Thursday, July 5, 2018

Audio Description in St. Louis

This week I had the opportunity to hang out with over 200 of the hardest working animals in the country.  That’s right – guide dogs for people who are blind. I was at the annual convention for the American Council of the Blind (ACB) in St. Louis, attending the Audio Description (AD) track.

A view from downtown of the St. Louis Arch, which frames the dome of the State Capitol building

It was three days of knowledge-packed presentations and discussions, where the most talked about topic was the upcoming ACB initiative to develop a national certification process for describers. They have contracted with the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation & Education Professionals to develop this process, and will be convening individuals to form a subject content committee to work with them by September of this year. It will be a lengthy process in order to develop the best certification standards and exam, so stay tuned as they are just getting started.

One aisle of the conference exhibiters, filled with customers and smiling dogs

The conference convened on July 1st, which coincidently was the day that audio description in the top nine broadcast areas in the country increased from 50 to 87.5 hours per week, although several broadcasters already exceed this number. Kudos to them! Representatives from Amazon and Comcast were there to talk about the latest developments in content delivery. With the new digital technology and hundreds of channels and content providers, in order to get AD on your TV, you have to turn it on at the source – antenna, satellite, and cable. You can learn more about ACB's Audio Description Project here. And if you want more description on TV, please contact the providers, and your congressmen, as it is critical that they hear from you!

We also learned about UniDescription, a project of the National Park Service (NPS) and University of Hawaii. The NPS has also been working on an app where people can access described brochures and maps of many of the National Parks with the plan to have all National Park brochures available through description on this app, both on Android and Apple. The brand-new gateway park and museum at the St. Louis Arch opened on July 4th, and they expected 40,000 people to attend the first day. The NPS worked with them on their interactive exhibits, so they were glad to be a part of the festivities. And I imagine some of those hard-working dogs got to enjoy it also!

A curly, red-haired Marilee Talkington shares some of her stories in front of a projection of her photo.
One of the highlights of the three days was hearing from Marilee Talkington, acclaimed actor, writer, and director. She talked about pursuing her chosen career in the arts as a legally blind individual. She started as a stage actor, but was recently a guest artist on the “Sight Unseen” episode on NCIS. One of the amazing but unsurprising stats she cited was that 9 out of 10,000 actors in Hollywood – TV and movies – have disabilities. Nine. Let that sink in for a moment. And we wonder why there is such an uproar when a disabled individual is played by an able-bodied actor. Listening to how Marilee fought to be auditioned and cast at all is a testament to her grit and determination! Thank you for fighting to not only blast open the door for you to enter, but also for the many who are standing right behind you.

I didn't see much of St. Louis, but that’s okay because it was hot and steamy outside. At the end of the day, my brain was full of all things audio description, and that’s just the way it was way meant to be.

A man indulges in a catnap in an ornate hotel lobby.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Peer to Peer

We were invited for the second time to run the Peer to Peer portion of the annual Parent to Parent conference. This event is hosted by Texas Parent to Parent, a statewide non-profit that does great work of educating and supporting parents of children with disabilities. Their annual conference is a big hit with topics on all the important issues a parent needs to be aware of when raising a child with a disability as well as advice and mentoring from parents who have been in their shoes.

Families come from all over the state, from the Valley to the Panhandle and everywhere in between. And they bring the entire family because there is something for everyone at this conference. Texas Parent to Parent wants to make sure that all that come get the most out of the experience. They want the parents to be able to focus on the panel discussions and workshops. They provide a SibShop for siblings. Childcare for the young ones. And Peer to Peer for the teenagers.

That’s where we come in! Our goal is to provide stimulating arts, performance, movement, and music activities for these young adults to take part in while their parents are at the conference. This year we started with Flower Fairies. While very messy, with glue and flower petals, we got some great results and a few participants spent the entire day working with the flowers.

A mer-man decorated with flower petals

We also provided other art stations throughout the day including Egg Shakers, Drawing, Beads and Pipe Cleaners, Costumes, and Cameras. You just never know what art supply is going to be the one that captures someone’s creativity.

Grant holds up some of his pipe cleaner creations.

David wears red boxing shorts, a black cape, and a Mardi Gras mask from the costume box.

A highlight of the morning was having Zach Anner visit us! Zach is a comedian, actor, writer, and YouTube star. The teens were able to ask him questions, converse with him, and get his autograph.

Later that day we had a visiting musician, Sterling Steffan. He brought his saxophone, a violin, digital drums, a recorder, and other various instruments. Some of the students’ eyes and smiles really lit up when they had a chance to make music. Eric was especially excited by the opportunity. And his sense of rhythm was natural. The participants had a chance to step up to the mic and record their voice or playing an instrument.

