Ask Dr. Olivia Raynor, director of UCLA’s National Arts and Disability Center, NADC, about the biggest decision they made when founding the center and she’ll tell you about something they didn’t do. “One of the most important decisions we made was to exclude art therapy and the use of the arts for rehabilitation purposes as part of the scope of our work,” says Raynor. In narrowing their scope, the NADC and its founders were able to focus on disability culture’s place in the arts instead of the other way around, a distinction that proved vital to effectively carry out the mission of NADC.
The NADC is an effort of UCLA’s Tarjan Center, one of the 67 University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, UCEDDs, in the country. First authorized by John F. Kennedy in 1963, the UCEDDs are institutions created specifically for the promotion of “independence, productivity, and inclusion of people with developmental disabilities in their communities,” according to the Tarjan Center website.
In 1994, a group of artists with disabilities came to the Tarjan Center with a request for “training and resources… that would support daring visibility to their work and advance career opportunities.” Early influential board members included artistic director Rod Lathim; writer and performer Victoria Ann Lewis who created the Other Voices Project, a writing workshop to promote artists with disabilities; dancer Judith Smith, artistic director and founder of the AXIS Dance Company which specializes in physically integrated dance; and Pamela Kay Walker, author of Moving Over the Edge, Artists with Disabilities Take the Leap, a book about the disability activism and arts culture in the San Francisco Bay area during the 1980s.
Since its inception, the NADC has not only supported those with disabilities in the arts, but has worked to encourage others to do the same. Most recently, the NADC finished their 12 year partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts to create the Statewide Forums on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities. The NADC has put infrastructures in place for state art agencies to form partnerships and create forums to “identify the challenges and opportunities for people with disabilities pursuing employment in the arts,” in 28 states.
Katherine Hayward, the Statewide Forums Project Director and Director of Research and Evaluation for the NADC and Tarjan, worked directly with each state to provide them with the training and resources necessary to produce their respective forums. Hayward finds the intersection of disability culture and the arts to be especially important because of the portrayals of people with disabilities in the media. “Since art and media help tell our history through what is included or not included and how the message is framed, it is important that a variety of views and stories be shared through various art forms. This includes the voice, images, and perspectives of artists with disabilities.”
Her assistance included partnership building strategies, methods of modeling accessibility, and fostering interstate communication. Hayward believes the latter to be an invaluable outcome of the initiative, explaining, “one of the greatest outcomes from this work has been the development of a national peer support network for intentional work with artists with disabilities.”
Internally, one of the most important components of the NADC has been their online presence. Though Raynor points out that the center was an early adopter of the internet, as they held an online international conference about arts and disabilities even in the 90s, Hayward expands on this, detailing their growth: “We have always realized the power of the Internet, [and] offer training more on a virtual basis through webinars. Our resources and trainings have become more focused based on needs identified over the years and the rapid growth of resources available online.” The NADC website works as a showcase for associated artists through the Wall of Art, a page that allows viewers to browse works of art and learn about the artists who create them. The site includes artists that have been funded by NADC’s Arts and Technical Assistance grants, but also allows outside submission directly from artists interested in showing their work. Additionally, the site is a resource for the artists themselves, who can use it to find the resources and tools available in their state.
Another one of the NADC’s flagship initiatives is the California Arts Council partnership to create the Arts and Accessibility Technical Assistance program. The program provides grants to worthy arts organizations and artists, aiding the organizations with programmatic and physical accessibility and creating support and training opportunities for the artists. Over 100 arts organizations and 55 artists have been supported by the grant since 2001. These programs and artists are reached out to via a variety of channels, including the NADC website, listservs, social media, and direct contact in the form of live presentations and trainings.
Looking to the future, Hayward says that the NADC’s main goal is to continue evolving and working with agencies at the national level to ensure the inclusion of artists with disabilities. “I see a key role of the NADC as connectors to information, resources, and potential mentoring relationships.”
She continues by explaining the effect she’s seen this role have on disability and the arts, both as individual cultures and how they fit together into one, the founding focus of NADC always remaining at the forefront.
“Over the years, it is encouraging to hear more and more discussion about arts and disability. It is even more encouraging as the discussion becomes more focused on the artists first, and disability mainly in terms of ensuring access and accommodations. Through our work I have seen a rise in the exposure of truly talented artists, who happen to have disability. Arts agencies have become more intentional in their outreach to artists with disabilities and created policies and infrastructures that create a welcoming environment to serve all artists.”