Thursday, October 18, 2018

Artist of the Year – Joan Fabian

Sunday, September 16th was a beautiful sunny afternoon in Austin, Texas as a group of artists and VSA Texas supporters gathered to celebrate artists from around Texas who have empowered themselves and their community through their artistic practice. It was our inaugural Haven Allen Artist of the Year awards where we honored three artists for their achievements.

The Haven Allen awards are named in memory of former VSA Texas Board Member Forrest Haven Street-Allen. Haven was an insightful and caring person who had a history of helping others. When she passed away we wanted to honor her dedication, vision, and respect for all through this award. Our first award ceremony this year was a success and I think Haven would be proud to have her name attached to it.

We solicited nomination forms all year long in 2017. The award is open to any artist with a disability over the age of 16 years old in any discipline. Self-nominations are allowed. We received 10 nominations. Interestingly, all were for visual artists and none were self-nominations. Our panel of judges reviewed all of the applications and they chose San Antonio artist Joan Fabian as the very first Haven Allen Artist of the Year. She was notified this past Spring and then awarded this Fall.

Joan has been a long time artist with VSA Texas. She has been in several group shows and was our final solo show at Access Gallery before it closed in 2012. I think she was a natural choice for this award because of her notable achievements through the arts nationwide and worldwide, her shining spirit and giving nature toward helping other artists succeed, and of course, her beautifully constructed and painted images.

The cover of the catalog produced for Joan’s solo show “Culture of Color” held at Access Gallery in May 2012.

As the 2018 Artist of the Year, we are dedicated to promoting Joan in the community, so this blog is my introduction of her to you. Meet Joan Fabian! If you don’t know her, you should! Below is a video of why she was nominated for and given this award:


In the generous VSA Texas fashion, we couldn’t just give one award! We also gave the Spark Award to fused glass artist Jordana Gerlach and the Director’s Commendation Award to Jackson Sutton. And before you ask, NO! You don’t have to have a name that starts with “J” to win this award.

Our 2019 Nomination Form is out now, so start thinking about the winning artists in your life. We want to see nominations for visual artists, writers, musicians, performers, and dancers! To request a nomination form, contact us at 512-454-9912 or info@vsatx.org. The deadline is February 28, 2019.

Friday, October 12, 2018

One Night in Miami

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time in Miami, Florida, land of Palm trees and beaches. I was there to work with docents and staff of the education department at the Pérez Art Museum Miami on accessible customer service and audio description. This was my third time working with this museum and its staff, and as always, it was a great pleasure. And the museum setting is fabulous too! We were in the Board Room, with wrap-around windows that overlook a water runway… and seaplanes landed throughout the day, bouncing through the wakes their pontoons kicked up. We had a lively conversation concerning best practices for interacting with patrons with diverse abilities, and then spent some quality time in the galleries talking about verbal description for some of the artworks.

In the lobby, For Those in Peril on the Sea by the London-based artist Hew Locke, 70 model boats are suspended from the ceiling. They are diverse in size and color, painted in strong reds, greens, and yellows; some are covered with plastic plants and artificial flowers. They include Chinese junks, Norwegian cruise ships, Indonesian fishing boats, cigarette boats and clipper ships.

For the second year in a row, my trip to Miami coincided with a Miami-based arts and disability conference that I was able to attend as well. This year, Forward Motion, a Physically Integrated Dance Festival and Conference, organized by Karen Paterson & Dancers, was my special treat. Although I wasn’t able to stay for the entire festival, I was able to see several of the Candoco dancers and Karen Peterson dancers perform an intriguing score incorporating voice, echo, translation, and space. It is based on a structure practiced by the British company, Dog Kennel Hill. It was adapted by the dancers working together at Forward Motion for this conference. In addition to Candoco (London) and KPD (Miami), AXIS Dance Company (Oakland) and REVolutions Dance (Tampa) were also performing at the Festival.

The conference consisted of several thought-provoking panel discussions concerning topics of representation in the arts and media, moving beyond inclusion, and intersecting disability, sexuality, race, religion, ethnicity, and gender. Whoa: three very diverse and incredibly important panels discussing some meaty topics!

Some quotes that have stayed with me include:

“Diverse doesn’t mean inclusive.” So true. Many people still struggle with the concept of inclusion; what it means in context of disability.

“I am not educating people… But maybe I am because I am being seen. I know I have the power to be seen.” I have always believed that if you live your life, and let other people experience you living your life, education can happen.

“Inclusion means, I’m included but you’re not. Inclusivity means our stories are included, therefore our bodies are included too.” This one made me think.

And finally, this one is attributed to Annie Segarra, (artist, activist, YouTuber): “Inclusion is being invited to a party that is not equipped to have me there. Access is being invited to a party where I can make my own decision. Maybe I don’t want to dance, but I have the choice.”

All the panelists were very engaged and could have talked longer given the opportunity.

I ended my time in Miami wandering the Wynwood Walls, a neighborhood of warehouses that have been transformed by muralists. I discovered a poet, Jess, (@poemshop-js) who writes poetry on his manual typewriter outside one of the coffee shops. When asked to write a poem about One Night in Miami, he obliged:

The summer air blazes into 
  October, pausing 
a moment 
   to let the sun hide.

   The cotton candy clouds of 
    technicolor sunset 
now drift in simple notes 
       of stray slate 
  and dove gray. 

   We can breathe, 
finally. There is 
     opening and room, 

where the sauna and 
  red glow made us melt 
  inward at noon, 

    now we can stroll 
calm in the open 
    beneath the waning moon.

           The music of evening 
    calls the convocation, 
cars with made-up faces pass, 
swirling the dust of the street. 

Another night before 
             the weekend, in this city 
    where the ocean 
         and Everglades meet.

Jess Allen and his typewriter sit at the edge of the sidewalk, observed by two passers-by.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Namaste, y'all!

Well Namaste to you, oh loyal followers of this temple of contemporary wisdom, whose scrolls are being unraveled to be feasted upon by the fellow valiant and worthy.

Okay, I will not pretend to know what that means. It just sounded funny in my head. *Crickets* Yeah, let’s move on.

