Dance & Disability

Heidi Latsky Dance's "Gimp"; photo by Darial Sneed, courtesy of Dance/NYC

Heidi Latsky Dance’s “Gimp”; photo by Darial Sneed, courtesy of Dance/NYC

This year is the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Celebrating its passage, on July 8th Dance/NYC hosted a convening centered on their new report “Discovering Disability:  Data & NYC Dance.”    It was quite a learning experience for me.  Panelists included dancers, representatives of performance spaces, government officials, and educators.  Even though the discussions focused on dance, they provided a lens for how we can incorporate the disabled in the arts and other areas on a broader scale.

Over the last 25+ years, I’ve noticed a sea-change in how society views the disabled.  When I was growing up, it was socially acceptable to make jokes or disparaging remarks about people with physical or mental disabilities.  The disabled were often institutionalized, or kept apart, if not out of sight.  Today, families are fighting for their disabled members to live at home and to be as “mainstreamed” as possible.

Disability affects all ages and ethnicities; according to a report by the NYC Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, in New York City there are some 810,000 disabled people, about one-tenth of the population, of which 125,00 are in the workforce.  As the population ages, so will the number of disabled. The question is how will society allow them to fully participate?

At the heart of the day’s discussions was the concept of “ ‘Nothing Without Us:’ no policy should be formed without the full, direct involvement and vesting of members of the affected group.”

The keynote speaker was Simi Lintona writer, consultant and expert on the arts and disabilities, who, in 1971 was injured in a car accident that paralyzed her legs. She powerfully made the case for claiming disability as an identity, not as a medical condition. This theme was echoed throughout the conference, as was the motif of the role of disability in generating artistry.  Several of the dancers referred to themselves as “disabled artists” (not as “artists with disabilities”) for whom their wheelchairs or crutches were not tools, but a part of their bodies that need to be incorporated into the choreography.  Ms. Linton observed that the disabled are a transgressive presence on stage in much the same way that Alvin Ailey, Judith Jameson, and women actors were.  She pointed out the necessity for arts organizations to engage with disabled artists who have the “vantage point of the atypical.”

  Ms. Linton noted that the arts have been a testing ground for society’s most sacred beliefs and aspirations, and that the arts have a vital role in shaping democracy. 

She also spoke of needing to reshape society so the disabled have a place,  instead of “helping” the disabled “fit in.”

The dancer Heidi Latsky noted that while there are several dance companies that are physically integrated (having both disabled and nondisabled dancers), it can be very difficult for disabled dancers to get the support they need, not because people are being nasty, but because they are unsure of how to interact with the disabled.  She told of having attended “mainstream” dance classes where the instructors would critique and correct the other dancers, but not her, and how that didn’t help her develop as a dancer.

Other panelists discussed some of the key findings of the report, summarized below:

  • there are not enough facilities, especially outside Manhattan, which provide access for disabled workers, students, artists, audience members, etc.  It seems that New Jersey is ahead of the Empire State on this front; The Cultural Access Network Project assists New Jersey cultural arts organizations in making their programs and facilities accessible  
  • attention needs to be paid to universal design standards to improve accessibility
  • schools need to do a better job of both offering arts education, especially dance, to disabled students, and hiring disabled teachers and administrators.
  • dance companies need to improve the recruitment and training of both disabled and nondisabled staff in administrative, technical and artistic roles.

This is a very brief summary of the day’s discussions.  If you’d like to know more, take a look at the “Discovering Disability” report issued by dance/NYC, which also contains useful resources.

Kudos to Dance/NYC for having issued the report and organized the conference.  I’m looking forward to learning more on this topic.