Friday, January 19, 2018

Don't Worry, We Won't Get Cast for the Part

Today a film titled “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” premieres at Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Joaquin Phoenix, the film tells the true story of irreverent quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan, who passed away in 2010, and is based on Callahan's memoir of the same title. Although the film has not yet been screened for a major audience, the decision to cast Phoenix, who does not appear to have a significant physical disability (at least not a spinal cord injury), in the role of the disabled Callahan has already garnered the film some notoriety within the disability community.

The Callahan cartoon his memoir borrowed its title from: a law enforcement posse finds an abandoned wheelchair in the desert; the caption reads, “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot.”

While this preemptive controversy may seem misguided, it is rooted in a sound decades-long struggle for improved disability representation in the film industry. That is to say, “Don’t Worry” did not arrive in a vacuum where disability marginalization has been eradicated and the everything-offends-me-now generation eagerly waited to exclaim, “I'm offended!” Rather it is the latest installment in an industry that routinely casts non-disabled actors and actresses to portray disabled characters (“Breathe,” “Stronger,” “The Shape of Water,” to name three big films from 2017 alone), bestows its highest honors upon those actors, relies on tired disability tropes, and even denies disability as an underrepresented minority group; this cultural milieu, of which “Don't Worry” is a small piece, is the real problem.

The movie poster for “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”

Whenever a film like “Don’t Worry” comes out, major figures and organizations in the disability community draw attention to the above issues and inevitably prompt a multitude of social media users to climb upon their soapboxes and make snarky comments like, “it's called ACTING for a reason” and “talk about first world problems” and “aren't there more pressing issues for disabled people?” Here’s the thing these commenters can’t seem to grasp: disabled actors can't get non-disabled roles, and they can't get disabled roles. Essentially what the film industry is communicating to people with disabilities is, you are not allowed to act. You are not welcome to participate. In other industries this would be called employment discrimination; in Hollywood it’s just the way things are.

Are we saying that directors must cast a disabled actor or actress in every movie they make, unless they want to be sued? Or that the best actor trying out for a role should be ignored in favor of the disabled actor who is just not very good? Of course not. And I suppose it is possible that the creative team behind “Don’t Worry” actually did audition actors with disabilities and/or hire people with disabilities to work on the film; only the filmmakers can tell you that. What I can say, however, is we have been waiting a long time for accurate representation, and we have a right to be angry as film after film is produced in which non-disabled people speak for us, act for us, or tell us who we are. If you want us to stop protesting, then include us in the conversation, take a risk by casting an unknown disabled actor the same way you would a non-disabled one, find a screenplay that dares to show disability like it is, provide a reasonable accommodation that may cause you to stretch but not break.

All this in mind, I can't help but still feel excited for Callahan, one of my greatest heroes, to receive the big screen biopic treatment he deserves. And if the film is truly in sync with Callahan’s spirit, it will steer clear of inspiration porn and melodrama, because Callahan spent his career trying to dismantle narrow perceptions of people with disabilities. In his own words, he was “fed up with people who presume to speak for the disabled. All the pity and the patronizing. That’s what is truly detestable.” With or without a disabled actor in the role, I think the fact his story is even being told is a sign of progress. And I hope it's a good movie.

Here's the trailer:

Thursday, January 11, 2018

I Must Be Nutz

Originally written and posted November 13, 2017 by Debra Haas on her blog, Facets of Myself. Reposted with permission.

It’s 2018 and we are preparing to audio describe our first show of the New Year. Looking back at the highlights of our last season, training two describers from the seasoned volunteer corps at Ballet Austin to describe The Nutcracker ranks at the top! Deb and Betty took to description like they had been doing it all their lives, and their hard work paid off when they described several daytime shows for school kids during the holiday season. And Deb took on her first public performance, letting neither rain nor sleet nor snow (!) deter her from her task. Here is a reflection from Deb on her experience learning how to describe as we welcome her to our team! And thank you Ballet Austin for your commitment to equity and access!

I became a Nutcracker parent (and docent) in the fall of 2004. I continued in my role – working back stage, driving carpool, making sure we had the right colored ballet slippers – for the next 10 years, until my daughter graduated from high school and headed off to college.