Elsa plays the violin.

Day 2 was another day packed with art activities led by teaching artist Mary Oliver. Using small pizza boxes we created names on the outside and self portraits on the inside of the box.

Josh’s pizza box self portrait

We also used recycled water bottles to create Maracas. We painted them in the morning, then after a movie in the afternoon, used them in our drum circle.

The drum circle!

After two exhausting but fun days the teens were picked up by their parents to start the travel back home. So many parents were grateful for the opportunity to attend this conference and know their children were in good hands. Thanks to our friends at Texas Parent to Parent for making that possible!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Pursue Your Musical Dreams with VSA Texas

From time to time I'm asked something along the lines of "what is the most soul nourishing part of your job?" I am normally caught off guard by the directness of such a heavy question, but inevitably my mind wanders to the music and other performance opportunities offered through VSA Texas. Even to those who know me, my affinity for the stage may seem peculiar as in any other circumstance I do everything I can to avoid drawing attention to myself. Performing music on stage, however, feels liberating; I am free to make myself into someone different, to lose myself in chords, rhythms, lyrics, and in doing so, I inch closer to the person I aspire to be offstage. Call me corny, but I truly believe that playing music makes me a better human being. And that's why the highlights, or most soul nourishing moments of my job, are those where I can extend the same opportunities I have received to others.

Music is the foundation of my relationship with VSA Texas. My first involvement with the organization came in the form of volunteering in the Summer of 2012 Music and Recording Camp; then in February of 2014 I made my first serious public debut of my own music at the inaugural Lion and Pirate Open Mic, which I now co-host with the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities' Pen 2 Paper Creative Writing Contest; and in January of 2017 I organized, emceed, and performed at our first VSA Texas at Library Live concert at Carver Branch Library, which was so successful the branch manager invited us to make it a quarterly concert series, which has since extended performance opportunities to twelve different musical groups. At each stop along the journey, I have been grateful to learn as much, if not more, than the performers I hope to empower, and that's how I know these programs work.

Me performing at the Lion and Pirate Open Mic. Did I mention Malvern Books takes great photos and videos of the open mic performances? Of course you can opt out, but I'd say it's super cool if you ask me!

Over the past few years, I have seen performers grow in confidence, turn a few original songs into a dozen, explore new collaborations, and seek new venues to perform. Most importantly, I have witnessed the burgeoning of an inclusive community, where performers inspire and learn from each other, lift each other up and offer encouraging words when they need to be heard. So if you are a chronic bedroom performer (like I used to be – and still am, frankly) and are ready to share your songs with the world – or even if you aren't ready – there is a place for you at our Lion and Pirate Open Mic held each month at Malvern Books (613 West 29th Street, Austin, TX 78705)! Our next four open mics are this Saturday, June 9th from 7-9 PM, Saturday, July 7th from 7-9 PM, Sunday, August 12th from 1-3 PM, and Saturday, September 15th from 7-9 PM. Join us at one or all of the above!

Flyer for our Lion and Pirate Open Mic at Malvern Books this Saturday, June 9th from 7-9 PM

And if you want to really stretch your performance muscles with a fully mic'd 25-minute set at the Carver Branch Library, email me at eric@vsatx.org to book a performance slot. If you need any added incentive, you get high quality videos of your performance (see past Library Live performances here) that you can use to promote your music and pursue future gigs. No matter your genre or level of experience, we are here to launch you where you want to go!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Don’t Believe Everything You See or Think You Know

Pondering my thoughts for what I might have interesting to say or what might provoke other folks to talk about. I was sitting in a staff meeting (yes I was paying attention) but we were discussing and planning programs that would be exciting, fun, educational, and informative for our patrons. My Secret Life of Walter Mitty popped up and has been swirling through my mind.

From The New York Times:
“It begins with a film ‘The Red Chapel,’ the name of a small experimental theater troupe from Holland that was formed by a pair of Danish performers of Korean descent (Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell). Or at least that's what the North Korean government was led to believe when they gave them permission to do a vaudeville performance tour of the country; in truth, ‘The Red Chapel’ was formed by a pair of improvisational comics (who are in fact of Korean heritage) and a radical journalist, director, and filmmaker Mads Brügger who traveled to North Korea in hopes of using subversive, satirical performances as a commentary on the nation's oppressive policies and lamentable human rights record. This was all done as a cultural exchange between North Korea and Holland.”
Movie poster for “The Red Chapel”

The interesting fact is that one of the performers has a disability and exaggerates his condition as a way of throwing those around him off track. One of the “The Red Chapel” pranksters, Mads Brügger, brought along a video camera to chronicle their journey through Korea, and “Det Rode Kapel” (aka “The Red Chapel”) is a documentary offering a glimpse of their performances and the often surprising reactions they receive. It’s like telling bad jokes that no one gets, but people laugh anyway.

