The Future is Accessible

I recently attended the opening for a group show that had an entry category for disabled artists. I was asked dozens of times which work on the “disabled” display was mine. The confusion was understandable: My wheelchair was parked near it to avoid blocking foot traffic, and I was one of few visibly disabled artists present. Redirecting each querier to the main walls, I didn’t mention that I had not been allowed to enter as a disabled artist because my work was “too professional.” There was no option to be both disabled and professional.

This experience, and many others like it, encouraged my partner and I to lead this series of articles about disability and art in Cleveland with an introduction to some of our scene’s issues that may be unfamiliar to non-disabled readers.

Cleveland’s Second-Largest Minority

Cleveland has the third-highest disabled population of any US metropolitan area, with an official count over 16-20%. These numbers reflect the degree to which urban Cleveland culture is a generally welcoming space for disabled individuals, despite the many challenges faced by our communities.

There are many positive reasons why Cleveland has become a city of choice for many disabled people, including the availability of expert health care and disability resources, the low cost of living, and surprisingly accessible public spaces and transit.

Because one in five Clevelanders are significantly disabled, it’s imperative that our art scenes be accessible to disabled patrons and artists.

Disability Poetics and Disabled Artists in Cleveland

Cleveland is a mix of both notable opportunities and tremendous barriers to entry for disabled artists. There are accessible studio spaces and residencies available, though a greater number remain inaccessible. Some curators go out of their way to make spaces inclusive (such as when Loren Naji hand-built a ramp to make one of the houses accessible during Rooms to Let: CLE in 2017), though others will actively discriminate against disabled participants in fear of being asked to do the same.

“Some curators go out of their way to make spaces inclusive.” At the Slavic Village installation festival Rooms To Let 2017, Up House curator Loren Naji accommodated
visitors by building a wheelchair ramp from salvaged lumber.

The majority of regional funding and arts programs for disabled people have a therapeutic aim. These are valuable but do nothing to support disabled artists who are trying to participate as equals in the wider art scene. On the contrary, the tendency to equate “disabled artists” with “art therapy patients” often leads to erasure of disabled artist identities. Art history shows many artists whose disabilities fundamentally shaped their works, from Frida Kahlo’s intense portrayals of physical disability and chronic pain, to Van Gogh’s profound explorations of mental illness, to the tactile beauty of Giovanni Gonnelli’s sculptures after he became blind. Yet contemporary artists often have their disability either unjustly treated as the only important part of their narrative (as with Judith Scott, whose Down Syndrome is never left out of discussions of her work) or entirely ignored by critics and audiences (as with Chuck Close, who is a wheelchair user).

Assumptions are changing with the rise of increased networking among disabled artists; the study of “disability poetics” is gaining academic traction, and work curated by and from disabled writers, artists, and musicians is increasingly gaining national momentum.

As a city with a thriving disabled culture, we have an opportunity to be at the forefront of this movement. Some segments of the arts have taken full advantage of this (we’re home to the world-class physically integrated dance company, Dancing Wheels Company & School), but the visual arts scene still needs active work by galleries, curators, and artists in a joint effort to create Cleveland’s accessible future.

Disabled Audiences and Accessibility

I’m often met with raised eyebrows when I describe Cleveland’s public spaces and transit as “surprisingly” accessible. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed 29 years ago; shouldn’t all public spaces be accessible? But in New York City, only 25% of subway stations, including recently renovated ones, are wheelchair accessible. Compare this to Cleveland’s RTA, which has 100% bus accessibility and every station is either accessible or slated for updating. This culture of accessibility is also reflected in most public cultural spaces, such as the Cleveland Museum of Art, which has full wheelchair access to permanent exhibits and also schedules regular sign language tours.

However, other spaces and events are much less predictable. From personal experience, I find that I’m not physically able to access roughly one third of the art events that I would otherwise attend. We plan a future article overviewing the accessibility of notable local galleries and events, but here I’d like to discuss a few of the very easy steps that can be taken by gallery owners and event organizers to make Cleveland’s art scene truly accessible.

Wheelchair accessibility seems straightforward, but ADA requirements are regularly bypassed by small businesses and historic buildings. Because accessibility isn’t guaranteed, many of us will conclude that if we don’t see a way in, there isn’t one—but many art spaces have hidden access points (e.g., an elevator that needs to be unlocked or a stair-free door shared with another business). If the best case scenario of main entrance accessibility isn’t an option, clear signage at that location explaining routes of access will tell disabled patrons they’re welcome.

Beyond ramps and elevators, common accessibility needs include subtitles or transcripts for videos, avoiding strobes in public areas, having screen-reader friendly websites, and making sure installation spaces have room for people with assistive devices or movement disorders to navigate. Implementing this also involves training staff and volunteers about the accessible options available and how to interact with disabled patrons without making them feel unwelcome.

Spaces interested in reaching out to specific disabled communities can offer limited hours designed to be more accessible to them, such as scheduling sign language interpreters or sensory-friendly events where neurodiverse adults were explicitly welcomed. This latter kind of accessibility is something many institutions in Cleveland are starting to explore.

The Future is Accessible

Cleveland sits at a moment of profound potential. Recent debates over arts funding have revealed some of the polarities at work in our art scene, and we’re taking first steps towards addressing the urgent need for racial diversity in our arts. This is immensely exciting, because committing to that diversity will make us a stronger and better scene. The call to embrace our disabled artists and art patrons is also a chance for growth and reaching our potential. While disabled individuals face significant physical and emotional barriers to entry in the art world, our unique experiences can also lead to the creation of transformative and revolutionary work that deserves to be seen. Full inclusion of Cleveland’s disabled population is a fundamental part of creating the artistic synergy that will bring this region forward into the 21st century.

Over the next three articles, we’ll be taking an accessibility tour of local venues and talking to disabled Cleveland artists about their experiences with opportunities and barriers to success. We would love to receive your feedback and disability/art stories. If you have a venue suggestion (accessible or not) or a disabled artist you think we should check out, let us know. We’re particularly interested in talking to Cleveland artists of color who identify as disabled (physically or mentally), d/Deaf, blind/visually-impaired, or neurodiverse. Write to:

This series of articles is produced with support from the Ohio Arts Council.