I’m Snehi Jhul, and I’m a millennial bard. I’m a musician, actor, and author who’s going back to college for a degree in geography. So, I basically toggle between plotting things and plotting things. (Ha! See what I did there? Huh? Huh? Ahem.) I started working at VSA Texas just two weeks ago, and boy, am I loving it! More on that in a minute.

Here's a photo of me (in case you wanted to put a face to the name).

I’m told I was born in India, but I don’t remember it happening. Is that normal? Anyways, I moved halfway across the world when I was one. I feel I was born as the epitome of mankind’s intelligence, and every skill I now realize I don’t have, I blame it on early childhood jet lag. So it’s quite handy.

I slay new dragons in my mind every day, and their being invisible is the only reason I haven’t been knighted yet. Those sneaky beasts. I always come out with a good story though, and whether I act or sing or write or dance or paint or play each day depends on which story I want to tell myself.

This is when VSA hired me as a work-study, battle-worn but back. On my first day, I made posters. Yep. I was getting paid for this! Then I helped out with one of our Library Live concerts this September, and got to meet some devilishly talented artists. I even got an autograph. (Thanks, Devin!) These people didn’t let disability own them. They owned it back. Booyah! (Wait, do people even say that anymore? Am I getting old?)

Devin Gutierrez performing for the Library Live crowd. He's a talented singer and piano player!

It’s so refreshing to work here, and I get to help out with a bunch of different things. In the first week, I learned how audio descriptions work, how captioning works, and most importantly, what the WiFi password here is. *Grins*

Want to hear about some of this fascinating stuff? Oh yeah, sure, imagination is great, but we can add another dimension to enjoy. I learned that VSA Texas provides audio descriptions at live plays, with descriptive narrations of the actions taking place on stage. You get an uber-cool gadget you tune in on and with an earpiece that makes you a better-looking James Bond, you get to follow along like a boss. I got to try it on when testing the equipment, and man I looked good! Oh, yeah, bring it on!

On top of that, I learn a lot about the world in the process, from voices mainstream society might not think to listen to. Everyone here has a drive to do some good in the world. Help us help you help the world!

Me? I’m personally in it for the stories. :D

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Encouraging Artistic Entrepreneurship

Earlier this month VSA Texas was invited to present at the Houston Arts Partners Conference. The Houston Arts Partners collaboration was created in response to a specific request from Houston area education administrators for a more efficient and effective method to access arts educational resources in Houston. The 2018 Conference was called "Synergy" and all about highlighting arts partnerships for students with diverse learning needs. Well this sounded right up our alley! So we put together a panel presentation called "Encouraging Artistic Entrepreneurship: How Artists with Disabilities Navigate Today's Gig Economy."

Our panel consisted of four young Houston artists. First, Wes Holloway. We have known him for quite some time at VSA Texas. We met when he was attending UT Austin. Wes paints amazing realistic pieces and is currently focusing on smaller collage work. He is a teaching artist and volunteers for United Spinal Association.

The next artist on our panel was Grant Manier. We met Grant when he was just a teenager starting out on his journey of art. He does eco-art using recycled paper. His most recent endeavor is a book he wrote with his mom called "Grant the Jigsaw Giraffe."

We then had Alisha Momin. Alisha was a participant in our Opening Minds, Opening Doors program when we took that to Houston. She creates jewelry, scarves, and potpourri as well. Alisha is an outgoing and adventurous young woman who enjoys making art and especially enjoys the part where she can meet people as she tries to sell it.

And finally Megan Fry, a young woman with whom we recently became acquainted. She uses an interesting technique called eye gaze to create digital art. She is also a college student at University of Houston. This was the first event we have done with Megan and she was delightful.

Grant, Alisha, April, Wes, and Megan at the HAP Conference after their presentation

At the conference, we had an hour long discussion about working as an artist with a disability. I don't have room in this blog to tell you everything, but here are some highlights!

  • Most of our panelists were interested in art from a young age. Their advice to teachers: let your students with disabilities give it a try. Don't assume they can't do what everyone else is doing. Find ways to adapt and ask them how they want to adapt the lesson. Be ready to explore with them!
  • Making the art is what comes naturally! But what about showing and selling your work? You might need a manager. And in many cases that is a "Mom-ager" or a "Dad-ager." They can be very helpful on the business skills, the transportation, and always the cheerleading!
  • Working as an artist at home can have its challenges. Sometimes you need to get out of the isolation of working at home. Get out and see the world for inspiration as well as networking opportunities.
  • Pricing your work is not easy. One tip is to start with a base price based on size. But whatever you do, never underestimate your worth!


I always enjoy an event where I can show off the talents of VSA Texas artists. Each artist did a great job talking about their work and were very professional panelists. We had a great time at the 2018 HAP Conference!

Thursday, September 13, 2018

September Fun with VSA Texas

Hey folks! This is Eric here to tell you about all we have going on over the next few weeks, and we hope you can join us and participate in one or more of these exciting events!

Let's start with this weekend. This Saturday evening, September 15th from 7:00-9:00 PM we have our monthly Lion and Pirate Open Mic for writers, musicians, and other performers that we co-host with the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities at Malvern Books (613 West 29th Street, Austin, TX 78705). It's a really fun community event with a very supportive, open, and encouraging vibe, and it's free! So if you haven't been, I strongly encourage you to attend and perform, read, sing, or share whatever talents you possess, or simply relax and enjoy the entertainment! Not only is it a fun time with performances you are sure to remember, it's also a lovely community of friends who bond over performances and common interests.

Then Sunday, September 16th from 2:00-4:00 PM in the afternoon we will present our first-ever Artist of the Year Awards at the swanky Sterling Event Center (6134 US 290 East Frontage Road, Austin, TX 78752)! This award ceremony was launched to recognize the many fantastic artists with disabilities who create art and live in the state of Texas. We will have delicious hors d'oeuvres, beverages, live music from acoustic musician and troubadour Wayne Napier, and other fun activities, and Ron Lucey, the current Executive Director of the Governor's Committee on People with Disabilities, will serve as our emcee! And did I mention it's also free?! I would tell you more about this year's award recipients, but I'm sure the artists themselves and the art they will have on display will do a much better job Sunday. Okay, okay… Here's a preview of the art, but you still need to attend the ceremony to meet the talented artists behind the artwork!

