Banner collage that features of a photo of a dynamic theater troupe in various poses, from jumping in the air to bending down with a cane to sitting in a wheelchair

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that the survival and design strategies that serve Disabled populations can actually serve everyone. These are strategies such as working from home, being vigilant about germs, pacing yourself, and the use of digital systems to organize and communicate remotely.

So we must also pay attention to lessons and leadership of the stories, artwork, innovations, and transformations that come from art, culture and design that is Disabled-centered and -empowered. The problem is by no means a lack of Disabled artists. The challenge is a consistent lack of access, undervaluing the contributions, and under-resourcing Disabled populations.

Claudia Alick

Author Claudia Alick

Historically, Disabled artists have not received funding on the same levels as Abled artists and institutions. Some foundations are rapidly working to fill in this long-term lack of recognition, and support, for the Disabled community. For example, in 2019, Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation and Rich Besser of the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation Community announced the Presidents’ Council on Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy. For the Chronicle of Philanthropy, they wrote, “The facts are clear: Living with a disability means facing yet another form of inequality that intersects with everything philanthropies do, including issues as disparate as poverty alleviation, voting rights, criminal justice, and access to quality health care. Issues of disability affect people of every race, class, and gender identity, which means that ignoring those issues only compounds structural racism and class and gender discrimination.”

In particular, foundations and donors, working in collaboration with grantees and artists from the Disabled community, can actually advance innovation in pop culture and the performing arts grantmaking.

As an artist, director, producer, justice advocate, fundraiser, and fund distributor, I have centered the Disabled community in my design aesthetic throughout my professional career. But in 2009, I went from a Disability rights advocate to a member of the community. I’d been hired at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) and decided to make ACCESS one of the three pillars of my programming. I booked several wheelchair dance troupes and raised support from the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) with a grant designed to support accessibility for presenters. With these funds, I was able to build an accessible stage with a ramp. Shortly after construction was scheduled to begin, I was struck with an illness that gave me spasmodic muscles, difficulty breathing and moving, and chronic pain. Suddenly, I needed the ramp for my own access.

Over the next few years, as a Disabled producer, I found I would often instinctively solve a problem before it became an access barrier. For instance, before an actor came on campus I would anticipate physical barriers. When doing several million dollar construction projects, I was able to make interventionist observations that saved us large amounts of money by catching accessibility tools like door buttons missing on blueprints. My unique perspective as a disabled producer was valuable to OSF and all the future institutions I collaborated with.

In 2018, the Oregon-based Collins Foundation launched an initiative intended to address disparities in funding for marginalized and underserved communities. Their goal was to build the capacity of a network of small and emerging culturally specific organizations led by people of color, including LGBTQ people of color, people of color with disabilities, and people of color who are immigrants or refugees.

For the first time in their multi-decade history, they were advised by community leaders who co-designed the application process, identified potential applicants, and selected organizations for funding. Led by Tonisha Toler, the advisors consisted of myself, Sareli Beltran, Elea Chang, Cecilia Giron, Abdi Mohamed, Carlee Smith, and Abel Valladares. This group was all BIPOC, majority Disabled and/or LGTBQ, and mixed mothers, immigrants, and multilingual, with extensive leadership experience in Oregon, and from the types of organizations the foundation wanted to support.

“My value did not feel tied to what I produced, which planted a seed of hope because maybe, just maybe, other philanthropies could learn from them and build BIPOC committees like ours. I felt like my role as an individual mattered at every phase and wished more collaborative projects functioned this way.”
This initiative resulted in accessibility for all our different language and physical needs. No applicant or advisor had to advocate for a need that had been neglected, and so they could focus on the creative task of their projects. For example, the venue we held interviews in–OPENHAUS Co-working space–was co-run by a Disabled, queer Black woman and every aspect of the design welcomed and supported our applicants. The advisory group made schedules that allowed for healthy start and end times by incorporating “Crip Time”, more thoughtful and accessible scheduling for multiple bodies and needs. This resulted in better engagement from the advisors and eliminated access issues for applicants. It was an immensely productive process and resulted in new relationships, refined design, and broader collaborations. It took longer in planning and implementation. But it was necessary and worth it.

“One of the many things that I appreciated working with The Collins Foundation was that Tonisha saw me and recognized the accommodations my body, mind, and spirit required, without ever once demonstrating nervousness or projecting an ableist attitude,” Beltran comments. “My value did not feel tied to what I produced, which planted a seed of hope because maybe, just maybe, other philanthropies could learn from them and build BIPOC committees like ours. I felt like my role as an individual mattered at every phase and wished more collaborative projects functioned this way. I know this is because those in the design team understood that value and dignity for lived experience and nondominant culture perspectives had to be at the foundation of this project.”

In Ford Foundation’s Senior Fellow Judith Heumann’s report, “Road Map for Inclusion: Changing the Face of Disability in Inclusion,” she called for philanthropy and the nonprofit and entertainment industries to begin more explicit incorporation of the Disabled community. Among the recommendations:

  • Institutions and organizations expand their definitions of “diversity” to include disabled people needs and perspectives
  • Operationalize, share learnings, and encourage others to do the same.
  • All organizations (funders, studios, advocacy organizations, industry organizations) explicitly include disabled communities in their published diversity statements.
  • Commit to establishing benchmarks, setting goals, and measuring progress regularly for ALL categories of diversity.

If you are not centering anti-racism you are not serving the disabled Black people in the organization. If you are not centering dismantling hetero-sexism you are setting up disabled LGTBQI folx in the organization for abelist experiences. An intersectional lens is paramount.

This crisis has highlighted the ways the Disabled community is a source of innovation for our work. We must evolve our philanthropic processes, especially in philanthropy, to collaborate and learn from this community over the long term. For when Disabled design is centered and valued, we will innovate for a post-pandemic age of true inclusion.

Claudia Alick

Claudia Alick is a cultural producer, performer, and inclusion expert. Named in 2009 by American Theatre magazine as one of the 25 artists who will shape American theater in the next 25 years, Alick has served as the founding Artistic Director of Smokin' Word Productions, is a New York Neo-Futurist alum, published playwright, recipient of NYC Fresh Fruit directing award, was aTedXFargo speaker, won the 2014 Lilla Jewel Award for Women Artists, and has been featured on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. As a community producer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for 10 years, she produced The Every 28 Hours Plays, The Green Show, The Daedalus Project, and OSF Open Mics, as well as producing/directing audio-plays including the Grammy-nominated Hamlet. Her personal projects include her podcast “Hold On Wait for It,” vlog “This Week in Cultural Appropriation,” StreetPoetry, and one-person show Fill in the Blank, which explores disability and the medical industry. Claudia served on Oregon Arts Leaders in Inclusion, the steering committee of The Ghostlight Project, and the steering committee for Black Theater Commons. She is currently managing content with the Crew Revolution black female leadership, serves as co-president of the board of the Network of Ensemble Theater, collaborates on Unsettling Dramaturgy (crip and indigenous international digital colloquium), and is on the advisory councils for the National Disability Theater, Howlround, and NW Arts Streaming Hub. She is founding executive producer of the transmedia social justice company Calling Up, whose projects include Producing in Pandemic, The Justice Quilt, We Charge Genocide TV, co-artistic direction of the Fury Factory Festival BUILD convening, and consulting and advising funders and companies around the country.