Thursday, August 17, 2017

Giving Voice Austin

Have you heard about our Giving Voice Austin program? It's pretty new. We launched the program in 2016, and this fall will be our second time around. We learned a lot from the first program and are excited to bring it back.

Do you ever wonder, “How does VSA Texas come up with these great ideas?” Well, we do have a brilliant staff over here, but this time we borrowed from the brilliance of VSA Colorado. They hosted Giving Voice for 10 years, and when they decided to retire it, we thought it was too good to see it go. Plus, Amber Atkins, one of the masterminds behind the program moved to Austin, and she wanted to start it here. Lucky us!

So what is Giving Voice, you ask? It is a partnership between AIGA and VSA Texas. We are perfect partners because we both have mysterious acronyms for names, provide professional development opportunities for artists, and want to create a vibrant, creative, and inclusive community. Learn more about AIGA on their website.

In this partnership, AIGA recruits professional designers who want to be mentors, and we recruit youth with disabilities who want to give voice to a social cause. We then bring them together as one-on-one pairs to each create a poster with a message.

Bruce and Braelon planning their poster design

Final poster design of “You Are Not Alone” by Braelon & Bruce, Giving Voice Austin 2016

Kim Hopson, curator of our 2016 program, says:
“The mentorship program and poster exhibition show so many themes. It reflects community arts education, design for good, and social justice. Most of all it's an enriching experience; for both the mentor and the mentee.
“Giving Voice is a platform for young people with disabilities. It lets them use art to explore issues that are important to them. Their design mentor collaborates with them and facilitates their work.
“It was a great honor to curate Giving Voice 2016! I can't wait to see what this year's mentors and mentees create!”

Max getting input from Hailey, another student’s mentor

Final poster design of “These Little Guys” by Max & David, Giving Voice Austin 2016

So if you are a young adult with a disability age 16-22, or know one, we want you to get involved in this program! We already have 12 mentors ready to go, a print shop that wants to print the posters, and a venue to show the posters during the East Austin Studio Tour in November. All we need are youths interested in voicing a message through art!

The time commitment is four Saturday meetings September 16-October 7 from 12:00-1:30 pm with lunch provided. Mentors and mentees will meet at the VSA Texas classroom in central Austin. Contact April at 512-454-9912 or april@vsatx.org to get an application today! Hurry, the deadline is August 28th, and you don’t want to miss this great opportunity!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Language Matters!

This past week the entire staff of VSA Texas has been busy co-hosting the Kennedy Center's Office of VSA & Accessibility's annual Intersections and Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) conferences, which we were thrilled to have in Austin this year! I was also personally excited for the opportunity to participate as a panelist in one of the concurrent sessions entitled "If language matters, what should I say?" which centered around the complex and often controversial topic of disability terminology, a topic I have been passionate about for a while. You can take a look at my earlier blog on this topic Call Me Disabled, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Word to read my perspective going into this session.

Marie Clapot and Rebecca McGinnis of the The Metropolitan Museum of Art along with Madison Zalopany of the Whitney Museum of American Art brought this conversation to LEAD this year and invited several artists and advocates from Austin's disability community to participate as speakers including Theron Parker, Gail Dalrymple, Nicole Cortichiato, Renee Lopez, Dolores Gonzalez, and myself. All together, a representative from nearly every contingent of the disability community was present: we had an artist with an invisible disability, a deaf artist, a parent of an adult child with multiple disabilities, several disability advocates, and others.

Sign with arrow directs attendees to the 2017 VSA Intersections and LEAD Conferences
(Photo courtesy of VSA)

The goal of this session was not to be prescriptive but rather engage in meaningful discussions about the language we choose to use around disability, the language we choose to describe ourselves, why we make those decisions, and how those decisions may influence or reflect the way we view or interact with people with disabilities on a broader scale. In no way can I capture the depth nor the full scope of our hour-and-twenty-minute long conversation, but what I can do is share what I personally learned through discussion with other speakers and attendees of the session:

1. While I may fiercely celebrate my identity as a disabled person and proudly use Identity-First Language when I can, calling myself "disabled" may not always be the clearest nor most effective language to use, and it need not enter the majority of my interactions with others. Telling a venue, museum, or other business that I am a "wheelchair user" and need "wheelchair access" cuts straight to the point; meanwhile, my identity is simply that – mine – and it's up to me when, where, and how I choose to share it.