Intricate, layered abstract painting mounted on wood with a myriad of vibrant colors

Painting of a safari scene with lion, tourist, and parrot

Beautiful blue fused glass pendants

The fun will continue next Saturday, September 22nd from 2:00-4:00 PM with the latest installment of our quarterly concert series at Carver Branch Library (1161 Angelina Street, Austin, TX 78702)! This time we are excited to welcome two new comers to the Carver Branch stage: Devin Gutierrez, a multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter whose greatest influences are Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Prince, and Chicago; and Sean & Tristan who cover hits of 50s rock 'n' roll legends Chuck Berry, The Penguins, Elvis, Ben E King, Bill Haley, Frank Sinatra, and others. As with all of this month's events, it is free. The doors will open at 1:45 PM, and the show will start at 2:00 PM.

Then, last but not least, Saturday, September 29th from 1:00-3:00 PM our local chapter of Opening Minds, Opening Doors (OMOD) speakers dubbed the ‘Speaking Advocates’ will tackle the timely topic of disability in the media with speeches, lively discussion, and a whole lot to think about! As usual, we will meet in Room 101 of the AGE of Central Texas Building (3710 Cedar Street, Austin, TX 78705). All are welcome! Please just send me an email at eric@vsatx.org if you plan to attend.

So come out, get creative, and celebrate art with us!

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Another Year of Judging Films By and About People with Disabilities!

Five years ago, I was asked by the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities (CTD) to be a judge for the documentary short category of their annual Cinema Touching Disability Film Festival. This international film festival is unique for a number of reasons, first and foremost because all films submitted and screened either feature characters or real people with disabilities, or explore disability issues, and in keeping with that mission, many of the films include people with disabilities in their cast and crew. From the judging perspective, what sets the festival apart is its insistence to judge each film almost entirely on how well it presents a fresh or creative look at the experience of living with a disability; at times this means that a film with a high production value may not clinch first place if it relies heavily on tired disability stereotypes. As someone with a background in the film industry, this placed me in a unique position, one that has taught me a great deal over the past five years.

What I have learned is there are many ways to approach the criteria given me and just as many viewpoints. It is up to us as judges to adhere to that criteria but also our responsibility to judge the art of the storytelling and remember that "art takes risks." For Cinema Touching Disability, a memorable work is one that simultaneously embodies artistry, technical competence, and content that advances disability culture. Whereas some competitions want to encourage and empower emerging filmmakers to generate innovative films, Cinema Touching Disability seeks films at the cutting edge of social, cultural, and personal perceptions about experiences with disability. These films encapsulate just about everything: romance, relationships with peers or animals, nature, adventure, or just everyday experiences; some may contain a sense of humor, drama, or even action and suspense.

When viewing films outside of this competition, I find myself asking if we should judge films solely on their technical qualities (sound, editing, cinematography, etc.), or should we also allow for the effort put into accurately portraying or including underrepresented communities, like people with disabilities? The story may not be well-developed, and some of these filmmakers may not have much experience, but don't all filmmakers start out that way – with no experience, but just an idea? That is not to say the quality of the execution of their ideas is not important, as that is often what engages the audience in the first place, but film technique is certainly not all that matters.

The video below offers a more in-depth view of what the Cinema Touching Disability event means for the Austin community:


The Cinema Touching Disability Film Festival is now in its 15th year here in Austin, Texas. Each year, the films get better, and we see more international submissions, which gives us a glimpse into how other countries view the filmmaking process and how different cultures perceive what folks with disabilities want to and can achieve. You can learn more about the Cinema Touching Disability Film Festival and find updates for future events here. The 2018 festival will be held at the Alamo Drafthouse Village in Austin October 19-20. See you there!

Thursday, August 23, 2018

OMOD's Speaking Advocates

Hey all! This is Eric, your friendly OMOD coordinator, here to tell you about the newest addition to our Opening Minds, Opening Doors program: our Speaking Advocates group that meets every last Saturday of the month from 1-3 PM in Austin. We have now been meeting for six months and have grown a dedicated group of 10-12 members, but we have plenty of space for more folks to join!

Here's an overview of what we do. Each month we vote on a new theme to speak about during the next meeting; recent themes include "technology and accessibility," "hobbies," and this month's theme is "art." Once we choose a theme, 2-3 of our members will volunteer to each prepare a 3-5 minute speech on that theme to deliver at the next meeting. Folks who have prepared speeches present in the first half of each meeting. Then, in the second half, all other members present are welcome to give 1-3 minute impromptu speeches on the same theme. After every speech, the entire group offers the speaker constructive feedback, meaning what they did well and what they could improve if they decide to continue working on their speech for future presentations.

Meet the Speaking Advocates! A diverse crew of vibrantly-dressed adults with disabilities gathered around a long table during one of our monthly meetings

If it sounds a lot like a Toastmasters club, it's probably because we took a field trip to a Toastmasters meeting and adapted the things we liked about it to fit our group. While Toastmasters is a world-renowned organization for aspiring public speakers, there are aspects of it that do not translate well for people with disabilities. Namely, they do not have the same emphasis on accommodations. Sure, their locations are often wheelchair accessible, and most everyone is welcome to attend their meetings; however, our Speaking Advocates group devotes time to helping each person find the best way to present their speech, knowing that not everyone can effectively stand up and read a speech off a piece of paper they can hold with their hands. Sometimes the only way someone can present a speech is by remembering a general storyline, looking at a series of sketches on notecards, or using a slideshow to help prompt the speaker. Moreover, whereas Toastmasters follows a standardized rubric for judging each person's speech, we don't expend energy pushing someone to perfect skills that simply lie beyond their abilities, which is not to say we don't push our speakers, just that we meet each speaker where they are and work on bringing out the best presentation possible, whatever that means for each new speaker.

