and wider seats/doors, how can you ensure that people with disabilities are included in your productions (and audiences with disabilities can enjoy your productions, too)?
Here are a few practical suggestions:
- Get the right inclusion training. The concept of diversity and inclusion is easy enough to understand, however, its application in the real world and in theater arts is fairly specific. This is where KIT can help you. From Online Training, including KIT Academy, our online professional development platform, to Training & Support Packages, our Inclusion Resources give you and your staff relevant, practical, and life-transforming inclusion training. Get in touch with KIT or drop by our services page for more information!
- Whether you’re running a community theater or looking for a way to expand your school’s performing arts programs, getting connected with arts organizations that champion inclusion can boost your current and future programs.
- Artists, art centers, universities, and organizations can also look to connect with the National Arts and Disability Center (NADC). From funding opportunities to consultation, the NADC’s mission is to promote the inclusion of audiences and artists with disabilities into all facets of the arts community.
- Finally, get suggestions & feedback from those who really matter – those with disabilities! Sometimes, we make inclusion harder than it should be. Do you have people on staff who are disabled? Do you have patrons with disabilities? Have you seen people in your audience with disabilities? Taking a few minutes of your time to talk to them and ask them how you can make your space more inclusive is a terrific first step.
Finally, what are the benefits that kids with disabilities receive from art-focused activities?
Art-focused activities can do wonders for kids with disabilities. When a child with a disability participates in the arts, it not only benefits them in terms of mental and physical health but also encourages interaction with others.
Additional benefits include:
- Enhancing communication and expression
- Promoting self-esteem and motivation to succeed.
- Developing a positive attitude, confidence, and building a strong sense of self
The great news is, the art community has finally started to catch on that intentionally including people with disabilities in the arts can be truly life-changing for everyone involved.
Before we wrap up this article, here’s a quick list of some recent films, documentaries, and Netflix shows featuring actors and actresses with disabilities that you might want to check out:
- Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution on Netflix is a 2020 documentary film that tackles the issues surrounding disability and depicts people with disabilities as able to live independently. It is written and co-produced by Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht. Barack and Michelle Obama serve as executive producers under their Higher Ground Productions banner.
- Speechless, a family sitcom that aired on ABC from 2016 – 2019. The show follows the DiMeo family, including teenager JJ, who has cerebral palsy played by American actor Micah Fowler who was born with cerebral palsy, as well.
- A is for Autism, a multi-awarded animated film that provides a brief glimpse into the world of autism with words, drawings, music, and animation all contributed by autistic people. As an animator, the film’s director Tim Webb recognized that some autistic children’s drawings share qualities that would make their drawings great for animation.
- Blindsight, also a multi-awarded documentary film released in 2006. It is set in the middle of the stunning landscapes of the Himalayas. The film tells the remarkable story of six blind Tibetan teenagers trying to climb Lhakpa Ri on the north side of Mount Everest
If you’re thinking of creating or improving upon art programs in your organization, now is the best time to get started!
Diversity and disability inclusion has incredible benefits for everyone involved in the theater and arts world. An accessible experience in any kind of art form can ignite imagination and empathy and turn a passive viewer into an active participant.
In addition – even today, audiences with disabilities are simply underserved, with many theaters or production companies who overlook disabled audience members because they’re simply not familiar with access solutions or unsure how to reach out to their disabled customers.
But when arts organizations and communities are trained properly in inclusion, they can open their doors just a little wider and create a positive impact in many lives.
Ready for life-transforming inclusion? We look forward to discussing options that best suit your organization’s needs. Contact KIT today!