Thursday, February 8, 2018

Introducing ATXgo!

Austin is a town of festivals. Or so we like to think! But, if you check out our new ATXgo! website, you will witness for yourself the plethora of festivals that happen here every year. No matter your interest, there is a festival for you.

Screenshot of the ATXgo! website homepage

Thanks to a generous cultural expansion contract from the City of Austin’s Cultural Arts Division, we were able to research all of the festivals in town and the venues and parks where they all take place. We were hoping to highlight the accessible features of all of the venues – or not – but stepped back from that for several reasons. If you care to know why, give me a call and I will fill you in on all the salacious details. However, we have listed the direct access contact for all festivals and venues who have made that information available on their website.

Note to everyone: If you have an access policy and procedures to book tickets, get information about location, parking, bus routes, and accommodations such as captioning, American Sign Language (ASL) interpreting, audio description, etc., and it is not available on your website, ADD IT and then send us the link. We will update your listing, which saves your potential visitor the added time of trying to contact you to get the information from a live person in your box office, house manager’s office, or executive director’s office. Remember that most people surf the Internet at night. This is not conducive to calling to get the necessary information, and they may just decide to spend their hard earned cash somewhere else!

In addition to the festival and venue information, we also have included many resources for the individual or organization trying to ensure their venues, programs, and services are accessible to everyone. Check out the ADA Toolkit for links to the DOJ if you are looking for the ADA regulations – or handy tips, guidelines, and training tools. If you have a resource that should be featured, please send it along and we will happily add it to the toolkit.

We are thrilled to be able to make this simple planning resource available to our residents and visitors – be it your first or 100th trip to Austin. If you know of a festival we have overlooked, or a venue that we need to mention, please send us an email and we will add it to our site.

Just a small snapshot of the comprehensive list of festivals you can find on the ATXgo! site

I have to thank Camille Wheeler for providing most of the photos on the site, as well as VSA staff and some other folks who are credited on the site. We plan to update photos and information on a regular basis, so if you have a high-resolution photo that shows Austin at its quirkiest, please don’t hesitate to send it along.

So, happy festival-going, friends. And welcome to Austin!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

From Combat to Community

I spent Monday and Tuesday of this week in the Killeen area and at Fort Hood for the Texas Creative Forces Summit. This convening of veterans, current military personnel, artists, arts providers and veteran service providers was the start of something big. Although, a focus on the arts as a healing tool for veterans is not a new idea. In fact, we have been focusing on this issue at VSA Texas since 2009. But it is nice to see more growth in this area and to have backing by federal organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Defense.

The first day started with speeches by Texas State Representative Hugh Shine and Mayor of Killeen Jose Segarra. Our keynote speaker was local veteran artist Chris Van Loan who has participated in some of our programs.

"Ascension" by Chris Van Loan from the 8th Annual Distinguished Artist Veterans Exhibition

We learned about the programs happening at the Intrepid Center of Excellence including their robust Art Therapy and Music Therapy programs. Fort Hood soldiers with PTSD and TBI work through 8 weeks of intensive therapies that include these modalities. But as we learned, only 50% of people who need services seek services clinically. So community arts programs like the writing classes we offer at VSA Texas can fill those gaps.

At lunch we were treated to speeches by special guests Cecilia Abbott, the First Lady of Texas, and Karen Pence, the Second Lady of the U.S. Both are strong supporters of the arts and especially art therapy. We already knew that about Mrs. Abbott because we had been approached by the Governor’s Office last November to find a veteran artist interested in drawing the Governor’s Christmas card. We chose artist Lucia Miron, a Veteran from North Texas who captured a room in the governor’s mansion decorated by Mrs. Abbott for Christmas in a Fiesta style. She also featured the family dog.

A draft of the Texas Governor’s 2017 Christmas Card designed by Veteran Artist Lucia Miron

Karen Pence speaking about the importance of Art Therapy

Our afternoon was filled with ideas and information from artists, arts organizations, storytellers, and musicians.

The next day we went to Fort Hood and watched a performance piece called Re-Entry by American Records. It was a powerful work that used direct language from interviews with returning service members and their family. After that we had small group discussions to synthesize what we learned and what our strategies would be going forward to make the IH-35 Corridor from San Antonio to Fort Worth a robust area for our current service members, veterans, and their families to participate in the arts. As Retired Brigadier General Nolen V. Bivens said throughout the conference, we need to bring our military “from Combat to Community” through the arts!

Left to right: Rick Perkins, Glenn Towery, April Sullivan, Bart Pitchford, Miriam Conner at the Creative Forces Conference

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!