And did I mention our Speaking Advocates group is FREE?? All you need to do is send me an email at eric@vsatx.org to RSVP. And show up, of course! So come join us! Our next meeting is this Saturday, August 25th, from 1:00-3:00 PM in Room 101 of the AGE of Central Texas Building (3710 Cedar Street, Austin, TX 78705). We'll be talking about art. And if you don't want to get up and speak at your first meeting, no worries! Anyone is welcome to attend and get a sense for what we're all about. See you there!

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Notes from the Access Field

In early August, I had the pleasure to attend two back-to-back VSA and Kennedy Center conferences in steamy, downtown Atlanta, Georgia. The first conference, Intersections, concerned itself with topics focused on arts and special education, and was attended by educators and teaching artists from across the country. And we could not have asked for a better place to reflect on what Jenna Gabriel, conference organizer, asked us to consider; “the ways in which equitable access to high-quality arts learning for students with disabilities is indeed an issue of civil rights.” As I moved from session to session, and engaged in conversations with my colleagues, I was reminded time and again of how the smallest accommodation can still have a significant impact.

Spoken-word poet and advocate LeDerick Horne, set the tone for the two-day convening by sharing the story of his educational journey, and the teachers who recognized his gift and supported him along the way. Then, Sloan McLain and I were able to introduce over 45 interested administrators and teaching artists to the creative tenets that underscore and comprise the teaching strategies employed by Austin Independent School District and developed by MINDPOP.

It was a lively two days, and there is much more that can be said about the enriching conversations that were sparked, but I just advise you to mark your calendars to attend one of the several Intersection gatherings that are scheduled for 2018 and 2019. Find out the latest information about VSA's Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference on the Kennedy Center's website.

Silva Laukkanen, Sloan McLain and I, smiling, celebrate the completion of the CLI workshops.

Then, it was onward to the LEAD Conference (Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability). Did I say that the conferences were held at the Atlanta Marquis Hotel, an architectural wonder all of its own? We were scattered across 46 floors, with a dizzying bank of elevators to get us to our respective rooms. I was tucked back in a corner on the 21st floor (which turned out to be a blessing when the Insight Global annual sales conference attendees arrived on Friday night)!

Elevators and floors viewed from the open mezzanine of the Atlanta Marquis Hotel

This conference brings together accessibility managers from the performing arts and museums from across the US and around the world to talk about, advocate for, and just make access happen! Our Call to Action was delivered by Mickey Rowe, the first autistic actor to play Christopher Boone in the Tony Award-winning play, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” From there, we were off and rolling and there were sessions for everyone, whether a novice or a seasoned pro. I was especially interested in the conversations addressing disability artistry as a catalyst for community engagement, and the influence of scents and memory to enhance the experience of museumgoers. I am still savoring the Access Equals Aesthetic conversation with dance pioneer Alice Sheppard about making dance more accessible to audience members who are blind through enhanced audio description experiences. Again, there is too much to report, so plan to come to Denver in 2019 and add your name to the thousands of accessibility assets working tirelessly to ensure all people can participate in, learn through, and enjoy the arts.

Access = Aesthetic is comprised of five elements: Limited Access to Verbal Description for Dance; Limits of Verbal Description; Access is Art; Art is Accessible; and, Access Creates Community.

At times, there was just too much and my brain wanted a timeout. But the opening reception at the Botanical Garden and Closing Award ceremony at the Aquarium helped soothe my troubled brow.

A whale shark and stingray swim in circles in small tanks that encircle the reception room at the Georgia Aquarium.

All in all, it was time well spent. And then, when I arrived back in Austin, I attended our Lion and Pirate Open Mic to hear Mel Finefrock read her poetry and I was reminded again why I do this work. Why we do this work. Why the world will never tire of us doing this work.

Mel Finefrock sits and reads her poetry in front of the wooden wall at Malvern Books.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Top 10 Reasons to Enter Your Artwork in Our Holiday Art and Gift Show

Hey Artists (and Shoppers!),

Our 10th Annual Holiday Art and Gift Show is coming up in November/December of this year and we want to celebrate big. Our first step is to get some great art, so here is why you should enter your art into this exhibition:

Photo of art-packed room from one of our first holiday art shows
  1. The Holiday Art and Gift Show is our highest selling art show of the year at VSA Texas.
  2. The show is up for 6 weeks during the busiest shopping season of the year.
  3. You don’t have to be here in person to sell your work. We have friendly staff on site ready to talk up your art for you.
  4. We only take a small 30% commission on sales. The artist gets the remaining 70%.
  5. We handle the sales tax so you don’t need your own permit.
  6. We are open to fine art, crafts, CDs, books, or any other creative homemade product you are interested in submitting.
  7. Artists with disabilities from across Texas can participate as long as you can get your art to us.
  8. We pay for the return shipping of anything that doesn’t sell.
  9. There is no fee to enter.
  10. This is our 10th year hosting this art show and we want to celebrate with the best work available from Texas artists!

Custom aprons, mugs, oven mitts, and potholders from our very first holiday show

Headpiece made with peacock and other feathers from an early holiday art show

Sounds great, right? The first step is to ask for an entry form. Contact April at april@vsatx.org or 512-454-9912 to get an application.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Land and Sea at Moody Gardens

One of my favorite activities at VSA Texas is our annual Art in the Gardens co-sponsored by Moody Gardens in Galveston, TX. This is an outdoor hands-on festival for kids of all ages with disabilities, K-12. This year’s theme is “Land and Sea.” This year’s event will be September 20th, 2018 and only once in the last seven years has it rained, so I just know it will be a bright and sunny day overlooking the water inlet behind the big white tent where we hold our festival. On that day my co-worker April and I will roll out of our slumber, get coffee and confection, and head down to the waterfront tent where all the workers and volunteers will already be setting up. The artists providing art activities usually start checking in around 9:00 AM, and then performers start arriving and setting up on stage.

The Moody Gardens complex from the water: a white tent pavilion and 3 large glass pyramids with hotel behind
(Courtesy of Moody Gardens)

In case you didn't know, Moody Gardens began in the mid-1980s with a horse barn, a riding arena with a hippotherapy program for people with head injuries, and an extraordinary vision to create an island tourist destination. Today Moody Gardens is one of the premier educational and leisure facilities in the Southwest. It also provides horticultural therapy, education, and employment for persons with a wide range of physical and emotional disabilities.