The disabled performer in “The Red Chapel” stands beside the wheelchair he uses throughout the film.

The most poignant question the person with the disability asks their cultural attaché Ms. Pak (who is benevolent and kind) is “where are all the people with disabilities?” to which she replies “we send them away.”

Ask yourself: how do different countries including the USA help or deny humans with disabilities, and where do they get sent?

Here at VSA Texas we are launching a quarterly film screening series about and/or by people with disabilities and we would like your input as to what kind of films you would like to see or that you think would spark engaging discussions around disability issues (like “The Red Chapel,” for example). Please leave your suggestions in the comments below or email them to me at lynn@vsatx.org. We look forward to hearing from you!

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Body Shift: Dance and Social Justice

Body Shift project coordinator, Olivia O’Hare here to share some thoughts regarding our upcoming annual intensive, Patterns of Disruption with Sandra Paola, which will take place June 2-3, 2018. Paola’s focus lies at the intersection of dance and social justice/access/inclusion/diversity. This got me thinking about what social justice means within the context of Body Shift and DanceAbility. Though we do not openly state a political agenda, I do believe that the personal is political. Dance improvisation is extremely personal. Because the dancer generates their own movements and responds by intuition as well as conscious choice making, their personality, habits and desires show up immediately. In general, we do not openly discuss the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within our society that have shaped our bodies and the ways we have been taught are ‘appropriate’ for personal expression. Instead we focus on movement quality, body awareness, and relationship in real time with our dance partner(s). But what if we take some time to work using community-centered inquiry and turn research into movement?

Photo from Crippin' the Streets – DanceAbility Urban Intervention, Fusebox 2014

We might ask the following questions: How do Idealogical ‘Movements’ (i.e., Civil Rights Movement, Disability Rights Movement) affect our culture? How can our own ‘movements’ (physicality of/in ones body) affect our culture or be affected by our culture? By using the universal language of movement we can generate conversations and create art around social justice issues in our communities – ultimately movement initiating ‘Movements.’

It was a purposeful choice made by the Body Shift organizers to focus on dance improvisation, and more specifically the DanceAbility method, rather than styles of dance that emphasize learning steps or predetermined choreography. This is not to downgrade moving together through set choreography as repeating and refining movements can be very powerful. Rather it was a question of inclusivity. The flexibility allowed by improvisation more easily creates an environment that is non-isolating. By starting with improv, participants are given the opportunity to learn the language of their own body and discover their own unique ways of moving. Then participants themselves may be guided to choreograph from their own self-generated movements. (Video below shows more highlights from Crippin' the Streets – DanceAbility Urban Intervention, Fusebox 2014)


To improvise is to make choices in the moment. As Alito Alessi, founder of the DanceAbility method, says, “Always know what you are doing and what else is happening.” This seems very direct and simple but it is actually a skill that must be refined over time – the ability to sense and stay connected to your self while also opening your awareness to the choices that other people are making around you and how your environment shapes your choices moment to moment. By dancing together with people who have unique mental and physical characteristics that may be outside the established norms we are able to open ourselves to new ways of moving and thinking and go beyond habitual ways of being.

Sandra Paola

An excerpt from Sandra Paola’s website:
“I believe that learning about our body through our relationships with others in ensemble improvisation and social dance is an extraordinary way to achieve this and I seek to create spaces and environments where this can be possible. Acknowledging our body (and its relationship to others and the environment) is not something we are often taught. It is something that we have to seek out, or what is more often the case, something we never get to do. Recognizing ourselves in our body fosters a new understanding of who we are and how we relate to the world. This understanding allows love and compassion to flourish and deep transformation happens.
“…My dancemaking is community-driven and community-integrated and it tackles issues of identity and power. I am committed to creating access to experimental dance and improvisation in spaces where it is usually absent and to share its developmental power with the public. I use culture to organize community and organize community to create culture. 
“My work is political by nature; improvisation is playful resistance.”

I hope you will join Sandra Paola and the Body Shift crew for a weekend of dancing and inquiry into education and community organizing that relates to people as social creators of their lives. We will meet all day Saturday, and Sunday will be a continuation of Saturday's work but open to newcomers and will culminate in a jam. Click here to register for Patterns of Disruption with Sandra Paola.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Lessons I Have Learned Over the Years

It was a little over 19 years ago that I took over the helm of the organization that is now known as VSA Texas. Little did I suspect back then what a wild and rewarding ride it would be. I have made many friends and a few not so good friends along the way, and have witnessed the joy and success of countless individuals in Austin, across the state, and around the world. I have made some wise decisions and I have made a few real bloopers, but I have never regretted a thing. Oh sure, a lot of things have kept me awake at night, and still do, but all in all I can say that this has been the best job of my life. Does this sound like a farewell letter? No, it isn’t. I always get reminiscent at this time of the year and like to take stock of my life within the context of the current times.

