Slowing Speed & Sowing Seeds
Slowing Speed & Sowing Seeds:
Thoughts on Creating an Accessible Artistic Community
By Max Elwood
I’ve always had a love for community. For a number of years I was quite the busy bee, zooming from one place to the next, visiting, volunteering, and taking in everything that Edmonton’s 2SLGBTQ+ and artistic communities had to offer. However, that began to change as the symptoms of my disabilities worsened, with fatigue and mobility limitations taking me from flying across Edmonton to (what felt like) slowly crawling down a gravel road. Only as I felt my body slowing did I see how fast the community had been moving this whole time.
Balancing an ever-growing list of school projects with attending mandatory extracurricular events, volunteering in the community, applying for artistic opportunities, working multiple jobs, fulfilling my duties as a caregiver, and the simple desire to make art for myself became near impossible while also needing to take care of my health. I acknowledge that aspects of my circumstances are unique, but I also know that I’m not the only one who sees this laundry list of expectations and knows it won’t work (without working them to the bone).
Although not all of the things with which I’ve struggled to keep pace are within full control of our communities and organizations—grants and applications have deadlines, exhibition spaces are only available in certain time frames, universities have set schedules and program requirements—I also don’t see accommodations being built in to mitigate the potential harms of these unchangeable factors. As a result, the thing that communities like this produce more than art or programming is burnout.
I know that many of us are all too used to burnout at this point, but we tend to just dust ourselves off and set off running again. But what about those who can’t risk burnout? What about those who are perpetually burnt out? The fact of the matter is, we move so fast that we don’t even realize whom we’re leaving behind. We don’t build accessibility measures for people we don’t see.
Knowing that the speed we move at is a barrier, what does slowing down look like? In the broadest sense, it means we stop treating our community like a racetrack and more like a garden. When my family members plan their gardens for the spring, they begin by taking stock of what they’ve grown before, what challenges they had previously, and what they want to try growing this time around. So let’s take stock of our community, starting with what we’ve grown before.
In our community, accessibility is presently in a rapid growth cycle! Although I’ve seen a slow integration of accessibility measures over the past couple of years, since the onset of COVID-19 it’s taken on a new dimension and speed. Events moved online, meaning that those of us who can’t always leave the house were able to engage with our community members in ways we previously couldn’t. More care for access began to appear in online content, with image descriptions and captions becoming increasingly more common. Workshops held online didn’t even necessarily require attendance day-of, as they were recorded, available to fit into anyone’s schedule, no matter their mental or physical capacity. In general, new ways to connect were sprouting left and right in the early days of the pandemic.
I’m concerned for the permanency of these sprouting accessibility measures. Every time the government loosens COVID restrictions, I see organizations rush at the chance to go back in-person, opening their spaces and holding some events offline. Such actions almost solidify in my mind the guarantee that when lockdown is over, those same organizations will be abandoning their current online work, which tends to be the most accessible their organizations have ever been.
Some might read that statement as pessimism, but for a disabled artist who discusses this issue at length with other disabled artists, it is just being realistic. The fact is, disabled artists and art patrons have been asking for more accessible content for years, without receiving much of a widespread response. The only reason that our community has had access bloom in this moment is because able-bodied, neurotypical 1 people are being affected by isolation and limited mobility in the same ways as disabled people—essentially, disabled people receiving access in this moment is a happy accident from our community’s work to serve an able-bodied, neurotypical audience.
With this context of our racetrack-turned-fledging-garden in mind, I want to dig into the challenges we’ve faced in doing that work. We can infer that disabled people and their access needs are being ignored, creating a communication gap between the larger artistic and disabled communities. Ignoring and silencing disabled people has resulted in a lack of access knowledge in the artistic community, leaving room for many able-bodied, neurotypical people to make assumptions about what access looks like, even assuming that access is much more widespread than it actually is.
In doing accessibility work for a variety of organizations over the past couple of years in Edmonton, I’ve found that (usually able-bodied) people are surprised when they find out the ways in which a space is inaccessible. This is especially the case if the physical location is one that has a ramp, an elevator, or is at ground level. The most typical base assumption of accessibility tends to be about wheelchair-related mobility, and yet even those needs are often left unmet. Assuming that access will just appear without any contemplation on our part as community members means that the work of access isn’t being done by more than the handful of us dedicated to the work. This is especially true because the defining feature of our community is creating artwork for people to engage with. Without an awareness of access, most artwork inherently has a limited audience, and unnecessarily so. How do we expect anything to grow if nobody has seeds to plant?
