From the Desk Of…an artist

Tan Nguyen, Tutor
Disability Support Services
Gulf Coast Community College

As an artist and art major myself, this article, written in the guardian.co.uk Theater Blog, struck a personal cord with me.

As a once upon a time student here at GCCC, I started and finished my A.A. here as a Pre-Art major. As a quadriplegic, life as an artist was difficult at times; often physical limitations forced me to think outside the box in order to create projects that my fellow classmates only had to worry about what was literally in the box. Still, I used an aid to help me with the physical aspects of creating my art — she acted as the hands to my idea. The classrooms and the program was always open to me, encouraged me, supported me, throughout my time here.

In truth, my experience here at GCCC was such a good and positive one and at just a community college level, that it never occured to me that the same opportunities I had here wouldn’t also be offered at the University level. I mean, afterall, its a larger school with more funding, why wouldn’t the program be just as accessible.

That wasn’t the case when I toured the Arts Department at a Florida university. In fact, I felt inferior, closed in, and worse yet, I was made to feel that having me in the program was cumbersome, a hassel, and like there were enough artists out there in the world that the program wasn’t worried about whether little ole me ever became a part of their world. Perhaps one day I will go into it all in detail here, but for now, what is important is the impact that this visit had on me and my life in the arts.

I came home after that visit, both to my hometown and to GCCC, my home away from home. My wife and I proceeded to do research, sure that the treatment I received while visiting the university was an isolated case. We talked to other schools. We read articles in newspapers, journals, on the internet, in blogs. We talked to the professors in the Visual and Performing Arts department at GCCC. And what we found was…disheartening.

Most Universities have been able to get away with not having fully accessible buildings, and subsequently programs, in the arts for several reasons. Two of the most damning of these reasons meant fighting against a system so much bigger than me…in all, it just seemed hopeless. For one reason, many of the great universities boasting amazing art programs are old…really old. Like the university I toured, many have their art programs housed in buildings protected by historical preservation. While they have to provide a few accessibility options like automatic opening doors, they didn’t have to provide rooms that were large enough to fit a wheelchair accessible desk let alone fit my chair. Quite literally, one of the life drawing classes I toured at the university was held in a tourrette — a round room with no desks at all and space only large enough for students to sit on small stools lining along the wall and surrounding a stage set for a model in the center of the room. For me to participate in the class, I would have had to sit outside the doorway in the hall, like a peeping tom leacherously waiting to draw a glimpse of a model being oggled at by “real” art students.

A second reason for the inaccessibility…well, is it really hard after my account thus far to figure out why? There just aren’t as many of us disabled people out there attending school for the arts. The department chair of the university’s art department told me that in all her years of working at the university there had only been one other student to her knowledge that had been as disabled as myself in the program. Though the truth of it was, he was a paraplegic with full use of his upper body and a much smaller wheelchair than my own electric wheelchair. She also told me this as my wife helped push my electric wheelchair up a steep, gravel-lined hill that was the driveway to where the second life drawing class I would be taking as an art major there was held, housed inside of a converted, and again historically protected, church. My chair barely made the incline…my wife barely made it without choking the nice lady incomprehensibly making it clear to us that the university was not the school for me.

But if art is the thing that is created from inspiration, my life should be a font of it, should it not? Disability is as much a living breathing entity as we are. We write laws about it. We protect it. We protect those individuals with it. We define and don’t define ourselves by it. We create technology for it and because of it. We design homes and buildings and cars to accommodate it.

And we are up in arms when we see able-bodied actors playing the roles of handicapped individuals when handicapped actors who actually live those disabilities are looked over.

This past Saturday, Access All Areas, a symposium created by the Live Art Development Agency (Lada), examined disability and how live art lies at the forefront of disability art practice, thinking and theory. Lada works to support and develop the Live Art sector, its practices, discourses, infrastructure and audiences.

I wish I could have gone to this symposium, where Lada was so stringent about “refusing to divorce theory from practice, talking from doing.” As journalist Lyn Gardner so poignantly pointed out, “live art has always been about breaking the rules, so it’s particularly well positioned as a platfrom for disabled practitioners.” [Source]

I absolutely encourage you to read the full article, Access All Areas: putting disability centre stage. Click here to be taken directly to the article.

Within the article are not only the jouranlist’s own impressiosn of the symposium, but also spread throughout its entirety are links to the many works by artists seen there.

The symposium focused not only on the expression of disability art practice, but also on its marginalism in mainstream culture and how to create a context for work that ensures it is accepted as much as mainstream art and has equal legitimacy.

If you are interested head on over to Live Art Development Agency: Publications. Here you can see a collection of the many works the Agency has published over the years.

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