From Insight to Innovation: Art and Accessibility in the West

Deborah B. Lewis

The Americans with Disabilities Act has been an important piece of legislation, opening doors to opportunities and enabling people with disabilities to gain access to employment, homes and quality of life. Since the passing of the ADA in 1990, the National Endowment for the Arts has been holding conferences with regional arts organizations to encourage access to the arts. In December 2000, the Western States Federation and the NEA created a conference for the western region with support from the Ethel Louise Armstrong Foundation and the Pacific Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center.

The overall theme of the conference was, "From Insight to Innovation: Art and Accessibility in the West." This theme encouraged the attendees to explore all aspects of the ADA — from the law itself and the survey an organization must do to determine the status of its physical and programmatic access, to examples of best practices in access to theaters, arts centers, and museums. They explored innovative ways to create access to the arts by participating in workshops held by artists with disabilities including demonstrations of theatrical sign interpreting and audio description.

Sessions were also held on networking and funding. Funding is crucial if these organizations are to become accessible in the short and long run. Government funds have been available on a limited basis, but foundations and corporations have been less forthcoming with funding for access. The importance of good research and foundation support was emphasized as was considerations of access into the capital improvement campaigns of arts organizations.

The conference ended with each arts council proposing an action plan for access to the arts in their state. These plans were complete and resourceful. They created partnerships and provided more programmatic as well as physical access to the arts for audiences and artists with disabilities. It was exciting to see the enthusiasm the conference inspired in arts councils in the region. It will be even more exciting to see the actual work proceed.

Deborah B. Lewis is executive director, Ethel Louise Armstrong Foundation.

The essay “Whose Eye Level?” by John Killacky (in this issue) was first presented as a talk at From Insight to Innovation.