2. Language is fluid. In a given day, I might refer to myself as "disabled and proud," tell someone else I work with "people with disabilities," call a concert venue to ask if they are "wheelchair accessible," and spend an evening with friends and family where my disability isn't mentioned at all because frankly it isn't relevant or essential to everything I do. Eliminating all linguistic options for the sake of one isn't necessary, and it completely misses the point.

3. No one language fits all. The disability experience and the personal journey inherent in that experience exists on a vast spectrum and constantly fluctuates depending on our energy level, the kind of day we're having, or recent changes in our disability. While disability pride may be the ultimate goal, you can't force that on someone who isn't there yet or rush them through their own extremely personal journey. Respect them by using the language they prefer and move on.

4. Start with accommodations. Several people in the session discussed their difficulty assessing a client's disability without asking prying questions. One of the attendees suggested asking, "How may I assist you?" This seemed to be an optimal solution: start with offering assistance or asking if an accommodation is necessary; if one is needed, provide it. The reality is everyone needs an accommodation at some point, and it's not our place to ask why or demand a suitable reason.

5. Avoid euphemisms when possible. For many people with disabilities, euphemisms like "differently-able," "special needs," "physically-challenged," etc. sugarcoat something that doesn't need to be sugarcoated. We are comfortable with who we are, and we have adapted to our unique life experience. The word "disability" is not negative or painful for us to hear; in fact, it's the opposite: a source of pride, a badge of honor, a community we know and love.

6. At some point, the language you use will offend someone. It's inevitable, I'm afraid. Considering the multitude of people with disabilities, the countless different disabilities there are, and the myriad perspectives people have about the disability experience, it is simply impossible to always say the exact right thing. However, if you see a person as a person first, recognize that disability is a normal and natural part of life, not to be feared or pitied but embraced, and make strides to be as inclusive and accessible as possible, you are far less likely to offend someone. If, after all best intentions and care, you do offend somebody, acknowledge there are things you have yet to learn, apologize, and make a conscious effort to avoid repeating that mistake.

These six lessons are not exhaustive, but I hope they may prove a helpful guide to navigating the often uncertain waters of disability terminology. Please let me know if you have any other suggestions. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Body Shift: The Element of Design

Hello, friends! This is Olivia, project coordinator for Body Shift, VSA Texas’ acclaimed mixed-ability dance project. Every 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month Body Shift offers a class we call Elements in which we practice improvisational dance in an inclusive way by using the DanceAbility method. In DanceAbility, we work with four basic principles that are the building blocks of choreography. These include sensation, relationship, time, and design. Oftentimes we will choose one of these principles to narrow the focus in order to increase the students' understanding and awareness of how to make use of these elements.

In the July Elements class Kelly Hasandras and I chose to focus on “design.” Oftentimes when people hear the words improv dance they think that means the dancers will make random movements with little or no pre-determined structure. This is rarely the case. In fact, improvisation is a technique that when practiced regularly and with certain principles in mind has the potential to create quite organized compositions in the moment. One way that improv dance can take on a choreographed appearance is to be aware of designing the space using elements that include placement/proximity, levels, patterns, repetition, imitation, unison movement, development, contrast, physical contact, beginnings and endings, entrances and exits, etc.