Over the years, I created a charm bracelet for her with each of the roles she danced... and I acquired some Nutcracker jewelry of my own.

After I was done with the schlep, I continued to be a docent – both at our neighborhood elementary, and at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. When I go, I usually wear one of my Nutcracker pins (along with my Ballet Austin Docent name tag).

This year, I've taken on a new role – learning to do descriptive narration for blind and visually impaired ballet patrons. If you had told me even a couple of years ago that I would spend hours in front of the computer painstakingly taking notes about dancers, costumes, and sets so that I could write a script to describe them in excruciating detail... I am sure I would have scoffed at you. But that is exactly what I am doing.

 Taking notes at the computer
(Photo courtesy of Debra Haas)

While it does give me the warm fuzzies to learn this new set of skills – I am not motivated entirely by altruism...

My father was a world renowned theoretical physicist. He received numerous accolades and held a variety of senior positions at the US Department of Energy during his career – including serving as the Chief Scientist for the Superconducting Supercollider.

Yep – he was a bona fide genius. But at the end of his life, his razor sharp mind was dulled by dementia, and one of the things I learned in the process of helping to care for him – and coming to terms with his death – is that learning new things in middle age, and later in life, may prevent or at least delay the onset of dementia.

So – along with learning metalsmithing – I decided that becoming a descriptive narrator was something that I could do for my community and for myself.

Deb audio describing The Nutcracker

In 2013, Ballet Austin bought new sets and costumes for the production. We bought our daughter an ornament on the tree. On the back it has her name and says Cast Member 2004-2013 – so she could always be part of the production – my name is not there.

She, and the rest of my family think it's "cool" but also more than a little hilarious that after saying that I'd be done with the Nutcracker when my daughter was – that hasn't happened yet.

Selfie of Deb in the audio description booth at Ballet Austin
(Photo courtesy of Debra Haas)

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Get Moving in the New Year with Body Shift!

Hey there! Body Shift project coordinator, Olivia O’Hare here to share what’s to come in 2018.

After a heavy emphasis on performance and advancing the skills of long term participants in 2017, the Body Shift team has agreed that it is time to focus inward in the New Year. We plan to cultivate space for folks who are new to dance as well as dancers/teachers who hope to learn how to make their own classes more inclusive. Have you ever been curious about dance but thought to yourself, “I have too many limitations to dance,” or “I’m too shy/awkward/uncoordinated to dance”? Have you been thinking that you want to get moving and find a fun way to exercise but don’t feel comfortable in traditional exercise classes? Or - Are you a dance/movement teacher or choreographer interested in making your work more inclusive of people of all abilities? Are you curious about the current redefinition of dance and the potential diversity of the dancing body?

With this in mind, the January Elements classes will be geared towards welcoming true beginners and offering exercises that could be added to any teacher's toolbox to make dance accessible to all people.  We have an awesome mixed-ability teaching team on the roster - Veronica DeWitt and Juan Munoz - who have been cooking up some lesson plans that explore the fundamentals of the DanceAbility method. DanceAbility is based in improvisation and meant to be practiced by people of multiple abilities and skill levels dancing together. Rather than imitating prescribed moves, you can be a beginner and learn tools to create your own dance and move in ways that feel good to your body. You can be a professional dancer and be challenged to move in new and unique ways outside of your habitual patterns. Practicing the DanceAbility method provides an outlet for creative expression through movement, develops body awareness, and explores non-verbal communication. It also gets you bending and stretching and sweating - basically, it tricks you into exercising with tasks that allow you to move at your own pace and have fun!

Juan Munoz and others dance in the mixed-ability Elements class.

Besides continuing to practice DanceAbility, we will also have guest artists teaching other forms of movement improvisation in the Elements class. In 2017, Lauren Tietz offered a series of classes in Lisa Nelson’s Tuning Scores. We hope to have her back later this year for more Tuning Scores and you can look forward to learning some new skills from our February guest artist, Brandon Gonzales. All the guests we invite to teach the Elements class have experience teaching in a mixed-ability setting and/or have spent time prepping with one of our lead instructors to ensure that we do our best to offer an environment in which no one feels isolated.

