Thursday, July 28, 2016

Body Shift: The Element of Time

Hello, friends!  This is Olivia, project coordinator for Body Shift, VSA Texas’ and Forklift Danceworks' 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.  You can find a general overview of what to expect from Elements in my blog post from April 28, 2016 here.  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 class last Saturday, after working to develop our awareness of moving from internal sensation and how to be in relationship to a partner, I led the group through an exploration of time.  Time is relative to the person and the pace that is reasonable for their body.  You can do a quick improv wherever you are as you read this… Choose one body part and begin moving it in whatever way feels good to you.  Notice the sensation that is generated from that movement.  Continue with the same basic moves but now try doing them fast (whatever fast means to you).  Then try doing them slow (whatever slow means to you).  Try going back and forth between fast and slow while moving a different body part or your whole body and add in the option to be still whenever you choose.  As you are moving, continue to see if you can stay aware of what it feels like as you move.  Staying in tune with sensation when moving fast is a more advanced skill and takes practice.  Continue moving fast, slow and being still and now add in the awareness of duration.  How long do you choose to move fast?  Slow?  Be still?  Notice if you fall into a pattern of doing the same speed for the same length of time and challenge yourself to mix things up – sometimes longer stillness; sometimes moving short and quick or long and sustained, etc.  After practicing with time as a solo, you can also work with a partner or in groups.

Last Saturday we went from working with fast, slow and stillness in duets to quartets to the whole group into an open improvisation at the end of class.  Below are two short clips from our exploration in pairs.  Notice the diverse range of choices people are making about what fast, slow, and still means.  Also notice how long they choose to stay with each as well as the way they are affected by their partner.  Sometimes one might choose to follow their partner's pacing or they may choose to contrast.

“In improvising, when you move, and how quickly or slowly, can be just as important as what you are doing… The goal is to control time rather than be controlled by your habitual sense of timing… Spontaneity is not always the best choice.  Making the same movement but choosing to do it at a different time or doing it faster or slower can change the movement and its relation to the rest of the improvisation. ” (Alito Alessi, founder of  DanceAbility International and Joint Forces Dance Company,

Below are short clips of each of the quartets from last class practicing Fast, Slow and Still:

Hope to see you in class August 13th!  Elements takes place every 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month at the Townlake YMCA in Austin from 2:30-4:30pm.  Like Body Shift on Facebook and visit our website for more details:

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Tell Me A Story!

Hello! It is I, Nicole, project facilitator for Opening Minds, Opening Doors (OMOD) at VSA Texas. I’m here to tell you about some kick butt entertainment in Austin, and it's entertainment that you too can participate in: STORYTELLING! Recently I investigated several storytelling venues for our OMOD speakers, and boy was I impressed at the selection! And it's all around Austin, at FREE or affordable prices. Yes, I said free and well worth it too. So if you’re tired of the movie scene and want to hear real personal stories from your fellow Austinites or tell some of your own, then I encourage you to check out one of these six storytelling events:

(Note: I have primarily investigated the physical accessibility of these venues, specifically the entrance and wheelchair seating, so please contact the individual event organizers for information regarding parking, bathroom accessibility, and other accommodations. Stories at these events are also intended for adults, so there may be some themes unsuitable for children. Also, unless otherwise noted, to tell a story at one of these events, you must contact the individual event organizers to sign up.)

1. The Living Room

Review: Indoors, a little pricey but worth it. Stories go on a little longer than I would like (10-15 minutes), but still good usually. Typically an older crowd. The "stage area" is wheelchair accessible.
When: Every first Saturday of the month at 7:30 PM
Where: Scottish Rite Theater at 207 West 18th Street, Austin, TX 78701 (Note: the venue might changs, so make sure to check the Facebook page or contact the organizer before going.)
Cost: $15, cash or check ONLY
For more information: Visit, send an email to, or call 512-441-6085.

Image courtesy of Backyard Story Night.
(Description: a crowd of about 100 people seated in foldable
chairs and oriented toward the Scoot Inn's outdoor stage,
where a blond woman in bright clothes tells a story.)

2. Backyard Story Night

Review: Excellent storytelling (5-6 minute limit per story; biggest crowd by far), outdoor seating, and there is usually a food trailer to order food and drinks. Or you can bring your own snacks! Be sure to also bring your own chair or blanket to sit on. Unfortunately, the stage is not wheelchair accessible.
When: Every other month, usually the first Sunday. Doors open at 7:00 PM. Show starts at 8:00 PM. (Note: the next show will be Saturday, August 21st, so it's a good idea to check the site for accurate and up-to-date details.)
Where: Historic Scoot Inn, 1308 East 4th Street, Austin, TX 78702
Cost: Suggested donation to a different non-profit each event. The amount is up to you, so give what you can.

The stage at Testify before showtime.
(Description: Two female sign language interpreters dressed in black sign to each other.
To the right of the interpreters is an elevated stage on which a man plays acoustic guitar.
Also on stage is an empty stool and a microphone stand. Behind the stage the word
"testify" in black text is projected over a white screen. Red curtains cover the walls on
either side of the stage. A disco ball hangs in the foreground.

3. Testify

Review: Intimate setting. Must be 21 or older. You can order drinks and food from your table or the bar. Mostly younger to middle-aged crowd. Stories are on the longer side like The Living Room, but compelling. Sadly, the stage is not wheelchair accessible, but ASL Interpretation was provided at the last two shows by SOULumination Interpreters, so that's a plus!
When: Every last Thursday of the month. Doors open at 7:00 PM. Show starts at 7:30 PM.
Where: Spider House Ballroom, 2908 Fruth Street, Austin, TX 78705
Cost: $5 cash/$6 for credit cards
For more information: Visit or

4. Central Texas Storytelling Guild

Review: Smallest group (usually about 8-10 people), but you will hear some good stories and you can sign up to tell your own story when you arrive. The "stage area" is wheelchair accessible. No time limit specified.
When: Every second Tuesday of the month at 7:00 PM
Where: Episcopal Church of Resurrection, Parish Hall, 2008 Justin Lane, Austin, TX 78757
Cost: Free or by donation
For more information: Visit, send an email to, or call 512-258-3345.

5. Beyond Our Backyard Storytelling

Review: Great outdoor venue by Town Lake! Light wheelchair off-roading possible but avoidable. You can bring snacks, drinks, and your dog. In the least, bring a chair or blanket to sit on. Stories are internationally-focused, 5-7 minutes max. The "stage area" appeared to be wheelchair accessible, but you probably want to see it before you sign up to tell a story and/or bring a strong friend or attendant to help you if necessary.
When: The inaugural Beyond Our Backyard Storytelling event was Sunday, May 1st at 7:30 PM, but the next event has not yet been scheduled. Check their Facebook group for updates.
Where: Hostel International Austin, 2200 S Lakeshore Blvd, Austin, TX 78741 (Located in the back)
Cost: Free

Image courtesy of Hyde Park Storytelling.
(Description: A man dressed in black with a white hoodie stands on an elevated porch
serving as a stage illuminated in green light and tells his story to a crowd of about 100 people
seated cozily on blankets on the ground in a backyard. Audience members at left clap.
Fiesta style lights hang in the air over the audience.)

6. Hyde Park Storytelling

Review: Outdoors, in an actual backyard, so wheelchair users: brace yourselves for some light off-roading. It can also get pretty crowded and tight, so arrive early to get a good space. Bring your blanket or chair to sit on. You can also bring snacks, drinks, and your dog (hey, dogs like stories too, you know). Stories are 5-7 minutes. Only downsides: neither the stage nor bathroom are wheelchair accessible, but it is still a fine venue to see other storytellers!
When: Every other month, the last Saturday of the month. Seating starts at 7:00 PM. Stories start at 8:00 PM.
Where: 5001 Duval Street, Austin, TX 78751
Cost: Free
For more information: Visit

And of course, you can always join us for our monthly Lion and Pirate Open Mic at Malvern Books, which we co-host with the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities and where you can share stories and other talents in a 100% accessible environment. The choice is yours, but I hope to see you at one of these events soon!

If you have any questions or need assistance signing up to tell a story at one of these events, please don't hesitate to leave a comment below or contact OMOD project coordinator Eric Clow directly at

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Introducing Our New Development Director!

Hey folks, it’s VSA Texas blog time from Lynn. I will gladly say we here couldn’t be happier to introduce Janelle Matous as our new Development Director! She’s been here less than three weeks and has already written two grants, completely set up a new office, read through new grant opportunities, AND got us a new puppy mascot, Maisie. I could say more but TA DA! Janelle will let us all know more about herself in her own words, so without further ado... Take it away, Janelle:
Janelle and new puppy Maisie
"Since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to do two things in life: share art and help people. I somehow ended up lucky enough to have a job that lets me to do both. VSA Texas has allowed me to put my years of fundraising experience to use supporting a cause that is near and dear to my heart: making it possible for people of all abilities to expand their connection to the arts.

"An artist myself, I know firsthand how important creative expression is to the development of a mind, no matter what age. Art helped me overcome crippling social anxiety at an early age and watching my son grow up and choose art as his primary form of expression has only deepened my understanding of something I’ve known all along; that art has the power to communicate across language barriers, to bring people together, to inspire, to change the way we look at the world and to make us better humans. We all contribute something to this life, no matter what our ‘job’ is. For some, art is their job. Making it possible to access your dream is paramount to the success of humanity.
Janelle ready for work at her new desk!
"None of us live the same life as another, and what we create is not the same as another in turn. When we welcome diversity in abilities and perspective, we only enrich our own understanding of who we are as people. Once I learned about VSA Texas, it was only natural for me to want to work here. VSA’s programs not only offer accessibility to the arts, but also inclusion in the arts. I am so honored to be part of an organization that celebrates all abilities and sees the importance of creativity in our world, and I look forward to a successful year making more art happen in our community!"

Thursday, July 7, 2016

You Are Listening to Radio KVSA Texas!

Hi blog readers! This is April Sullivan here to tell you about our summer fun in Radioland. I have personally been apprenticing on the KOOP 91.7 FM Radio shows Austin Artists and Reflections of Community Outreach on Mondays from 1-2 pm each week. By the end of July I will have taken my test to become a Certified Programmer for KOOP Community Radio Station. I am very excited!

Last month from June 13-24 I used my newly learned skills to teach a Radio Internship to 12 young interns. With lots of help from Eric and volunteers, we worked with our group of interns on topics such as FCC regulations, planning a music show, recording a newscast, writing a PSA and a podcast, and other skills of a radio DJ.
Interns Rachel and Max edit their PSA text with volunteer Zahira.
Intern Thad recording his newscast with volunteer John
One great thing about Austin is that we have lots of friendly community radio stations in this town. We took field trips to KOOP, a volunteer-run community station and KVRX, the UT student-run station. We saw DJs in action, rummaged through walls full of music CDs, and enjoyed a day out using public transportation. Did you know that KOOP and KVRX share the same FM frequency at 91.7 FM? So you can listen to unique programming 24 hours a day on the radio or online at or
Intern Pearl at KVRX Studios
KOOP Executive Director Kim McCarson with Intern Rachel
And here is a little secret… you may see artwork by one of our interns on the next KOOP t-shirt. I don’t want to give anything away yet, but once a final design is announced, you know I will be showing it off. We are always proud of the work our interns do to impact the local community.

After a fun-filled two weeks where our 12 interns put in 40 hours of work learning about and creating radio, we had a final showcase where we played sound recordings of their newscasts, podcasts, and music shows. You can hear our newscast on the VSA Texas SoundCloud page here. As with all of our Side by Side Internships focused on providing techniques in creative industries for transitioning youth with disabilities, we know our interns have learned new skills they will take with them and apply in any career path they choose.

So what is our next Side by Side Internship opportunity? We have a new program called Giving Voice and the application is out now with a deadline of July 22nd. We are looking for 16-22 year olds with disabilities interested in being matched up with a graphic designer for a one-on-one poster design project. See details at

Friday, July 1, 2016

Me Before This Blog, Part 2

(Note: This blog entry contains spoilers from the film Me Before You.)

This is the second part of a two-part blog about the film Me Before You, which ignited a critical global response from the disability community around issues of disability representation in film, assisted suicide, and other ableist trends in our society. (Read Part 1 here.) As so much has already been written about the film by people with and without disabilities, I would like to use this blog as an opportunity to respond to comments made by the film's writer, director, actors, and other supporters of the film, as I believe this is the best way to create a true dialogue between the different perspectives and establish a brighter path toward improved representation of people with disabilities in film and television.

Me Before You featured scenes of Will before his accident, so it had to cast a nondisabled actor. This argument has been used to defend casting nondisabled actors to portray characters with disabilities in Me Before You, The Theory of Everything, and many others, but under closer scrutiny, this argument does not hold up. In Me Before You, for example, the scenes of Will before his accident can be reduced to about 3-4 minutes of screen time out of 110 minutes, and they exist primarily to provide stark contrast to the immovable, post-accident Will – a worthy endeavor considering the filmmakers must make Will’s ultimate decision believable. However, considering the brevity of these pre-accident scenes, they could have been enacted using a stunt double, portrayed by a different actor, filmed exclusively from Will’s point of view, or possibly even created using computer-generated imagery (CGI). And if these options seem unrealistic, the same effect of these few scenes could have similarly been achieved through dialogue. But on the whole, this is a weak excuse, especially when you consider how much the film would have benefited from an actual actor with a spinal cord injury who could bring nuance rooted in real experience to the role. Of course, it is acting, which by nature requires actors to imagine themselves in situations they have not experienced; still, basic parameters do exist within the casting process (e.g., a 12-year-old would not be cast to play a 90-year-old man, men are not regularly cast as women, and white people are not cast to portray people of color, etc.), and to not extend those same parameters to people with disabilities is wrong – especially to the capable actors and actresses with disabilities who remain unemployed while nondisabled actors secure the few disabled roles available.
An image of Me Before You's Will Traynor prior to his spinal cord injury
It’s just a movie. Indeed it is a movie, but a movie is never just a movie. As suggested in Part 1, this movie does not exist in a vacuum. Rather it exists in a social context where ideas about underrepresented minorities are formed in movie theaters or in front of TV sets, where assumptions about another person's quality-of-life can have deadly consequences, where people with disabilities must constantly struggle to even be acknowledged as a minority group. Just less than two months ago I observed an Austin Community College "Ethics in Government" event in which 25 college students discussed the issue of physician-assisted suicide. I listened as one student after another used phrases like "burden to your family" and explained why they too would want to die if they became disabled. No one could answer the question "Why is disability more frightening than death?" and no one was interested in uncovering why there is such a stigma around an inevitable human condition. My own experience of growing up in a small town and being one of only two people with a physical disability in an entire school district taught me that when you don't know anyone else with a disability, you really can't help but form your ideas based on what you see in the media. And naturally, my view of my own disability was extremely negative until I actually had the opportunity to meet other people with disabilities. Fast forward to January of this year, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences neglected to include people with disabilities in its mandate for inclusion in all its facets. The bottom line is that films like Me Before You have far-reaching social implications that we should not ignore.
An infographic shows a block of text beside a signed black and white photo
of disabled actor Harold Russell holding a telephone to his ear.
Aren’t there more important issues for the disability community to protest than this film? This is, actually, the point. A film like Me Before You gives the audience the impression that Will’s disability is purely a medical problem and not a social one. While the film does draw attention to social issues like accessibility (Will gets stuck in a muddy parking lot where there is presumably no accessible parking and later remarks how difficult a trip to Paris would be as a wheelchair user due to the lack of accessible cabs and businesses), the moments are too few to counter the overwhelming opinion that the bulk of Will's problems arise from his disability and not the society he lives in. Why does this matter? Consider the infographic above, taken from Farnall and Smith's 1999 article which reads, "A national study of over 1200 adults found that those who watched positive portrayals of characters with disabilities were 'more likely to recognize discrimination against people with disabilities and less likely to say they had negative emotions when encountering people with disabilities.'" So advocating for improved representation of people with disabilities in film and television is, in fact, fighting discrimination and working towards greater inclusion and acceptance of people with all abilities. And without the disability community's protests and critiques of Me Before You, we would not be having these important discussions at all.

In protesting films that paint disability as a miserable experience and pushing for more positive portrayals of disability in film, we hope to communicate to the world that we are a proud social group, that we experience discrimination, that we have civil rights, and that films have the tremendous power to alter perceptions and create change.

Have you seen Me Before You and other films or TV shows about disability or with disabled characters? What did you think? Have you seen films with positive portrayals of characters with disabilities? What are they? Tell us in the comments!

Eric Clow
OMOD Project Coordinator
VSA Texas