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Last year my friend and esteemed colleague Judy Chalmer of VSA Vermont told me about an exciting project she and others were  planning.  The project was to produce an exhibit of juried artwork by Vermont artists with disabilities.  That kind of exhibit in and of itself sounds big, but it was the overarching process of the show that took on a life of its own.  Immediately upon hearing about it, I jumped in and said YES!… and I want to be involved.  Then I took a breath and said could I apply to be in this show?  Judy, of course, said yes to that and off we went.

Over the course of the spring and summer, we had some conversations about the process of developing the exhibit.  A title was selected that fit so perfectly — Engage. The engagement aspect speaks to all of the hard work that went into finding venues, planning for all kinds of accommodations and disability access, and making this event a real cultural event that everyone  would want to come to.

A Call to Artists went out in August, and I became more involved with some of the planning.  First, I asked Judy to come on to my public access TV show to talk about Engage and the call to artists.  Judy and I had many, many more conversations about the exhibit which always seem to inspire both of us.  As part of the Call to Artists, VSA recognized that one of the barriers to artists with disabilities is that of not having a digital portfolio.  I’ve struggled with that myself.  The economic reality of having my artwork digitally photographed in a high quality manner in time to submit to a jury seems nearly impossible for me.  And many others as well.  So one of the accommodations was that VSA set up a day for artist to come have their work photographed at no cost to the artist.  We all received  a CD of our work, and a CD was also sent to the jury.  Artists were also asked to fill out an application which was available in a variety of accessible formats anyone could want.  It was such an easy process to follow for me.

However, it was not without fear and trepidation that I went forth and applied to the jury.  I’ve never participated in a juried show and I had no idea what to expect.  So when I made my appointment to have my work photographed, I asked about the process.  Paul Gruhler, the show curator, was very warm and welcoming in his explanations.  But I knew that this was a selection process and there were no guarantees that any of my work would be selected.  So I had my work photographed, I filled out the online application, and said a few prayers.  Then I made a deep commitment to myself that no matter what happened with my application, I would support this show in whatever means I could.

Soon after I submitted my application Judy asked me to attend an audio description training.  The concept of audio description was not new to me.  As a blind person, I’ve enjoyed audio description of movies many times.  But audio description for an art exhibit was new and intriguing.  I’ve visited art galleries and shows with an artist friend or 2 and they have done a fair job of describing works to me, and artists themselves often love describing their work as well, but to an average non-artist person, I’m sure the task would seem rather daunting.

This training was a 3 day event.  The first day was to introduce the concept to as many local arts organizations as would be interested.  The plan was to get people thinking about accessibility in their own galleries and show rooms.  One of the missions of Engage is to be a model for communities on how to create a truly universally accessible art show.  I was asked to speak as part of a panel of blind and visually impaired guests on what our experiences with the arts has been like, the accessibility and what worked and didn’t work for us.  We were a panel of 4 with very diverse views and experiences.  Some had not been interested in the arts, but had experienced some audio description, some had a deeper interest in the arts and not only enjoyed good experiences with the audio description, but we were hungry for more conversation about the arts.  So we gave our local arts organizations much to think about, most likely opening their eyes to the fact that some of us blind folks would like to know what is in their gallery, and have more conversations about the arts.

The following 2 days were focused on training for a small group of volunteers who met with our fantastic trainer Celia Hughes from VSA in Austin, Texas.  I served as the eager tester for the 5 women who wanted to be describers for Engage.  I gained quite a lot of wisdom in the nuts and bolts of how to do description of pieces of art, and I’ve begun to translate that on to my friends as we venture into various galleries and exhibits.

The other benefit for me was that much of the training was about practicing those core skills that Celia was teaching and that meant there were lots of images of well-known works of art to describe.  Having 5 people practicing their skills on me, with all this artwork was a little like an all-you-can-eat buffet, I wanted more and more, until I was so full I couldn’t take in anymore.  It was an inspiring 3 days for all of us and for different reasons.  I came away feeling very inspired to help others learn these skills, and really excited about how arts organizations are opening up to the concept of accessibility in such incredibly welcoming ways.

A week later, I found myself with Judy Chalmer on an audio described tour of the Shelburne Museum, a place that I’d never been before.  The Museum was new to audio description and had partnered with a group of blind consumers to create a few tours that were focused on specific collections and aspects to the Museum.  Shelburne Museum is quite large and spread out over a lovely landscape.  Imagine 25 blind and visually impaired folks with a few sighted assistants grouped together with a handful of Museum staffers as our guides.  I must say, I was impressed by the staff’s endurance.  By the end of the afternoon, many of us were feeling a bit overwhelmed, but pleased with the tour and all of the efforts the staff had made to create accessibility.  Interesting to note that I returned a week later to the museum with one friend and spent the day touring by ourselves and had a completely different and even more inspiring experience.

Over the course of the next 4 and a half months, I continued to have conversations with Judy Chalmer and Paul Gruhler, and many others about Engage.  I was deeply influence by the trainings and my visits to galleries and museums and I began to think about how I could support accessibility by becoming an accessibility consultant.  I rather hesitantly approached Judy about this notion, and was met with enthusiastic support.  This is one of those byproducts of Engage that was not foreseen, nor planned for, but meant to be,.

In November I was informed that a piece of my artwork had been selected by the jury for the Engage Exhibit.  Needless to say, I was over the moon about that.  Paul also reminded me at the time that the jury was a panel of artists who were given copies of the digital images we submitted, but not given our names, disability information, or any personal data.  These selections were made solely on the merits of our work.

This is a concept that I really want to emphasize and fully explain its true meaning.  I’m always redirecting my perceptions to take a broader view, look at the positive side and not focus on a sense of victimhood.  But no one living with a disability can escape the frustration of being misunderstood or undervalued in this world.  We have the power within ourselves to redirect that, but we are constantly exposed to these misperceptions.  So we walk a thin line to be part of our communities, who don’t always see the value we offer.  This is the paradox we deal with daily.

As people with disabilities, we are judged by our conditions, the perceptions of limitations and our society’s definition of what normal is.  Many of us somehow find our way through life, working through these misperceptions, as well as our own self misperceptions.  Hopefully we can come to create our identity from a deeper more heart-centered place, rather than the perceptions of limitation.  That makes all the difference in daring to dream, daring to create goals and intentions for ourselves and what we want our lives to be like.  Whether the world around us sees our value and strength is a constant question.

So for the first time in my life, here was an opportunity to put my work out into the world, without the attachment of limiting perceptions.  At first I didn’t quite get that.  It was such a foreign concept to me that it took a while to sink in.  It was not until well after I found out that the jury had accepted my work, that I really got that they accepted my work because it was good and worthy to be in the exhibit, not because I was a nice blind lady.  This has been a huge shift for me, and I think, for many of our Engage artists as well.  We can truly say that we have broken through a barrier.  And I think the flood gates are open now, and arts organizations as well as the art-loving public are beginning to truly see us and the value we hold for the community.

Within Engage, we find the paradoxes of disability intersecting in the most creative and lovely ways.  We’ve created a process that offers accessibility for everyone without labels and barriers, and a way for the greater community to engage with us beyond the conversation of limitation.  From start to finish the process of creating this show, has been truly engaging.  It absolutely lives up to its name.

To listen to VSA Vermont’s Engage audio tour from anywhere, dial 802-622-3084. Listen to the instructions. A complete list of stop numbers is available and can be downloaded in large print format (PDFMicrosoft Word) as well.

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