The thought and consideration of a garden will not make one appear. Just knowing more about access isn’t enough, as there is also the issue of the active knowledge of being inaccessible. Many times disabled artists, including me, have entered spaces and asked about available accessibility measures and been informed that there aren’t any. This acknowledgement of inaccessibility tends to be phrased as an apology, framed in a way that confirms that those running the space do know about their inaccessibility, they just haven’t done anything about it. It’s a strange form of virtue signaling to say, “we’ve thought about you, but we are not willing to put in the extra work to welcome you (yet)”. This often grows into citing not having budget or support to do access work. The reality is, if you truly care about creating an accessible space as much as you say you do, you would write accessibility costs into your budget. If you truly care, you’ll find grants to accomplish that work. If you truly care, you’ll get your hands dirty.
If we’re getting our hands dirty anyways, we might as well get to the root of the issue. For a community that has such a high proportion of self-identified anti-capitalists, so many of the processes we engage in as a community are just repainted, gallery-ready versions of those that capitalism has already built for us. We have internalized and continue to reproduce capitalist values. I’ve dealt with guilt for resting instead of using my time “productively”, even in traumatic times (such as a global pandemic, for example). I’ve also felt pressure not only to define myself by my work, but by my success in the communities I work in. Although I have started to unpack internalized capitalist values as a part of slowing down and meeting my body where it’s at, I still know how consuming these values can feel. The pressure to keep up to these standards, along with the feelings of scarcity that capitalism invokes in us, impedes our ability to reimagine our community as an accessible one. These values often make those with power over our spaces, such as professors and executive directors, prioritize bodies and minds that can carry their own weight, because it’s less complicated that way.
It’s also important to remember that, in upholding these tenets of capitalism, we are upholding intertwined structures like white supremacy 2 and ableism 3. Accessibility is not only a disability issue. Access is our unspoken promise of who we are willing to fight for: who we are willing to nurture to grow in our spaces. Let’s reflect on what we want to grow as we build our garden in a world that will soon be vaccinated 4.
We can’t just throw seeds into a garden bed and walk away, expecting them all to grow perfectly on their own. Some will – there are some very resilient seeds out there! But why would we build communities based on resiliency and survival when we can build communities that allow us to thrive?
As I said in the beginning, the thing we produce more than artwork is cases of burnout. Being exhausted and cynical5 all the time certainly limits our ability to create, if not limit our ability to live fulfilling lives that prioritize care for ourselves and each other. Imagine the ways in which we could show up for and support one another, both artistically and otherwise, if our worlds weren’t being constantly uprooted by burnout.
With this in mind, I imagine a community built on intention and care, not on speed and ability. Intention means that not only access coordinators are thinking about making artwork accessible. We need to hear the voices of disabled, neurodivergent 6, d/Deaf, and Mad 7 artists to guide disability-specific access work, while actively continuing to listen to and hear the voices of BIPOC, queer, trans and non-binary, and low-income artists to ensure our communities are as safe and accessible as possible.
I want to see more people engage with accessibility, starting with simple things like adding image descriptions and captioning videos on social media and artist websites. But I also want to see evolution and new developments in putting access at the foundation of artwork and community-facing programming, rather than tacking it on at the end.
I imagine a community where we have firm, healthy boundaries with our working artistic lives and our recreational enjoyment of it among our peers. I see us respecting the capacities of one another, supporting each other in the simple act of resting.
But more than anything, I want this to be a community garden. There are dreams and possibilities for what our community can be contained within each of us – we don’t need to solely pursue my dreams of access. As things reopen, I want us to slowly come together, sit, and plan this garden so that we can all bloom together.
Image: Alex Keays, Glen 01, 2021
- A combination of the words “neurologically typical,”, which refers to people whose brains are considered to be the “norm:” our expectations for how people are “supposed” to behave and react are based on this standard.
- Jones, Kenneth, and Tema Okun. “WHITE SUPREMACY CULTURE: Characteristics.” Showing Up for Racial Justice – SURJ, 2001. https://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/white-supremacy-culture-characteristics.html.
- Ambrose, Aaron, and Sebastian Margaret. “DISABILITY JUSTICE.” Showing Up for Racial Justice – SURJ, 2021. https://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/disability-justice.html.
- Romero, Diego. “Alta. Expects to Give 1st Dose of COVID-19 Vaccine to All Adults by End of June: Health Minister.” Edmonton, March 4, 2021. https://edmonton.ctvnews.ca/alta-expects-to-give-1st-dose-of-covid-19-vaccine-to-all-adults-by-end-of-june-health-minister-1.5333860.
- World Health Organization (WHO). “Burn-out an ‘Occupational Phenomenon’: International Classification of Diseases.” World Health Organization. World Health Organization, May 28, 2019. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases.
- The opposite of the term neurotypical, this term refers to brains that are seen as being “outside of the norm” developmentally and/or cognitively, with differences being seen in areas such as learning, social skills, and sensory capacity. This term is often used in relation to the autistic community, but encompasses a wide variety of neurological experiences.
- This term is used to describe people with lived experience of mental illness and accessing mental health services, often identifying from a particularly political and/or scholarly leaning lens (ie. similar to the political undertones of the term “queer”).