OUMA Celebrates Deaf and Disabled Artists
Bhavana Kunnath, Staff Writer
Oglethorpe University's Museum of Art hosted a first-of-its-kind event on Saturday, October 1 to celebrate artists who are deaf and disabled as part of the university’s effort to be more inclusive. The event commemorated the release of the Ikouii Creative’s second book and featured an array of performances.
According to Accessibility Services Coordinator Gabriel Mendez, 185 out of 1,400 students at Oglethorpe register for accessibility services (that’s roughly 13% of the student body), which indicates how important this event was for increasing disability visibility on campus. Though OUMA exhibits have featured artists with disabilities in the past, this was OUMA's first time hosting an event that brought together a panel of artists who are deaf and disabled to discuss the importance of accessibility and their relationships to art. “Access is a forgotten piece of diversity,” OUMA Director Elizabeth Peterson said in her opening remarks. “It’s a piece that a lot of people shy away from—they're not sure how to act, they’re not sure what to do, so they don’t do anything. Or they run away. Or they stare. But we need to do better, and Oglethorpe is poised to do that.”
Hosting the Ikouii Creative’s celebration is one way Oglethorpe is starting to do better. The Ikouii Creative is a disability-led organization that provides financial support to artists with disabilities in 17 countries and works to make artistic spaces more inclusive and accessible. The Ikouii Creative’s new book, Inside Their Studio: Deaf & Disabled Artists Reshaping the Arts, was curated by the Ikouii Creative's founding Director and Curator Aleatha Lindsay and it is the second in a series that she began working on in 2018. The book lets readers see the practices and personal journeys of various artists with disabilities, and so far, the series has featured 56 artists from 12 countries with 21 different disabilities. The first installment of the series sold out three times and OUMA sold out of copies of their newest release during the first half of the event.
Throughout the event, a panel of artists featured in the book shared their experiences, answered questions from the audience, and signed books. The panel consisted of AJ Schnettler, the photographer of the They/Them project; Antoine Hunter, a dancer from the Urban Jazz Dance Company who is deaf; April Williams, a poet with cerebral palsy; Rose Adare, a portrait artist with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome; Question ATL, a freestyle rap artist who is blind; and Jessica Blinkhorn, an interdisciplinary artist who identifies as a member of the disabled, aging LGBTQ+ community. Blinkhorn teared up as she shared an excerpt about her journey from the book saying:
“Oftentimes when you’re disabled, people look at you but they never really listen to you. When you’re disabled you try hard—harder than most—to be seen for your abilities rather than your disability. I used drawing as a way to speak to a world that I felt wasn’t listening, and now I use performance to scream at the world that still refuses to listen to the stories of my community.”
The event offered the artists a stage to do exactly that. Following readings from the book, Williams (performing for a live audience for the first time) read the poems “Bluish,” “Testimony,” and “So About Happiness” from her book The Bindings: The Experiences that Hold Me Together-The Girl with Cerebral Palsy. Hunter and his dance partner Zahna Simon performed a dance that drew audience members into his world by teaching them various signs. Question ATL performed a freestyle rap in which he incorporated random words suggested by the audience such as “kumquat” and “love.” Adare asked audience members to write positive words they associate with loved ones with disabilities on the corset they use to hold their bones in place to transform it into a tool for initiating discussions, and Blinkhorn asked audience
members to cut pieces of her veil and keep them as reminders to be more inclusive of people with disabilities.
It was clearly impactful for the students who attended, many of whom were from Disabled, Neurodivergent Students of Oglethorpe, a new club that seeks to advocate for disabled and/or neurodivergent students that helped OUMA host the event. “I think being a young adult with a disability and seeing someone who’s older than you with a disability thriving and making beautiful art can really give you hope,” said Elerich Newbern, founder and president of DNSO. “It makes me realize that we exist, we’re out there, and we’re accomplishing amazing things.”
Clay Hoover, a senior at Oglethorpe, came to the event to better understand the experiences of his friends who are disabled and neurodivergent and found the experience enlightening. “In academia, there is a historical precedent for excluding disabled people and I think Oglethorpe is trying to combat that, but there are hundreds of years of history even here at our own school to overcome. I’m appreciative of events like this that are working to change that narrative and to change that history,” he said.
Students and older attendees alike recognized that the celebration, though powerful, was just one step towards making the campus and the world beyond it more inclusive. As Lindsay said in her opening remarks, “while we’re living in a time when disability arts and culture are getting attention, we still have a long way to go before we can say that the arts are fully accessible."
Alex Hausman, the social media manager of DNSO, agrees. “I hope there’s a better push for accessibility at Oglethorpe after this," he said. A lot of students have complaints about the accessibility, and I hope by interacting with other disabled people they gain enough of an appreciation to start becoming advocates themselves."