When you combine body awareness, non-verbal relationships between dancers, use of varied timing (fast, slow, stillness), design naturally occurs. How you move and where you move in relationship to others and the space around you can be determined by your intuition and imagination. Improvisers shift between a more intuitive, preconscious choice making and conscious choice making. An example of this – I might notice that other people in my group are moving very slowly. My intuition might draw me to join in moving slowly with them. My conscious mind might suggest that I contrast what they are doing by moving fast, whatever fast means to me. One is not a better choice than the other. You should be able to make both choices and weave them together. Alito Alessi suggests, “As an improviser you can think of the whole space as a soup that you are helping to cook. Taste the overall flavor and let your senses tell you what spice it needs.”

This is one of the ways that the DanceAbility method makes dance friendly to people of all physical and cognitive abilities. Participants who are more advanced theatre and dance performers can challenge themselves to see and sense what everyone around them is doing and make choices to place themselves in ways that make a satisfying stage picture. Folks who have little or no experience can challenge themselves to move in ways that feel good to their body and ways that relate to their own sensations or the people around them. One does not have to be cognizant of what their movements look like to an audience to have a dance that is both satisfying to do and to watch. Ultimately the deeper one’s concentration and perception of what is happening internally and externally, the more compelling the experience both inside and out.

Here is an example of spontaneous design from the recent Body Shift performance of Nexus outside Ballet Austin during the Austin Dance Festival. You can see the dancers using their awareness of levels (high/medium/low), facing (giving or taking focus by looking in a specific direction), shape (what is the line/placement of your body), and space (how are you placed in relationship to the other dancers) to create an interesting stage picture.

I hope you will join us for this month's Elements class which will be taught by Michael Joplin and takes place August 12 and 26 from 2:30-4:30pm at Townlake YMCA. No membership is required and adults of all abilities age 16 and up are encouraged to attend. Cost is pay-what-you-can on a sliding scale of $5-$20. Remember if you are new to dance but feel intimidated by jumping right in you are welcome to observe class and chat with the dancers about their experience before or after class.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Support Houston Artists with Disabilities

Although we are based in Austin, VSA Texas strives to serve the state of Texas as much as we can. The annual Houston Abilities Expo is one of those times we get a chance to showcase our Houston artists. And we have lots of talent in Houston!

The Expo is a great opportunity for people with disabilities to see the latest and greatest in wheelchairs, accessible vans, and assistive technology. It is also a place to learn about resources from across the state. What we bring to the event is an opportunity for people to learn about VSA Texas and to help artists with disabilities make a living off their artwork. You can be a direct participant in this by buying something creative and handmade by one of our Artist Market artisans.

"Buy Local Art" button

So if you plan to attend the event, consider bringing some extra money to purchase gift items such as keychains, t-shirts, or jewelry from Younique Abilities. Or if you are a reader, support Houston science fiction writer Ron Hull by buying one of his books. If you are a music lover, buy a CD from Eric Clow. And almost everyone I know has walls in their home. Don't leave them blank! Buy art to decorate them. We will have photographs by Drew Bedo, digital paintings by Megan Fry, drawings by David Sulak, and mixed media art by Dee Franklin. Oh, and I can't forget about the spoons! We have Cuddle Spoons in the Artist Market this year! What are Cuddle Spoons? Come find out at the Artist Market in the Abilities Expo. Read about all of the artists in the Artist Market here.

Windmill Drawing by David Sulak

The Abilities Expo is happening next Friday-Sunday, August 4-6 in Hall E of the NRG Center in Houston. It is a free event. You can register and find more details on the Abilities Expo website.

Abilities Expo Promo Photo shows a man in a walker holding his fist in the air triumphantly.

If you can't buy anything, come anyway and support our artists by looking at their art and hearing their stories. Some of our artists will also present a workshop at the Expo Friday at 11:45 AM. In their workshop entitled "The Art of a Hobby: How to Make the Creative World Accessible to You," artists Eric Clow, Drew Bedo, and Dee Franklin will share tips, tricks, and workarounds they used to make their arts accessible and encourage you to unlock your own creative passions.