Arts and community organizations, museums, and civic groups like the Junior League of Galveston County, UTM School of Nursing, Galveston Arts Center, and many others participate in providing art activities for over 250 kids with disabilities from Galveston County and neighboring communities including Houston.

AND who knows what kind of sea creature mascot will show up this year? Last year we had a giant shark:

The shark man complete with a green button-up shirt in a crowd of kids

Why do I love this event so much? The people and volunteers are great. The setting is perfect – outdoors with live entertainment and art activities set with a gorgeous backdrop of the bay and big paddleboat. The families and kids that come just love running around and enjoying all the activities.

So if you or your organization wants to provide an art activity or perform at this fun event, send me an email at lynn@vsatx.org. We would love to have you participate!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Happy Birthday, ADA!

Today the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turns 28! This day is always a big celebration for me because it serves as a reminder of the incredible accomplishments of the disability rights movement, and although we are frequently ignored and left out of wider discussions of civil rights, the ADA validates our identity as a minority group. And, coincidentally, this day doubles as my anniversary with my partner who also has a disability, the significance of which is not lost on me. For on one hand, our lives, our successes, even our relationship owes gratitude to the civil rights the ADA has granted us, while on the other, our inability to get married without losing vital services reflects how much work still lies ahead of us as a social movement. And really, the penalties endured by people with disabilities who seek marriage are just one of the many social challenges we face – any person with a disability can tell you of struggles with healthcare, low caregiver wages, housing, and even areas the ADA was passed to address, like employment and accessibility.

Iconic image of activists crawling up the steps of the U.S. Capitol building in support of the ADA
(Photo courtesy of Tom Olin/Disability History Museum)

For many, the ADA conjures the image of disabled activists ditching their wheelchairs to crawl up the Capitol steps or George Bush, Sr. signing the bill into law while surrounded by the parents of the ADA on the White House lawn. For me, it brings to mind the songs, the slogans, the battle cries, the poems, the stories. So perhaps it is fitting I find myself working in the arts wing of the movement where we fight to ensure everyone has the right and the opportunity to express themselves creatively, to tell their stories in whatever medium serves them best. And art is one of the most effective ways to break down social stigmas and bridge connections with those who see only a wall of difference, to move hearts when minds have closed. The disability rights movement calls for action of all kinds, and art is one of them.

President George H.W. Bush signing the ADA into law on the White House lawn. Surrounding him are disability advocates Rev. Harold Wilke, Evan Kemp, Sandra Parrino, and Justin Dart Jr.
(Photo courtesy of George Bush Presidential Library and Museum)

So if you are still seeking your role in the movement, maybe give the arts a try. Or even if you find direct action like the Capitol Crawl or civil disobedience to be most rewarding, you can view the arts as another set of tools to add to your activist toolkit. Whatever path you choose, we hope you have a lovely ADA Anniversary! Be proud of the hard-fought accomplishments of the disability rights movement and keep up the great work our previous generations began. And if you live in Austin, we hope you can join us as we celebrate the ADA at our Opening Minds, Opening Doors Speaking Advocates group this Saturday, July 28th, 1-3 PM and continue the tradition of storytelling to effect change. Happy ADA!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Five Tips For Supporting Students With Disabilities in Classroom Settings

Hello, my name is Adrianna Matthews. I am a former VSA Texas Work Study Student and Project Assistant. I was first introduced to VSA Texas in April 2016 through discussing my interest in disability and art with Celia Hughes. Shortly after that conversation I got involved with VSA Texas and began to think more about student-teacher relationships in terms of working together to accommodate students with disabilities in a classroom space.

Photo of me working with students in our It's My Story Workshop

My first experience teaching students with disabilities was facilitating VSA Texas’ It's My Story Digital Storytelling Workshop of February 2017. This was also the first time I worked as a teacher who identified as a person with a disability, so at times, it became quite challenging to balance my personal needs with my students’ needs. Nonetheless, I quickly learned how to accommodate both my students and myself.

It is important to make sure students with disabilities receive their accommodations so that they feel supported and can work and engage effectively in their academic abilities. I know this from my own experience in graduate school. I have also witnessed how unsuccessful students with disabilities can be and feel when they are not accommodated.

Circle of students and volunteers sharing stories in It's My Story Workshop

When creating the curriculum I was more prepared to work with individuals with visual impairments than any other types of disabilities. This was because I have a visual impairment myself, and so I tend to focus more on how visual limitations may impact academic success than anything else. This became especially apparent in working with a deaf student in the workshop. I assumed that since I had two ASL (American Sign Language) interpreters I was prepared as a facilitator to effectively engage with this particular student. However, what I didn’t realize is that ASL interpreters tend to sign with clients across the room. So when I initially tried to help the student complete her assignment, I accidentally stood in the way of her ASL interpreter! I was actually just trying to get closer to her computer screen to read her work because my visual impairment means I can only read things up close. Through this experience, I realized I had to be more conscious of how I positioned my body when interacting with this student so that both of our needs could be met. But I probably could have avoided this mistake had I done more research on working with students with different disabilities and learned effective strategies to better engage with them.

That is just one of the many lessons I have learned through my experience teaching students with disabilities. Here are some other tips that can help teachers work more effectively with their students:
  1. Always acknowledge students’ accommodations.
  2. Provide training for teachers, aides, and assistants to effectively and inclusively work with their students with disabilities.
  3. See the student first and the disability second, but acknowledge the disability and the students’ needs.
  4. Encourage students with disabilities to move past their challenges and achieve their academic goals.
  5. Teach students without disabilities how to effectively work with and support their fellow classmates with disabilities.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Audio Description in St. Louis

This week I had the opportunity to hang out with over 200 of the hardest working animals in the country.  That’s right – guide dogs for people who are blind. I was at the annual convention for the American Council of the Blind (ACB) in St. Louis, attending the Audio Description (AD) track.

