By Cindy Brown
Making a living in the arts is tough. There's no roadmap, no one direct path that leads to Broadway or Hollywood. Making a living as a person with a disability is tough, too. There's no map for us either, mostly because we're some of the first to have educational and vocational opportunities open to us. Making a living in the arts as a person with a disability? Many can't imagine such a path.
I remember going to Voc Rehab after becoming disabled. The counselor looked at my paperwork. "You're an actor?" she said, eyeing me (I was using crutches at the time). I nodded. "Hmm. Well," she said. "Can you type?"
I wish she could have attended the recent NEA Summit on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities. She would have seen business owners who use wheelchairs, writers who are blind, actors who are deaf-creative and talented people with disabilities working in the arts.
Inroads, Roadblocks, and Throughways
The people who attended the summit are not only working, they're building inroads into the arts world. Listening to the artists who attended the summit, I noticed again the universality of the barriers we face. Stigma and/or lack of understanding regarding our abilities, health insurance concerns, and Social Security issues; these were the difficulties I heard about again and again. What struck me, though, were the different approaches used to solve these issues, and how the solutions appeared to be connected to different career paths. For example, it seemed to me at the time that working artists, arts administrators, academics, and entrepreneurs all reached success via different routes. Intrigued by this idea, I decided to interview several people I met at the conference. I wanted to hear the point of view of working actor Christopher Imbrosciano; of Elizabeth Labbe-Webbe, the Executive Director of VSA Arts Georgia; of Professor Stephen Kuusisto from University of Iowa's Department of English; and of James LeBrecht, President and Lead Sound Designer of Berkeley Sound Artists. I hoped to hear how ideas, program and projects like the ones suggested at the conference had shaped their careers, and to use their success stories to chart a course for other people with disabilities to follow. I envisioned many different paths-a mentorship that led to a successful academic career, a small business program that inspired entrepreneurship, etc. Instead, I found that success depended more on attitude than the paths taken.
The roadblocks that the interviewees encountered weren't unexpected. Though none of them were dealing with Social Security issues now, some had in the past. Both Jim LeBrecht and Elizabeth Labbe-Webbe were frustrated that they couldn't provide better health insurance for their employees. Not surprisingly, the biggest barrier, and the one that had the most emotional impact, was stigma. "I remember a professor in graduate school telling me that if, owing to blindness, I had to take longer to write a paper than other students, then I shouldn't be in his course, "said Stephen Kuusisto. "That was pretty humiliating, but worse perhaps was the response of the chair of the department, who, upon hearing of my problem with this particular professor said, "I think you're a whiner.' The overall message was: "Go away. We don't want you here.' That's the definition of stigma: you're marked as having a malignant kind of difference and the very mark means that there's cultural permission to ostracize you. People with disabilities know a lot about this experience."
I had anticipated similar barriers. I'd also expected that now I'd hear about the different paths, the unique ways in which each interviewee challenged and surmounted the obstacles. Instead, when I asked each of them the secret to their success, their answers were remarkably similar. "I think that successful people are the sorts of folks who work all the time," said Stephen. "Sure there's a matter of ability, but let's not forget that from 1959 to 1969, The Beatles practiced something like 8 hours a day." Christopher Imbrosciano cited "talent, luck, and persistence". Elizabeth didn't mince words: "I'm stubborn, and I'm smart. Every time I hit a brick wall, I found not just the way around, but the reason why the wall shouldn't exist." She offered advice to others: "Come to the table with the skills you need. Then, if something gets in your way, come to the table with a solution."
Taking the Wheel-Demonstrating Ability
Like the others, Jim attributed his success to skill and persistence. In addition, he didn't just provide solutions, he demonstrated them. "Earlier in my career, people weren't sure I could do the job since I couldn't walk. There were some reasonable concerns: in theater, you're always going up and down. I once had to drive a hundred miles or so to show them I could do it. I got the job." Jim also prides himself on being the best. "I was brought up with my father telling me that I had to find a way to be better than anybody else. I don't want be second best; I like being best. I don't want to be the guy in the wheelchair who does pretty good work. I want to be the guy who does great work who happens to use a wheelchair."
