Now is the Time for Disabled Artists to Flourish

Stevie Wonder, Marlee Matlin, Peter Dinklage, and Chuck Close are names many are familiar with. They are exceptional artists, and they are exceptions to the general pattern of a cultural landscape that does not include disabled artists. There are many more talented people out there, people who have faced discrimination from kindergarten through conservatory training; from summer intensives to graduate programs in the arts; from auditions to on-the-job accommodations.

Bold leadership is needed to reverse this entrenched pattern of exclusion. It is time for all of us to advance a cultural ecosystem that expressly and equitably includes the disability community. It is time to extend work by generations of artists, activists, and academics committed to this community and to put disability front and center as a positive artistic and generative force. It is time for disabled artists to flourish.

This is the call to action issued by the organization I lead, Dance/NYC, in its two latest reports, Disability.Dance.Artistry. and Discovering Disability: Data and NYC Dance. The research expands the narrative on disability and the arts far beyond their therapeutic benefits. By showing how work made by and with disabled artists elevates the arts' creative and progressive potential, it makes the case for removing systemic barriers and for working with disabled artists from the public school classroom to the professional stage.

This is a call for action that should resonate with every cultural worker and supporter. As examples, artists and institutions may advance innovation, excellence, and impact by expanding art making with disabled artists and improving communications, physical, and programmatic access.

For present and future arts educators, there are opportunities for growing inclusive classrooms and expanding career readiness for disabled students, strengthening the pipeline for professional artists.

For grant makers, investing in disabled artists would have an exponential benefit for the future of the creative sector and society at large. Grant making in the arts can be optimized by engaging disabled people in fund development.

While leadership at all levels of government is critical, the opportunity for advancing local policy is particularly ripe because New York City's Department of Cultural Affairs is undertaking a cultural planning process mandated by the City Council. There are both practical and bold ways to address disability through the planning, ranging from employing a disability expert and mining interagency opportunities to laying the groundwork for a global center for disability arts. Such a center could significantly evolve New York's role both as a cultural capital and a beacon for civil rights.

To accelerate the City's cultural planning, I join colleagues from the arts and disability communities in advocating the establishment of a local network focused on disability matters, as has been successfully modeled elsewhere (See, for example, the Cultural Access Network Project in New Jersey). This network of New Yorkers could serve as an ally and partner to the Department of Cultural Affairs now and going forward in nurturing disabled artists and helping them to flourish.

By including cross-sector and interagency representation and service organizations like Dance/NYC, as well as disabled artists, the network could at the same time realize local impact and achieve scale. Its activities could intersect with State and Federal government and drive an international conversation about disability arts that is urgently needed.

Without explicitly addressing usability and the meaningful participation of disabled people through the planning process and implementation, the City cannot realize an equitable cultural policy and ensure that disabled artists flourish.

As a proud ally of disabled artists, I hope you will join me in heeding this call to action.