In April, California Humanities hosted “All Welcome! Best Practices for Increasing Accessibility,” a free, online learning session with humanities programmers from The Art of Disability Culture: Artists with Disabilities Dispelling Myths, Dissolving Barriers, and Disrupting Prejudice, an exhibit and public program series organized by the Palo Alto Arts Center (PAAC). 

A part of the council’s new series, Tools of the Trade: A Practical Series for Humanities Programmers, this conversation was facilitated by Dr. Kenya Davis-Hayes of California Baptist University History Department. During the discussion, panelists provided resources and “actionable information about how [humanities professionals] can make their programs and activities accessible, engaging, and inviting for people of all abilities.”

Some key accessibility features implemented in The Art of Disability Culture exhibit included: large captioning, braille guides and labels, QR codes for audio descriptions of artworks, benches and resting places, intentional and inclusive language, and an inclusive framework for artists who were featured. For example, artists with cognitive disabilities were also included. 

Maia Scott, an accessible arts educator and featured artist who is visually impaired, shared about her experience being a part of The Art of Disability Culture, and spoke specifically to the idea of “nothing about us without us:” 

Karen and Fran made a very concerted effort to work with artists with disabilities, to work with us along the way to find out what worked for us, what kind of accessibility accommodations might work well for our work. We got to record our audio descriptions in our own voice….Even after the exhibition closed, PAAC created an advisory committee of people with disabilities, many of whom were in [the exhibit], to continue exploring and sharing ideas around maintaining accessible features and forthcoming shows—sharing ideas about incorporating artist with disabilities and other disability connections into the community.

Fran Osborne, an independent curator and design consultant discussed her experience, philosophy, and practices for approaching accessibility and inclusion when curating: 

I try to center the disability community and consult with them as much as possible….I come from the ‘social model’ of disability, where it is the social environment that creates the disability, rather than the person themselves. The ‘medical model’ very much reduces people to a kind of ‘problem’ situation or a diagnosis that has to be solved.  

Karen Kienzle, Director of the Palo Alto Art Center, spoke to the importance of building a collaborative work culture and building relationships with community partners when developing accessibility programming. According to Kienzle, connecting with partners and organizations who work with people with a wide range of abilities is critical to program development and supportive community outreach as well.

“1 in 4 of us in this world have a disability,” said Scott, “and [the exhibit] was open to 1 in 4 of us plus all the others who don’t [identify] as disabled but still benefit from all the things that are happening; that are benefiting from sitting down with large print labels to read easier, and who are enjoying the artist’s voices.” 

To learn more about the processes and practices behind the making of The Art of Disability Culture, you can watch the conversation replay and explore Tools of the Trade’s Accessibility Resource List.

Written by Jazzy DiMeglio