A view from downtown of the St. Louis Arch, which frames the dome of the State Capitol building

It was three days of knowledge-packed presentations and discussions, where the most talked about topic was the upcoming ACB initiative to develop a national certification process for describers. They have contracted with the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation & Education Professionals to develop this process, and will be convening individuals to form a subject content committee to work with them by September of this year. It will be a lengthy process in order to develop the best certification standards and exam, so stay tuned as they are just getting started.

One aisle of the conference exhibiters, filled with customers and smiling dogs

The conference convened on July 1st, which coincidently was the day that audio description in the top nine broadcast areas in the country increased from 50 to 87.5 hours per week, although several broadcasters already exceed this number. Kudos to them! Representatives from Amazon and Comcast were there to talk about the latest developments in content delivery. With the new digital technology and hundreds of channels and content providers, in order to get AD on your TV, you have to turn it on at the source – antenna, satellite, and cable. You can learn more about ACB's Audio Description Project here. And if you want more description on TV, please contact the providers, and your congressmen, as it is critical that they hear from you!

We also learned about UniDescription, a project of the National Park Service (NPS) and University of Hawaii. The NPS has also been working on an app where people can access described brochures and maps of many of the National Parks with the plan to have all National Park brochures available through description on this app, both on Android and Apple. The brand-new gateway park and museum at the St. Louis Arch opened on July 4th, and they expected 40,000 people to attend the first day. The NPS worked with them on their interactive exhibits, so they were glad to be a part of the festivities. And I imagine some of those hard-working dogs got to enjoy it also!

A curly, red-haired Marilee Talkington shares some of her stories in front of a projection of her photo.
One of the highlights of the three days was hearing from Marilee Talkington, acclaimed actor, writer, and director. She talked about pursuing her chosen career in the arts as a legally blind individual. She started as a stage actor, but was recently a guest artist on the “Sight Unseen” episode on NCIS. One of the amazing but unsurprising stats she cited was that 9 out of 10,000 actors in Hollywood – TV and movies – have disabilities. Nine. Let that sink in for a moment. And we wonder why there is such an uproar when a disabled individual is played by an able-bodied actor. Listening to how Marilee fought to be auditioned and cast at all is a testament to her grit and determination! Thank you for fighting to not only blast open the door for you to enter, but also for the many who are standing right behind you.

I didn't see much of St. Louis, but that’s okay because it was hot and steamy outside. At the end of the day, my brain was full of all things audio description, and that’s just the way it was way meant to be.

A man indulges in a catnap in an ornate hotel lobby.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Peer to Peer

We were invited for the second time to run the Peer to Peer portion of the annual Parent to Parent conference. This event is hosted by Texas Parent to Parent, a statewide non-profit that does great work of educating and supporting parents of children with disabilities. Their annual conference is a big hit with topics on all the important issues a parent needs to be aware of when raising a child with a disability as well as advice and mentoring from parents who have been in their shoes.

Families come from all over the state, from the Valley to the Panhandle and everywhere in between. And they bring the entire family because there is something for everyone at this conference. Texas Parent to Parent wants to make sure that all that come get the most out of the experience. They want the parents to be able to focus on the panel discussions and workshops. They provide a SibShop for siblings. Childcare for the young ones. And Peer to Peer for the teenagers.

That’s where we come in! Our goal is to provide stimulating arts, performance, movement, and music activities for these young adults to take part in while their parents are at the conference. This year we started with Flower Fairies. While very messy, with glue and flower petals, we got some great results and a few participants spent the entire day working with the flowers.

A mer-man decorated with flower petals

We also provided other art stations throughout the day including Egg Shakers, Drawing, Beads and Pipe Cleaners, Costumes, and Cameras. You just never know what art supply is going to be the one that captures someone’s creativity.

Grant holds up some of his pipe cleaner creations.

David wears red boxing shorts, a black cape, and a Mardi Gras mask from the costume box.

A highlight of the morning was having Zach Anner visit us! Zach is a comedian, actor, writer, and YouTube star. The teens were able to ask him questions, converse with him, and get his autograph.

Later that day we had a visiting musician, Sterling Steffan. He brought his saxophone, a violin, digital drums, a recorder, and other various instruments. Some of the students’ eyes and smiles really lit up when they had a chance to make music. Eric was especially excited by the opportunity. And his sense of rhythm was natural. The participants had a chance to step up to the mic and record their voice or playing an instrument.

Elsa plays the violin.

Day 2 was another day packed with art activities led by teaching artist Mary Oliver. Using small pizza boxes we created names on the outside and self portraits on the inside of the box.

Josh’s pizza box self portrait

We also used recycled water bottles to create Maracas. We painted them in the morning, then after a movie in the afternoon, used them in our drum circle.

The drum circle!

After two exhausting but fun days the teens were picked up by their parents to start the travel back home. So many parents were grateful for the opportunity to attend this conference and know their children were in good hands. Thanks to our friends at Texas Parent to Parent for making that possible!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Pursue Your Musical Dreams with VSA Texas

From time to time I'm asked something along the lines of "what is the most soul nourishing part of your job?" I am normally caught off guard by the directness of such a heavy question, but inevitably my mind wanders to the music and other performance opportunities offered through VSA Texas. Even to those who know me, my affinity for the stage may seem peculiar as in any other circumstance I do everything I can to avoid drawing attention to myself. Performing music on stage, however, feels liberating; I am free to make myself into someone different, to lose myself in chords, rhythms, lyrics, and in doing so, I inch closer to the person I aspire to be offstage. Call me corny, but I truly believe that playing music makes me a better human being. And that's why the highlights, or most soul nourishing moments of my job, are those where I can extend the same opportunities I have received to others.

Music is the foundation of my relationship with VSA Texas. My first involvement with the organization came in the form of volunteering in the Summer of 2012 Music and Recording Camp; then in February of 2014 I made my first serious public debut of my own music at the inaugural Lion and Pirate Open Mic, which I now co-host with the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities' Pen 2 Paper Creative Writing Contest; and in January of 2017 I organized, emceed, and performed at our first VSA Texas at Library Live concert at Carver Branch Library, which was so successful the branch manager invited us to make it a quarterly concert series, which has since extended performance opportunities to twelve different musical groups. At each stop along the journey, I have been grateful to learn as much, if not more, than the performers I hope to empower, and that's how I know these programs work.