Last year, in addition to our twice monthly Elements class, we began holding dance jams every season. This gave our long time participants as well as more experienced movers from the theatre and dance community a space to practice their skills. The jams were so well-attended that we will continue to have seasonal jams this year.

Also, we are excited to announce that we will be looking for a venue to have an accessible dance party with plenty of space to roll, stroll, and boogie without restriction to fun music! Let us know if you have suggestions for a cool club, hall, or studio that is fully accessible and centrally located.

Body Shift dancers, some in wheelchairs and others standing, move about a spacious room in Elements. 

Come shift your perspective with us this year! If you are intimidated or unsure what to expect from taking class I encourage you to come observe. If two hours seems like too long for your stamina level, join us for the first half of class. We are happy to make accommodations in order to make class friendly to a diverse range of needs.

The Elements class takes place every 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month from 2:30-4:30pm at the Townlake YMCA in the first floor group exercise studio (1100West Cesar Chavez St). No gym membership is required to attend. Open to adults age 16 and up; all ability and experience levels. No registration necessary, and the fee for class is on a sliding scale from $5-$20, cash or check accepted.

Let’s dance!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

What We Learned in 2017

The transition from one year to the next is an opportunity to look to the future, to set new goals and make resolutions for what we hope to accomplish or change in the New Year. It is also a time when we can reflect on the past year and ponder the lessons we learned. Here are three OMOD speakers on what they learned in 2017:

Kamand Alaghehband

I’ve learned to be grateful for what I have. There were so many disasters this year like Hurricane Harvey and people lost everything they had. I volunteered to help people in the shelter, then I realized how blessed I am with everything I have in my life. This was the biggest lesson I’ve learned from this year. Also, helping other people made me feel better about myself. It made me feel I am a better me to be able to help other people in need.

Houstonians evacuating via boats or wading through waist-high water

Nicole Cortichiato

You can find forks in the road everywhere— practically everywhere you look—your food, where you go, how you react. Last night I found a fork in the road of my scalp. I ended up parting my own seas—taking the road less traveled. I guess that's just the artist in me. Forks—such a scary utensil.

Eric Clow

I don’t know if this has more to do with 2017 or turning 30, but this year I grappled considerably with what it means to be an artist – at least on a personal level – and even more with what it means to be an artist with a disability that renders the eight-hour work day impossible. Lessons I learned through this struggle include seeing my art for the work that it is, trusting in the creative process and ignoring my inner critic long enough to complete a rough draft, accepting that some pieces may take months, even years, to finish, recognizing when I use my disability as a rationalization to avoid work and instead modifying each task so I can work without damaging my muscles, and going to work whether or not I feel inspired. Though much of the art may be mediocre, I continue with the hope a few gems will emerge; but if that never happens, I can still find satisfaction knowing I did (and do) what I love. More importantly, 2017 also delivered me an adorable Pembroke Welsh Corgi named Mac the Boo Bear who has brought immeasurable joy, love, and laughter into my life.

Mac accompanies me on a patient lift ride to my wheelchair.

What did you learn in 2017? Share with us in the comments!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Tour of the Holiday Show 2017

Have you been over to VSA Texas lately? Our boring old classroom has been transformed into a Unique Boutique for our 9th annual Holiday Art and Gift Show. And it looks great!

You need to come by in person to really see the details and quality in the artwork and handmade items we have for sale. But for now, here is a video tour of some highlights of the show:

The artwork in this room was created by 45 artists with disabilities from the state of Texas. So far we have sold about $3,000 worth of art and we wrote checks to 13 artists to help them support their goals as working artists. But we want to make more sales and write more checks. So please come by and support Texas artists, support the good work of VSA Texas, and support buying handmade for the holidays!

We are hosting an artist reception this Saturday, December 16th from 1-4 pm. Please come out and meet the artists, hear live music, and nibble on treats. Or visit us any day Monday-Saturday 10-4 all the way up to December 23rd. We are in Room 101 in the AGE of Central Texas Building and can be easily found if you direct yourself to 3707 Home Lane, Austin, TX 78705 and look for the signs.