We hope to see you at the Expo!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

What I Learned from Being a Sighted Guide

Hi folks, Lynn here. I decided to share some tips for sighted guides in this week's blog because I was recently assigned to be a sighted guide for a person at a conference in Austin. I had not done this before, but I had also been working on a written project on the very same topic. So I did a little research and learned some simple techniques for being a sighted guide for people who are blind or visually impaired.

A daughter serves as a sighted guide for her father at a restaurant. (Photo courtesy of the American Foundation for the Blind)

Here is a basic step-by-step guide. But always bear in mind that each person has a different need and a different experience. It is up to you as the sighted guide to learn and listen.

  1. Address the person and identify yourself. Tell them you are there to assist them.
  2. Touch the follower’s (the person who is blind or visually impaired) elbow, forearm, or hand with the back of your hand.
  3. The follower will choose which part of your arm to grasp, or it may be the top of your shoulder depending upon your height. They will let you know which is most comfortable and secure for them.
  4. Walk at a comfortable pace.
  5. The correct grip is important for comfort and safety.
  6. The correct stance is important for protection.
  7. Doorways – it is important to allow the person being guided to be in control of the door; they should be on the hinge side.
  8. Narrow spaces – advise the person that a narrow space is ahead.
  9. Stairs – stop at the first step and tell the follower whether the steps go up or down. Stop when you reach the end of the stairs and tell the person when you are at the top or bottom, respectively.
  10. Seating – explain which way the chair is facing and where it is in relation to the rest of the room. Also explain which part of the chair you are touching.
  11. If leaving the person alone, leave them in contact with an object.

Here are a few bonus tips:

  • Remember there are differences among people who are blind or visually impaired; no two people are alike.
  • Many people have some useful vision, and there are also variations in how people have adjusted to their vision.
  • The best way to know how to be helpful is to ask.

Here is an instructional video from YouTube that can help you see how this all looks in action:


I hope these tips will help you be the best sighted guide possible! If you have any other helpful tips, please tell us in the comments:

Thursday, July 13, 2017

INTRODUCING the 2017 Inaugural Haven Street-Allen Award Luncheon

This year, we are excited to announce our inaugural luncheon on September 19 at Saengerrunde Hall in downtown Austin, where we will be honoring past board member, Forrest Haven Street-Allen.

At VSA Texas, Haven willingly shared her knowledge and insights with her fellow board members and the staff, and supported the activities offered by VSA Texas with her presence and her financial support. She was instrumental in updating the organization’s personnel policies and led the board through an interactive process to update both the mission and vision statements. She truly had a “spark" and embodied how important it is to give back to the community you live in.

A woman with dark blond layered shoulder length hair wearing pearls around her neck and a blue scoop neck shirt smiles in front of a brick wall and small indoor green plant

Starting in 2018, the Haven Street-Allen Artist of the Year Award will be offered in memory of Street-Allen, who died in January 2015. Haven was an insightful and caring person who had a history of helping others. She was a Board Member of VSA Texas as well as the Austin Dispute Resolution Center, a volunteer mediator for the Resolution Center, and the Director of Human Resources for St. Edward’s University in Austin until her retirement in 2012. The Haven Street-Allen Artist of the Year Award recognizes her dedication, vision and respect for all, and honors her commitment to creating greater access to, and support for, the arts in Texas.

The Haven Street-Allen Artist of the Year Award honors an individual who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming a creative dimension in the arts. Each year, the Artist of the Year Award is given to one artist with a disability in Texas who, through a one-time creative act or a substantial record of achievement, embodies the spirit and vision of VSA Texas.

This individual challenges perceptions of how people contribute by demonstrating artistic excellence or leading the way as a community catalyst for change. In addition to a plaque commemorating artistic achievement, each award also consists of an honorarium of $500, recognition as a featured artist on the VSA Texas website, and an invitation to attend our annual luncheon as the guest of honor to be publicly recognized for individual artistic achievements.