Me performing at the Lion and Pirate Open Mic. Did I mention Malvern Books takes great photos and videos of the open mic performances? Of course you can opt out, but I'd say it's super cool if you ask me!

Over the past few years, I have seen performers grow in confidence, turn a few original songs into a dozen, explore new collaborations, and seek new venues to perform. Most importantly, I have witnessed the burgeoning of an inclusive community, where performers inspire and learn from each other, lift each other up and offer encouraging words when they need to be heard. So if you are a chronic bedroom performer (like I used to be – and still am, frankly) and are ready to share your songs with the world – or even if you aren't ready – there is a place for you at our Lion and Pirate Open Mic held each month at Malvern Books (613 West 29th Street, Austin, TX 78705)! Our next four open mics are this Saturday, June 9th from 7-9 PM, Saturday, July 7th from 7-9 PM, Sunday, August 12th from 1-3 PM, and Saturday, September 15th from 7-9 PM. Join us at one or all of the above!

Flyer for our Lion and Pirate Open Mic at Malvern Books this Saturday, June 9th from 7-9 PM

And if you want to really stretch your performance muscles with a fully mic'd 25-minute set at the Carver Branch Library, email me at eric@vsatx.org to book a performance slot. If you need any added incentive, you get high quality videos of your performance (see past Library Live performances here) that you can use to promote your music and pursue future gigs. No matter your genre or level of experience, we are here to launch you where you want to go!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Don’t Believe Everything You See or Think You Know

Pondering my thoughts for what I might have interesting to say or what might provoke other folks to talk about. I was sitting in a staff meeting (yes I was paying attention) but we were discussing and planning programs that would be exciting, fun, educational, and informative for our patrons. My Secret Life of Walter Mitty popped up and has been swirling through my mind.

From The New York Times:
“It begins with a film ‘The Red Chapel,’ the name of a small experimental theater troupe from Holland that was formed by a pair of Danish performers of Korean descent (Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell). Or at least that's what the North Korean government was led to believe when they gave them permission to do a vaudeville performance tour of the country; in truth, ‘The Red Chapel’ was formed by a pair of improvisational comics (who are in fact of Korean heritage) and a radical journalist, director, and filmmaker Mads Brügger who traveled to North Korea in hopes of using subversive, satirical performances as a commentary on the nation's oppressive policies and lamentable human rights record. This was all done as a cultural exchange between North Korea and Holland.”
Movie poster for “The Red Chapel”

The interesting fact is that one of the performers has a disability and exaggerates his condition as a way of throwing those around him off track. One of the “The Red Chapel” pranksters, Mads Brügger, brought along a video camera to chronicle their journey through Korea, and “Det Rode Kapel” (aka “The Red Chapel”) is a documentary offering a glimpse of their performances and the often surprising reactions they receive. It’s like telling bad jokes that no one gets, but people laugh anyway.

The disabled performer in “The Red Chapel” stands beside the wheelchair he uses throughout the film.

The most poignant question the person with the disability asks their cultural attaché Ms. Pak (who is benevolent and kind) is “where are all the people with disabilities?” to which she replies “we send them away.”

Ask yourself: how do different countries including the USA help or deny humans with disabilities, and where do they get sent?

Here at VSA Texas we are launching a quarterly film screening series about and/or by people with disabilities and we would like your input as to what kind of films you would like to see or that you think would spark engaging discussions around disability issues (like “The Red Chapel,” for example). Please leave your suggestions in the comments below or email them to me at lynn@vsatx.org. We look forward to hearing from you!

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Body Shift: Dance and Social Justice

Body Shift project coordinator, Olivia O’Hare here to share some thoughts regarding our upcoming annual intensive, Patterns of Disruption with Sandra Paola, which will take place June 2-3, 2018. Paola’s focus lies at the intersection of dance and social justice/access/inclusion/diversity. This got me thinking about what social justice means within the context of Body Shift and DanceAbility. Though we do not openly state a political agenda, I do believe that the personal is political. Dance improvisation is extremely personal. Because the dancer generates their own movements and responds by intuition as well as conscious choice making, their personality, habits and desires show up immediately. In general, we do not openly discuss the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within our society that have shaped our bodies and the ways we have been taught are ‘appropriate’ for personal expression. Instead we focus on movement quality, body awareness, and relationship in real time with our dance partner(s). But what if we take some time to work using community-centered inquiry and turn research into movement?

Photo from Crippin' the Streets – DanceAbility Urban Intervention, Fusebox 2014

We might ask the following questions: How do Idealogical ‘Movements’ (i.e., Civil Rights Movement, Disability Rights Movement) affect our culture? How can our own ‘movements’ (physicality of/in ones body) affect our culture or be affected by our culture? By using the universal language of movement we can generate conversations and create art around social justice issues in our communities – ultimately movement initiating ‘Movements.’

It was a purposeful choice made by the Body Shift organizers to focus on dance improvisation, and more specifically the DanceAbility method, rather than styles of dance that emphasize learning steps or predetermined choreography. This is not to downgrade moving together through set choreography as repeating and refining movements can be very powerful. Rather it was a question of inclusivity. The flexibility allowed by improvisation more easily creates an environment that is non-isolating. By starting with improv, participants are given the opportunity to learn the language of their own body and discover their own unique ways of moving. Then participants themselves may be guided to choreograph from their own self-generated movements. (Video below shows more highlights from Crippin' the Streets – DanceAbility Urban Intervention, Fusebox 2014)


To improvise is to make choices in the moment. As Alito Alessi, founder of the DanceAbility method, says, “Always know what you are doing and what else is happening.” This seems very direct and simple but it is actually a skill that must be refined over time – the ability to sense and stay connected to your self while also opening your awareness to the choices that other people are making around you and how your environment shapes your choices moment to moment. By dancing together with people who have unique mental and physical characteristics that may be outside the established norms we are able to open ourselves to new ways of moving and thinking and go beyond habitual ways of being.

