It's time for a new understanding of disability, especially in the arts

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October 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). July 2015 marked the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

It is important to honor these anniversaries by acknowledging progress made to address accessibility gaps for disabled people.

However, we as a society must also realize there is still much work to be done in every sector—including my field of expertise, the arts and culture.

It’s been seven decades since the first NDEAM and more than two decades since the ADA’s passage. It is time for everyone to catch up with the disability rights movement in redefining terms. In particular, we must reject understanding disability merely in terms of medical significance. This enduring approach marginalizes disabled people by overemphasizing their need for technical solutions and undervaluing their contributions.

Only by understanding disability as a marker for identity and not as medical condition can we work toward a future where disabled artists truly flourish.

In the arts and culture realm it frequently limits the narrative on disability to the arts’ therapeutic benefits.

Only by understanding disability as a marker for identity and not as medical condition can we work toward a future where disabled artists truly flourish.

It is also a time to adopt the disability rights concept “nothing without us”—ensuring that no practice be established without the direct involvement of the affected group.

I urge my colleagues and supporters of the arts to insist on a creative landscape made and experienced with the disability community.

That’s why the organization I run, Dance/NYC, is putting the message—“nothing without disabled artists”—into practice.

It has just released foundational research, Discovering Disability: Data and NYC Dance, which uses existing quantitative data from city, state, and federal agencies and service providers.

What is most striking about this research is the scarcity of disabled artists who appear in the data, underscoring patterns of exclusion. The findings also suggest many opportunities for addressing inequities—from enhancing instruction for disabled public school children and growing engagement with disabled audiences to improving cultural facilities. According to one source, a staggering 73% of 895 local dance facilities have not indicated their compliance with ADA requirements for physical accessibility.

By removing systemic barriers to access and by working with disabled artists from the classroom to the stage, the arts and culture sector can advance its priorities to achieve artistic excellence and innovation.

Disability, as a marker for identity, can even become an aesthetic or a lens to evolve the practice of art making—creation generated by and with disabled artists. Through artistry by and with disabled artists, the sector can also better realize its potential as a progressive force—reciprocally linked to and shaping society.

For these reasons, investment in the education, development, and presenting of disabled artists would have an exponential benefit for the future of the creative sector and society at large.

Ultimately, while Dance/NYC is mission-focused on discipline (dance) and geography (the metropolitan New York City area), the issues I am raising are really arts- and culture-wide and exist on national and international stages.

There is work for everyone in the creative sector to do to advance equity work with disabled people. There is a need not only for new and expanded financial and in-kind investment in the arts—from program and capital awards to technical assistance—but also for internal planning, recruitment, and operations. For artists and companies, there are opportunities for improved management, as well as educational and creative practice.

Dance, and the wider creative economy, must push beyond the ADA and adopt a truer accessibility philosophy.

It is time to put “nothing without us” into practice and include disabled people in our everyday work and the making of art.