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Counter Balance

Courtesy of Access Living: Counter Balance / Britten Traughber

A dancer performing at Access Living's "Counter Balance."

Chicago arts groups want to help the blind see and the deaf hear

by Lindsey Peterson
May 23, 2013


Woman Made Gallery / Jen Sachse

Jen Sachse is featured in the "Bodies of Work II" exhibit at the Woman Made Gallery.

Related Links

Bodies of WorkWoman Made GalleryUIC Department of Disability and Human DevelopmentChicago Children's Museum

If you want to go

The Bodies of Work Festival is taking place at multiple venues in Chicago. For details of the calendar, click the link above.

Can live theater be made accessible for a blind theatergoer? How can a museum make its exhibits understandable for a child with autism? Should galleries be more welcoming of artists with disabilities who explore their experiences through their work?

The Chicago arts community is tackling these and similar questions in attempts to be more inclusive to those living with disabilities. Advocates want venues to go beyond federal regulations regarding accommodations to better include disabled artists.

Bodies of Work -- a festival of arts and culture of the disabled -- is spotlighting professional artists, playwrights, performers, authors and advocates with disabilities. Participants want full access to the same art experiences those without disabilities already enjoy. Advocates also want to promote an arts culture specifically representing the disabled.

“There are tons of barriers getting our work out into the public at all,” said Carrie Sandahl, associate professor in the Department of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Those are things like inaccessible theaters -- they may be accessible to audience members but not to the artists,” Sandahl said.

Theaters like Victory Gardens and the Raven Theatre now offer “touch tours” before some performances for those with vision impairments. Patrons can walk around, touching the set and meet the actors in order to hear their voices to better follow the performance.

But despite the efforts, Sandahl said the complications of universal accessibility can start in a child’s earliest years.

“Inaccessible training facilities -- all the way from kindergarten through higher education -- there are teachers who don’t really know how to accommodate students with disabilities in teaching the arts.”

The Chicago Children’s Museum is taking steps to be innovative in its techniques to include children with a wide range of abilities.

Lynn Walsh is the manager of guest access and inclusion at the museum. She said their efforts include storybook guides including the pictures of exhibits and staff so parents can read to their child with autism before they come to the museum. Walsh said there are “quiet rooms” to give children a break from the hustle and bustle of a busy museum.

“We make sure there’s seating, not only chairs with arms but some without arms; materials like regular pencils and chubby pencils, different types of scissors. Not everyone has the same motor skills,” Walsh said.

“We always have a staff member who may be verbally describing the exhibit. We have signs that include not only words, but also pictures because everyone learns differently. Everything can be touched,” Walsh said.

Carrie Sandahl, who is also an organizer of the Bodies of Work festival, said beyond accessibility, there’s a growing arts culture unique to the disabled community.

“We’re exploring the disability experience in new and unexpected ways,” Sandahl said.

“We’re really trying to figure out who we are as a community, how our particular bodies, minds, sensory experiences and mental health status … give us different perspectives that you don’t see in the main stream media.”

Spotlighting those perspectives, the Woman Made Gallery in River West has debuted “Humans Being II,” through June 20. About 40 artists with a wide range of disabilities have their work, varying from photographs, paintings and sculpture on display.

Riva Lehrer, curator of the exhibit, said her goal was to garner international submissions from professional artists with disabilities, rather than pieces from art therapy outlets. The gallery had done the same “Humans Being” exhibit in 2006, but this year, Lehrer said she received four times more submissions than she could put into the show.

“I was really impressed with the submissions we got, there’s a lot more work now around impairment,” Lehrer said. “What mainstream art people tend to think is that art about disability is exclusively therapeutic … rather than art schools and galleries.”

“What a festival like this does, and one of my biggest goals, was bringing artists from the U.S., and also internationally, to work with our local artists,” Sandahl said.

“And when we all come together and we start to see each other’s work, it really lifts the work for all of us.”

The Bodies of Work festival runs through May 25.