Sandra Paola

An excerpt from Sandra Paola’s website:
“I believe that learning about our body through our relationships with others in ensemble improvisation and social dance is an extraordinary way to achieve this and I seek to create spaces and environments where this can be possible. Acknowledging our body (and its relationship to others and the environment) is not something we are often taught. It is something that we have to seek out, or what is more often the case, something we never get to do. Recognizing ourselves in our body fosters a new understanding of who we are and how we relate to the world. This understanding allows love and compassion to flourish and deep transformation happens.
“…My dancemaking is community-driven and community-integrated and it tackles issues of identity and power. I am committed to creating access to experimental dance and improvisation in spaces where it is usually absent and to share its developmental power with the public. I use culture to organize community and organize community to create culture. 
“My work is political by nature; improvisation is playful resistance.”

I hope you will join Sandra Paola and the Body Shift crew for a weekend of dancing and inquiry into education and community organizing that relates to people as social creators of their lives. We will meet all day Saturday, and Sunday will be a continuation of Saturday's work but open to newcomers and will culminate in a jam. Click here to register for Patterns of Disruption with Sandra Paola.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Lessons I Have Learned Over the Years

It was a little over 19 years ago that I took over the helm of the organization that is now known as VSA Texas. Little did I suspect back then what a wild and rewarding ride it would be. I have made many friends and a few not so good friends along the way, and have witnessed the joy and success of countless individuals in Austin, across the state, and around the world. I have made some wise decisions and I have made a few real bloopers, but I have never regretted a thing. Oh sure, a lot of things have kept me awake at night, and still do, but all in all I can say that this has been the best job of my life. Does this sound like a farewell letter? No, it isn’t. I always get reminiscent at this time of the year and like to take stock of my life within the context of the current times.

Celia posing beside a rusty sculpture of a bear

I reflect on what I have learned and how these lessons have guided my decisions. It seems like I always come back to the same core beliefs.

Trust your instincts. Do your research, gather the facts, listen to other options, and trust that you will make the right decision. If it doesn’t always work out the way you planned, study how it did work out so you can use that knowledge next time around.

Measure twice and cut once. This is true in almost everything that you do. Because what is cut can never be uncut.

Be kind. Sometimes it can feel like life is awash with unkindness, mean-spirits and downright cruelty, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We are all born with love in our hearts. It is what we do with this love that matters. Practice kindness. It is like a muscle that needs to be developed and used everyday.

Street art of a Golden Retriever with pink wings

Don’t dwell on the negative. I am the first person to complain about something that I don’t like, and in this current time, there are many things that I do not like! But living in that space of darkness does not help me day to day to do the things that need to be done. See it, determine if you can do anything immediately to address it, prioritize, and then refocus your attention.

Cry once a day. A good cry can be cathartic. My eyes well with tears often, and sometimes, I am overcome with the need to weep. I always feel better afterwards. Crying and belly laughs: the best medicine.

Keep your mind and body engaged and learning. The world is advancing and changing at a rapid pace. We need to stay nimble to keep up. We need to stay sharp to lead.

Abstract metal sculpture in a park

Enjoy silence. Turn the TV off. Turn off all your devices. Sit in the stillness and listen to the world rotating on its axis. You may hear a bird song you never noticed before. You may hear the wind rustle through the leaves of a tree. You may just hear the sound of your own breath. In. Out.

Love someone more than you can imagine. This one is the hardest for me, and yet I know it is the most important one. ‘Cause you know the old saying, “Love makes the world go round.”

Lamppost sticker of a red figure with a heart-shaped head and the words "Share Your Heart" scrawled across the face with a black magic marker

I am thankful for the great team I have had the good fortune to gather around me at VSA Texas and I look forward to another year of creativity, inspiration, empowerment, laughter, and yes, tears.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Magical Gardens and Brain Puzzles

Our summer classes are coming up and we are trying something a little different. We have two classes. Each is for ages 16 and above and inclusive for those with and without disabilities. Usually these summer classes serve a limited age range, so we are excited to open them up and invite one and all to join us for some fun!

First, we have Fairy Gardens and Nature Art with instructor Mary Kraemer held Monday, June 11th through Wednesday, June 13th from 10 am to 2 pm each day in our VSA Texas Classroom 101 at 3710 Cedar Street, Austin, TX 78705. In this class Mary will use her horticulture and garden experience to help inspire you to create a Fairy Garden at VSA Texas. Fairy Gardens are magical places created by humans to invite fairies to live among us. They are created with plants, found objects, repurposed materials, and lots of imagination!

A fairy garden house created out of natural materials

The class will also include making nature prints, working with dried flowers, and more. Mary is full of knowledge about plants and loves to share it. So we hope you will join us in June for this class.

A student printing leaves on blue paper with green ink

Want to learn more about Mary’s classes? Read this blog Celia and Lynn wrote after taking one of her classes.

Then, we have Stop Motion Animation with Tangrams with instructor Johnny Villarreal held Tuesday, June 26th through Thursday, June 28th from 10 am to 2 pm each day also in our VSA Texas Classroom 101 at 3710 Cedar Street, Austin, TX 78705.  Johnny has been a great friend of VSA Texas and has taught many classes for us for children and young adults.

Johnny working with a student at Manor High School on Stop Motion Animation

This is our first time opening up a class for adults taught by Johnny. So if you have heard of his work at The Edge of Imagination Station, take this opportunity to learn from the best in Stop Motion Animation. This class will have a twist though, Tangrams! A tangram is a dissection puzzle consisting of seven flat shapes, called tans, which are put together to form shapes. Challenge your brain to create characters and a story using only these seven shapes.

A wooden Tangram set

As always, our classes are fully accessible for any ability and skill level. You won’t be disappointed. You will make new friends, learn a new skill, and most of all have fun. For the $115 fee, you get lots of great instruction plus all the supplies provided. These classes fill quickly, so register now by calling Lynn at 512-454-9912 or emailing her at lynn@vsatx.org. See you this summer!