Financial and transportation barriers prevent people with disabilities from accessing the arts. But arts organization face their own unique challenges in terms of funding and in encouraging participation.
Changes are coming in the way the Twin Cities area disability community is involved in the arts. The Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (MRAC) is developing a new grant program to replace the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Access Improvement Grants that VSA Minnesota offered for a decade. Guidelines will be announced soon, with applications due March 30. The council is also casting an eye toward community needs as arts funding and support are in transition.
VSA Minnesota, the state organization on arts and disability, closed in fall 2019. It administered the program using MRAC dollars.
“We’re taking this moment, built on the foundation that VSA started a decade ago, to recalibrate how we approach this work. The process for developing this new accessibility program involves research about what the disability community needs to access the arts, and imagining various scenarios for how resources can be distributed to reach this goal,” said MRAC Accessibility Program Director Scott Artley. His work will inform future decisions by MRAC’s board.
“As an artist with disabilities myself, it has been a gift to investigate the breadth and interconnectedness of this complex topic,” he said. “I have learned so much.”
In-depth stakeholder interviews revealed that major steps forward will only happen with culture change. “Having a ramp doesn’t necessarily make it accessible.” This was a quote from one of eight stakeholder interviews Artley conducted.
Interviews reinforced that accessibility isn’t a series of tactical strategies like installing an automatic door opener or offering ASL interpretation. Accessibility is a way of thinking. It’s the practice of considering all abilities at every step, and repeating that practice until it’s second-nature.
Focus groups confirmed that centering people with disabilities in funding programs is critical, both as grant recipients and decision-makers. Three December 2019 groups, facilitated by Leah Cooper of Wonderlust Productions, focused on funding scenarios. Participants said flexibility is the greatest access strategy a funder can adopt. They asked MRAC to work from a disability justice perspective, embracing all the ways that race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship and any other nexus of oppression intersects with disability.
Participants asked MRAC to center people with disabilities at every stage in the process, aligning with the motto at the core of disability rights activism: “Nothing about us without us.”
Other highlights from Artley’s research will guide next steps.
- The grant process focuses on access and inclusion. It provides advantages to groups reporting participation by people with disabilities. But the past program got few applications by groups with disability leadership.
- In 2018 and 2019 funding cycles, about 60 percent of applicants reported having a board-approved ADA Access Plan. Another 12 percent reported having one in development. In both years, ADA plan status had no significant correlation with whether or not a group was funded.
- Projects that report people with disabilities as a population they intend to serve were more likely to receive an award, probably due to the practice of asking applicant groups to address inclusion in narratives. Disability-led groups were self-defined as having 50 percent or more of staff/board identifying as having disabilities. But these groups are very few in number and represent just 6 percent of the total pool of applicants and grantees.
- The VSA Minnesota program funded larger organizations at a disproportionately high rate. MRAC’s typical grant recipients are organizations with annual budgets of $400,000 a year or less. VSA’s grants were open to organizations with budgets up to $5 million.
- With no other funding dedicated to accessibility, VSA’s broader eligibility meant larger organizations had incentive to prioritize inclusion. Larger organizations received nearly two-thirds of all dollars awarded. Ten organizations most frequently received grants during the past decade, with 80 percent having annual budgets greater than $400,000.
- What keeps people with disabilities from participating in the arts? Financial challenges are the most common barrier, surveys indicated. Eighty-two percent of respondents cited finances as a barrier, with 52 percent noting transportation issues. Such challenges rose above issues including physical and sensory access.
- Not knowing about arts opportunities was cited by 42 percent.
Organizations report their biggest challenge is making the disability community aware of opportunities for arts participation. That outranked transportation (44 percent) by about 15 percent.
“That the challenge of making people with disabilities aware of an organization’s offerings outpaced the other barriers to this degree is significant,” the findings stated. “This finding aligns with a situation we at MRAC hear from organizations again and again, i.e. we offered an access service, but no one showed up to use it.”
Opinions differ as to how MRAC funding could address arts accessibility challenges. Organization see value in funding to provide access services and projects that either attract people to arts experiences, or that bring their art to disability communities directly.
Individuals would prefer to see dollars given to individual artists with disabilities and organizations led by or providing programming designed primarily for disability communities.
But while differences are seen, surveys of both groups showed significant support for MRAC providing non-monetary resources including trainings, one-on-one consulting, and opportunities for mentorship.