"Why the hell do you need an art teacher at a school for the blind?"
That's what someone asked Alice Zincone when she took that position at the Governor Morehead School in Raleigh. On a recent evening, she showed us exactly why: Using teaching tools such as 3D models, Wikki Stix (waxed yarn for tactile drawing) and swell-touch paper—all available to arts educators via federal funding at American Printing House for the Blind—students with vision impairments can create everything that other people can, just in their own ways.
On the evening of Jan. 12, dozens of people convened in a freezing sublevel of CAM Raleigh. The malfunctioning heat did not cool these North Carolina teachers' passion for broadening access to arts education for people with disabilities.
We often talk about how to accommodate such people with infrastructure, but someone who has no trouble getting inside a venue still might have a baffling, or even hostile, experience without the right personal and technological interfaces. With speakers such as Zincone, Olive Chapel Elementary's Gussie Marshallsea and Mary E. Phillips High School's Scott Renk, the Arts Access Idea Summit explored how to integrate people with disabilities as participants and creators.
Arts Access, a Raleigh-based nonprofit, has been around for more than 30 years. It began by focusing on wheelchair ramps and audio description services, where a narrator provides blind or low-vision people with the auditory equivalent of subtitles, describing events on the stage, screen or gallery wall. The service is available at select productions at Burning Coal, Raleigh Little Theatre, PlayMakers, the Carolina Ballet and many others, while DPAC and Theatre in the Park offer it at any show given two weeks' notice.
From those origins, Arts Access has branched out into support, advocacy and education. Its Idea Summit aimed not only to share knowledge about inclusivity among people on the front lines of arts education, but to consolidate ties with organizations such as CAM, whose director, Gab Smith, announced a new program called Museum Access for Kids, emphasizing the museum's role as a place of learning.
In partnership with Arts Access and under contract with the Kennedy Center's VSA, CAM will host free field trips for K-12 students with disabilities, with hands-on activities and customized tours. The museum will provide ASL interpreters, large-print captions, braille or audio versions of printed matter, audio descriptions and safe environments for people with autism or sensory sensitivities.
"CAM wants to be the museum where everyone can be themselves," Smith said. The new program begins Feb. 18; details will be posted online this week.
This renewed focus on access seems to be a trend in area museums. The North Carolina Musuem of Art, which offers assistance similar to CAM's for people with vision and hearing impairments, currently does not recommend using wheelchairs on the steep grades of Musuem Park. But the upcoming renovation will add more accessible routes through outdoor areas, a representative of the museum told me. And the Nasher Museum of Art, which has offered tours to small groups of people with Alzheimer's over the past year, is launching it as an official program this year, director Wendy Hower told me.
This echoes a program at Wilmington's Cameron Art Museum, whose Martha Burdette, an Idea Summit presenter, provided a training sheet for docents working with people with Alzheimer's. She offered tips such as having only one docent per pair of visitors, always approaching from the front, speaking slowly and simply, and keeping discussion open. Rather than an art-historical lecture, you might ask visitors what objects in a painting they have in their homes, Burdette said. "They can't adapt to our world so we must adapt to theirs."
Indeed, letting students be themselves and focusing on process rather than results were the main insights these educators from across the state shared. In her opening remarks, Arts Access Executive Director Betsy Ludwig underlined the importance of utilizing aides but not letting them do the work for the kids, getting to know students by talking to them, their other educators and their family before beginning a lesson, and incorporating augmented technology that lets kids create in their own ways.
"You don't have to be an expert in every disability," she said. "Know how to teach your subject, and treat your students as individuals."
As we learned in a video about Universal Design for Learning, "the ways people learn are as diverse as their fingerprints." People with autism are varied in their learning needs, not a monolithic category. An arts program is like a building: If you design it for the people in the margins, you wind up serving the center, too. Providing educational content in multiple ways "makes the task big enough to include everyone in the room," Burdette said.
The educators at the Idea Summit praised area arts councils for following the lead of people with disabilities to develop markets, rather than telling them what they need, and tablet computers were hailed as tremendous tools for accessibility, as they offer many means (text, audio, video, images) of guidance; the NC Museum of Natural Science's free multimedia app was singled out for its usefulness.
The Triangle's arts scene is in a pivotal moment, receiving new national attention, new money, and new organizations and venues as existing ones transform. In this malleable time, it's crucial to consider who is being invited along for the ride and who might be left behind. Happily, at the Idea Summit, Arts Access and area institutions were doing just that.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Arts for all"