Jim noted that demonstrating this determination and work ethic while living with a disability sometimes works to his advantage. When I asked others if their path to success was different from those who didn't have disabilities, I was surprised that, while never dismissing the stigma that accompanies disability, Christopher and Steven said there were some positive aspects as well. "Having a disability sets me apart from other five foot five, blue-eyed actors," said Christopher. He said that he realized, during our interview, that although he has played many "typical" roles, his professional roles have been characters with disabilities. Steven said, "I think that because of my disability I had more time alone-being blind meant that I wasn't driving around in my Porsche or playing competitive sports. My energies got spent writing and writing and writing."
Elizabeth's experience was different, and because of it, she does not disclose her disability until necessary. "I've been put in the 'no' pile for no other reason," she said. Getting off the "no" pile can be challenging, but Jim found a way that works for him. "I have a good handle on what I'm capable of, and I can express that to employers," he said. "Most people are less likely to hire someone they're scared of. People want someone they can work with. You have to be friendly." Christopher also said that he encourages dialogue. "There is a lack of understanding," he said. "I try to counteract it by making people comfortable, so if they have any questions they feel comfortable asking." He noted that it's not always easy. "Auditions are not always the place to do that, though. I'm still trying to figure that out."
Choosing Well, or Being Chosen
No one I interviewed said that it was easy making a living in the arts. Most continued to face obstacles, some disability-related, like stigma, others related to the business of art, like funding and health insurance. Not one regretted their decision to work in the arts. Why? "Who can explain the mystery of falling in love?" said Stephen. "It was love at first sight for me. At eighteen I had it all figured out: I was going to be a writer." " I didn't choose my career. It chose me," said Elizabeth, who started out as an actor. "I promised myself I would stay in the arts, even if I wasn't working as an artist." Christopher's love of acting started early. "When I was really little, I had to have a test where they put all these needles in my scalp," he said. "I kept crying, and the needles would fall out. My parents said, "Just get through this test. We'll do whatever you want. Disneyland, anything.' I said, "Build me a stage in the basement.'"
Like Christopher, Jim grew up focused on his future career. "I was always interested in sound, always liked music," he said. "When I was in high school, my dad had a reel to reel, and I would tape things off the radio." Jim made a conscious effort to get a job doing what he loved. That's also the advice he gives to people seeking careers in the arts. "You owe it to yourself to find out what you really love. And don't be afraid to fail. If you do, have a good time failing."
I asked what other advice they might have for those pursuing careers in the arts. Elizabeth said, "Learn the business you want to practice in." "Stick to it," said Steven. "Keep at it. There's a lot to be said for longevity in the arts. This is as true for people who temporarily "do not' have a disability, but it's especially pertinent for people with disabilities, because it's very easy, given all the other obstacles in life, to just give up. It can take years to get that novel published or that book of poems accepted: you have to keep on keeping on. That's the only solution in the arts. Create and keep creating." Christopher agreed. "Just do it," he said. "Don't be afraid. You just have to be persistent. And reach out. There are organizations and other artists willing to help you."
The Power of Community
And that, it seems, is where the Summit on Careers in the Arts fit into the conversation. I had asked interviewees what summit idea or action item they thought might have the most impact on the employment of people with disabilities in the arts. The answers I received were a bit vague, prefaced with comments like, "I'm not sure" or "It's hard to say". But when I asked what tools, advice, or inspiration they as individuals took away from the summit, the answers were loud and clear. I heard words like "thrilled", "loved", and "gratified", all used in conjunction with…us. We, the community of people with disabilities working in the arts, are the inspiration, the role models, and even the means to success for each other. All of the interviewees said that gathering with other like-minded people, hearing their ideas, seeing their work, getting their feedback, inspired, fed, and moved them forward.
I'd been looking for a roadmap, but what I found was more like a GPS system, a community whose members guide each other through shifting landscapes, and provide the impetus to move forward. "Together we can all push this forward and take action," said Christopher. "We need to keep letting our voices be heard, keep working, and keep creating." He said he was astounded and encouraged by the number of people fighting for a common cause, and inspired to take action. "We can't wait for the work to come to us," he said. "If it's not happening when we're knocking on people's doors, we're going to have to do it ourselves."top