Celia posing beside a rusty sculpture of a bear

I reflect on what I have learned and how these lessons have guided my decisions. It seems like I always come back to the same core beliefs.

Trust your instincts. Do your research, gather the facts, listen to other options, and trust that you will make the right decision. If it doesn’t always work out the way you planned, study how it did work out so you can use that knowledge next time around.

Measure twice and cut once. This is true in almost everything that you do. Because what is cut can never be uncut.

Be kind. Sometimes it can feel like life is awash with unkindness, mean-spirits and downright cruelty, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We are all born with love in our hearts. It is what we do with this love that matters. Practice kindness. It is like a muscle that needs to be developed and used everyday.

Street art of a Golden Retriever with pink wings

Don’t dwell on the negative. I am the first person to complain about something that I don’t like, and in this current time, there are many things that I do not like! But living in that space of darkness does not help me day to day to do the things that need to be done. See it, determine if you can do anything immediately to address it, prioritize, and then refocus your attention.

Cry once a day. A good cry can be cathartic. My eyes well with tears often, and sometimes, I am overcome with the need to weep. I always feel better afterwards. Crying and belly laughs: the best medicine.

Keep your mind and body engaged and learning. The world is advancing and changing at a rapid pace. We need to stay nimble to keep up. We need to stay sharp to lead.

Abstract metal sculpture in a park

Enjoy silence. Turn the TV off. Turn off all your devices. Sit in the stillness and listen to the world rotating on its axis. You may hear a bird song you never noticed before. You may hear the wind rustle through the leaves of a tree. You may just hear the sound of your own breath. In. Out.

Love someone more than you can imagine. This one is the hardest for me, and yet I know it is the most important one. ‘Cause you know the old saying, “Love makes the world go round.”

Lamppost sticker of a red figure with a heart-shaped head and the words "Share Your Heart" scrawled across the face with a black magic marker

I am thankful for the great team I have had the good fortune to gather around me at VSA Texas and I look forward to another year of creativity, inspiration, empowerment, laughter, and yes, tears.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Magical Gardens and Brain Puzzles

Our summer classes are coming up and we are trying something a little different. We have two classes. Each is for ages 16 and above and inclusive for those with and without disabilities. Usually these summer classes serve a limited age range, so we are excited to open them up and invite one and all to join us for some fun!

First, we have Fairy Gardens and Nature Art with instructor Mary Kraemer held Monday, June 11th through Wednesday, June 13th from 10 am to 2 pm each day in our VSA Texas Classroom 101 at 3710 Cedar Street, Austin, TX 78705. In this class Mary will use her horticulture and garden experience to help inspire you to create a Fairy Garden at VSA Texas. Fairy Gardens are magical places created by humans to invite fairies to live among us. They are created with plants, found objects, repurposed materials, and lots of imagination!

A fairy garden house created out of natural materials

The class will also include making nature prints, working with dried flowers, and more. Mary is full of knowledge about plants and loves to share it. So we hope you will join us in June for this class.

A student printing leaves on blue paper with green ink

Want to learn more about Mary’s classes? Read this blog Celia and Lynn wrote after taking one of her classes.

Then, we have Stop Motion Animation with Tangrams with instructor Johnny Villarreal held Tuesday, June 26th through Thursday, June 28th from 10 am to 2 pm each day also in our VSA Texas Classroom 101 at 3710 Cedar Street, Austin, TX 78705.  Johnny has been a great friend of VSA Texas and has taught many classes for us for children and young adults.

Johnny working with a student at Manor High School on Stop Motion Animation

This is our first time opening up a class for adults taught by Johnny. So if you have heard of his work at The Edge of Imagination Station, take this opportunity to learn from the best in Stop Motion Animation. This class will have a twist though, Tangrams! A tangram is a dissection puzzle consisting of seven flat shapes, called tans, which are put together to form shapes. Challenge your brain to create characters and a story using only these seven shapes.

A wooden Tangram set

As always, our classes are fully accessible for any ability and skill level. You won’t be disappointed. You will make new friends, learn a new skill, and most of all have fun. For the $115 fee, you get lots of great instruction plus all the supplies provided. These classes fill quickly, so register now by calling Lynn at 512-454-9912 or emailing her at lynn@vsatx.org. See you this summer!