“Do people have expectations of you?”
It was that direct question from a friend that stunned award-winning singer-songwriter Justin Hines many years ago. And, as he told the 150 people who attended H’art School’s Able Artists 2012 on November 21st, he didn’t have a quick answer for it. Instead, he had to reflect on the meaning of expectation and the role it played in his life.
Some teachers expected him to focus on his disability because Hines has rare Larsen’s Syndrome, a congenital joint condition that confines him to a wheelchair. But his parents expected him to focus on his talents and passions. They simply expected more. And that made all the difference.
Every year, H’art School’s Able Artists forum puts the spotlight on the work and insights of professional artists with disabilities. This year’s theme was “Expect More”. The speaker line-up included:
- Award-winning singer/songwriter Justin Hines;
- Renata Soutter, Shara Weaver, Jess Huggett and Liz Winkelaar of Ottawa’s Propeller Dance, an organization providing dance programming to children, youth and adults with and without disability;
- Menka Nagrani of Montreal’s Les Production des Pieds des Mains, an integrated ballet group;
- Melissa Addison-Webster, a media artist and associate of Toronto’s Picasso Pro, a group that focuses on the integration of artists with disabilities and Deaf artists in the performing and media arts;
- Barb Macdougall, a Kingston musician born without sight;
- Don King, the co-founder of Different Strokes Art Group in Kingston; and
- Kathyrn MacKay, 1000 Islands Playhouse director with over 10 years of experience working with adults with intellectual disability and now the artistic director of The Box at H’art School.
Through the forum, H’art School strives to raise awareness of the value of the practice and enjoyment of the arts by people with disability.
Recently, The Canada Council for the Arts recognized that Deaf and disability arts are important evolving sectors and art practices in the Canadian arts ecology, to be supported, promoted and advanced. This is to ensure that their diverse identities, perspectives, languages, cultures and artistic practices are recognized, experienced and valued, and that their contributions enrich the arts in Canada.
Why does it need to be advanced? The Canada Council recently completed a consultation process and the feedback indicates that “Deaf Canadians and Canadians with disabilities, including audiences, artists and arts professionals alike, are excluded from participating and engaging in the arts, because of limited accessible venues, lack of sign language and interpretation, and lack of adaptive services like visual description, tactile tours, and content offered in sign language or alternate formats”. This consultations suggest exclusion extends to the inaccessibility of arts funding.
Artists often feel as though they have to take on the job of convincing and educating funders about disability arts and Deaf culture. They “fear that their work will not be assessed fairly, as standard notions of artistic excellence categorically and historically have excluded disability artists and disability arts”. From their experience, “disability is generally not recognized as an urgent or priority equity issue in arts organizations and funding agencies”.
There is an opportunity here for Kingston, if we will just seize it. Policy makers and arts organizations need to recognize we all are diminished when anyone is excluded from participation in the arts. We need to evolve the notion of excellence, to provide access to qualified and appropriate arts training for people facing barriers, to break down barriers, to consider our funding approach, and to encourage the widest possible participation in the arts.
Katherine Porter, Executive Director