Nominations are open to any artist with a disability over the age of 16 years in any medium. All nominations will be juried by a panel of judges and results will be announced January 31. All nominations must be in by December 31 of the previous year to be considered for the award.

Tickets for the luncheon will be $10 each and go on sale August 19, 2017. Save the date for this exciting event! We are currently seeking sponsors for food and varying monetary levels, so please contact me at janelle@vsatx.org or 512-454-9912 to get involved today!

Hope to see you all there September 19!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

What Does Independence Mean to You?

Depending on who you ask, independence can mean many different things. For people living in nations like ours, independence may be a fond reminder of freedom from tyrannical rule. For others, independence may indicate self-sufficiency on a personal level and the ultimate sign of maturity. For people with disabilities, who may require daily or weekly assistance, independence often means control over one's own decisions and the freedom to participate in the community. With the passing of another Independence Day, we decided to ask a few of our OMOD speakers what independence means to them:

Shaniqua Esparza

Independence does not mean having to do everything on your own. I used to think that. Independence means doing the things you want with whatever help is available to you. It takes a braver, stronger and more independent person to acknowledge and seek help.

Shaniqua poses at the National Mall in Washington DC with the Washington Monument in the background.

Renee Lopez

Independence means living my life as I choose to live it. The operative word here being I! No amount of independence would exist for me if it weren't for my personal care attendants. They give me the ability to live in the community. Without them, I would have to live in an institutional setting, like a nursing home, where my life would cease to feel worthwhile. Independence to me is being a full member of my community and being recognized and appreciated as such. Independence ultimately means that I, as an American citizen, have the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. Nothing else matters to me more than that.

Renee poses before Austin's skyline at sunset.

Adam Farris

In my honest opinion independence is where we are free to be ourselves. Think about it – this great nation was founded 241 years ago. We as a country need to understand that there are people that are different or unique from others in so many ways. Independence is where we can be free to be ourselves, and be united, with no hatred towards others. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a frequent quote that I like. Remember that everyone is equal in their own way.

Photo of Adam beside black text over blue reading, "My name is Adam Farris, I am 29 years old, and I don't think of myself as disabled because I have been able to accomplish so much. Maybe none of us are really "disabled," maybe we are all just different people with unique abilities. The world needs to understand that all of us are alike."

Kamand Alaghehband

I always feel independent when I am involved with Special Olympics. Let me win, but if I don't, then let me be brave in the attempt.

Kamand stands beside her Special Olympics swim teammates. Everyone holds their fists in the air proudly.

Jordana Gerlach

I feel independent when I take care of my horse. My horse cannot tell me when he is not feeling well or when his shoes are uncomfortable, so I needed to learn how his mood changes when he is sick in order to take care of him. If I couldn't recognize the signs of a problem, I could have lost my horse. Keeping a close eye on him makes me feel independent. Here we are with the farrier, the man who cares for my horse's feet and changes his shoes every six weeks:


Kaye Love

I experience my independence when I choose to rely on my inner Knowing, instead of the opinions of others. By focusing on my Truth I can live my life in a way that is best for me. When I give my gut instincts more consideration than professional opinions I find myself to be healthier and happier, as I do not function like the textbook says I should. I can experience my own acceptance when others are disapproving or critical, and speak my truth even if it is unique. Reliance on my inner Truth sets me free.

Kaye wearing a business suit

Eric Clow

In the contentious world of politics, our compassion for our fellow countryman and woman may begin to erode with the thought of supporting people we don't even know. In actuality, supporting programs that keep people with disabilities and seniors healthy and active in the community is supporting yourself when you get old or find yourself stricken by an unfortunate accident or injury, it's supporting your parents or your children, it's an investment in an entire country where disability is a normal and natural part of life. To me, independence is the freedom to pursue the life I want within the same opportunities and limitations as my fellow citizens without disabilities.

Living independently in the community gives me the opportunity to express myself creatively and develop new hobbies, like painting. This is "Tree at Sunset."

What does independence mean to you? Please tell us in the comments: