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.