September 2007 - November 2007: Issue 24


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Philadelphia To Celebrate Month-Long Festival Of Disability Arts And Culture

By Janet Salmons, Ph.D

Anyone who has put on a festival can attest to the need for advance planning. In the case of Independence Starts Here!: A Festival of Disability Arts and Culture, the process started over four years ago. While serving on the Mayor's Commission for People with Disability and working with the Theatre Alliance, Mimi Kenney Smith noticed a trend. She'd get calls from people in the cultural community who wanted information about making arts more inclusive and venues more accessible. At the same time, she'd get calls from people the in disability community about how they could get more involved in the arts. In 2003 she decided to bring everyone to the same table and started a group called Independence Starts Here!

Independence Starts Here! met bi-monthly to look at the challenges involved in increased access—from the perspectives of both communities—and to work together to find solutions. The group invited experienced people to come and speak and to work on specific issues, such as accessible websites. Around thirty people continued to meet and explore access more deeply. Getting beyond the obvious audience access issues like ramps, organizations started to look at barriers backstage and onstage.

Last year Smith noticed another trend: several major arts milestones were scheduled for the fall of 2007. A mural would be unveiled; a new accessible space for the Philadelphia Theater Company would open. She thought, why not link these events and celebrate the work of Independence Starts Here! by having a festival? The group was receptive, and as they told their friends, grassroots community support and the list of participants started to grow. Organizations were offered various ways to participate: involving artists with disabilities or showing their work; presenting art that reflects the experience of disability, whether or not the artists are disabled; and offering new or improved accessibility.

As the planners started to look at the reality of a fully accessible event in multiple venues, they realized that the usual ways of getting things done would not be adequate. In each case, they turned the solutions for access to the Festival into the groundwork for long-term access. One challenge emerged when it became clear that the costs of audio description, captioning, etc. would be prohibitive. The solution? Offer training to volunteers from participating cultural organizations. How could Braille programs be created for multiple events with only four proofreaders in the city? Festival planners are working with organizations to get the materials on their computers, so people can download and use their own Braille printers. If it works for the Festival and in Philadelphia, they will look at ways to extend such training and communications strategies to other organizations in Pennsylvania. To accomplish these goals, broad volunteer involvement has been essential.

A common question related to festivals of disabled arts is: do they increase visibility and opportunities for artists with disabilities? Or, do they further isolate artists with disabilities from mainstream cultural life? Do they serve to assuage guilt about not including actors with disabilities in main season plays? In Philadelphia the first seems to be the case. Smith observed that when people see performances, they get ideas about what is possible. Also, when people work together on a festival, they develop relationships that open new doors. Ongoing list sharing will foster continued exchange between the cultural and disability communities, so theatres will have contact information for artists they may want to work with beyond the Festival. The Independence Starts Here! group will continue to meet, and as Smith observes, "When people talk about the issues in an ongoing forum, minds are changed."

Independence Starts Here! started as a celebration of the past cooperation of the cultural and disabilities communities. It is becoming a springboard for the future, reaching toward new levels of access to the arts in the Greater Philadelphia area.


About The Philadelphia Festival

Independence Starts Here!: A Festival of Disability Arts and Culture begins on October 18 with an Opening Celebration at the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. The celebration will be introduced by Honorary Co-Chair Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, founder of VSA arts. It will be emceed by Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin and will feature nationally and internationally known artists with disabilities. The Festival will close on November 20 with the dedication of a major new mural on the theme "Independence Starts Here." The mural will be organized by the internationally-acclaimed Philadelphia Mural Arts Commission and will feature the participation of Philadelphians with disabilities.

In between these two events, the Festival will include performances of theatre, music and dance; readings of poetry, plays and other literary arts; historical, cultural and visual art exhibits; lectures; workshops; films and other art projects produced or presented by cultural and disability organizations in Greater Philadelphia.

The goals of the Festival are:

The Festival is intended to provide a host of benefits for organizational participants during and after its run. They include:

For more information contact:
Mimi Kenney Smith
Executive Artistic Director
VSA arts of Pennsylvania
2030 Sansom Street, Third Floor
Philadelphia PA 19103
Michael Norris
Executive Director
Art-Reach, Inc.
1819 JFK Blvd. Suite 200
Philadelphia PA 19103
For tickets go to:

The Festival Phenomenon: Some Thoughts From Petra Kuppers

Interviewed by Paul Kahn

Petra Kuppers is an internationally known authority on disability arts and culture.

why do you think there are currently so many disability arts festivals occurring throughout the world?
I think that the rise in disability arts festivals is a result of the ongoing labor of disabled artists across the globe: we are proud in who we are, and use our cultural identification as a staging ground for our art practice.
is there something about the times in which we live that has led to their proliferation?
In culturally repressive times, art has always bloomed, and has claimed more radical territory. We live in wartimes, and I think it is an awareness of the problems with "business as usual" that creates pockets of opportunity and desire to come together on different grounds.
Do you think these festivals do a disservice by isolating us further?
I do not see these disability arts festivals as isolating events, as
places to crawl into ourselves. Instead, I see them as places where respect for difference can be rehearsed: not just respect for disability's difference, but a wider cultural sensitivity that is more and more lacking in the mainstream cultural arena.
Do you see these festivals as ends in themselves? Or, are they more important as staging grounds for launching commercially successful careers?
You are asking me if festivals are good places to launch careers from: yes, of course. They offer exposure and an audience. But money is never easily made in the arts, as we all know.
Do they have other values?
The festivals are particularly useful for those of us who want to develop our own aesthetic, who want to move away from stereotypes of disabled people and the kinds of stories associated with this label. I think that disability culture festivals are much more open to experimentation than the mainstream is. That freedom to find one's own voice, or body, or vision, or touch, or words, in conjunction with other disabled artists, is what makes our festivals so generative.