Happy Holidays from the VSA Texas family!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Ten Thousand Villages Holiday Benefit

I believe it’s been over 12 years since I got a notification from the volunteer coordinator of SXSW Film Festival calling for volunteers for Ten Thousand Villages of Austin, a fair trade retail nonprofit store. I looked up their website and read a bit about their history and what Fair Trade means.

“Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers.
“It highlights the need for change in the rules and practice of conventional trade and shows how a successful business can also put people first. It is a tangible contribution to the fight against poverty, climate change and economic crisis.” 
—World Fair Trade Organization

I was so impressed with their mission, I signed up and got trained as a volunteer and have been volunteering with this organization ever since. I have gotten to meet some of the artisans on their U.S. tours and have learned so much about their families and villages and their workers. There are actually over 160 Ten Thousand Villages in the U.S. and over 40 in Canada, all based on the same model of fair trade. I have met wonderful folks from Niger and Pakistan.

In addition to their mission, Ten Thousand Villages of Austin also supports local nonprofits throughout the year by designating a specific benefit night where 10-15% of sales are donated to a specific nonprofit. VSA Texas has participated in this event for over 5 years. Gradually we have developed a loyal following of those who not only love VSA Texas and our mission but love the mission of Ten Thousand Villages as well.

This year’s VSA Texas benefit night will be at the fairly new location of Ten Thousand Villages on 4803 Burnet Road, with plenty of accessible parking in front and more parking behind the building. Come shop with us, get to know VSA Texas a little better as well as the wonderful folks at Ten Thousand Villages. Remember to come in the store between 5:00-8:00 PM on Monday, December 11th, and I guarantee you will find that special, one-of-a-kind ornament or gift, complete with the story behind each item you purchase. Over 38 developing countries are represented in the store.

Also, as a special treat, Rick Perkins & Friends will be there to perform original tunes and share stories with his songwriter pals.

Rick Perkins singing and playing acoustic guitar at Roots

Please visit Ten Thousand Villages YouTube Channel to see what all they offer. And visit our VSA Texas YouTube Channel to see what we are about. And come join us Monday, December 11th, from 5:00-8:00 PM for a blending of two wonderful missions aimed at giving artists our support to encourage growth and sustainability for themselves and their families.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Support Giving Voice – Buy a Poster!

We are excited to have just wrapped up our second year of Giving Voice, a great new program partnering with AIGA Austin. As I’ve mentioned before in blogging about this program, it’s like VSA Texas and AIGA Austin were made for each other. AIGA is a community of design advocates bringing together practitioners, enthusiasts, and patrons to amplify the voice of design and create the vision for a collective future. And who better to amplify their voice and create a collective vision than young adults with disabilities! We matched up 11 youth with 11 professional graphic designers in Fall 2017 and these creative duos each made a poster about a social cause.

Marielle and Denise’s poster about voting

How did we match up these pairs? We gave them each a survey to fill out and then put them together based on personality and interests. It wasn't easy, but we seemed to get it right and had some great matches.

Alex and Clarissa became great friends during their short time together.

Next, our design teams met only 4 times for an hour and a half each meeting. That’s not a lot of time together! But the results were amazing.

Edith and Quinn working together on their poster

Cade and Evan working on their poster

With help from our partners at AIGA we were able to secure some donations to make this program a big success. First, One Touch Point donated the poster printing. Next, Big Medium awarded us a scholarship to be an official participant in the East Austin Studio Tour when we exhibited the posters at the Terrazas Branch Library. And finally, Trader Joe’s and AIGA chipped in for food and drinks at the reception.

Rey and Juan Carlos in front of their poster at the exhibition

Kim and Kamand at the reception

Our posters are still on view at the library and will be through the end of December. We hosted an online silent auction and some of the posters sold. But not all of them! So if you are interested in a poster, you can donate $20 or more to the program and pick up one of the available works of art. Contact me at for more details. You can see the posters here.