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The experience of performing arts for students with disabilities

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Art is a crucial aspect of our well-being; it allows us to express ourselves and helps us escape from the stress of everyday life. It is important that everyone has the same opportunities to experience and engage with art.

The performing arts are a great way to fully immerse yourself in an artform, and UW offers an array of programs. The School of Drama, the department of dance, the School of Music, and digital arts and experimental media (DXARTS) all fall into that category. But are they accessible to everyone?

Generally, UW tries to follow the principle of universal design, which means that products and spaces are intended to be accessible for as many people as possible, no matter their background or their abilities, and without needing to be specially designed or adapted. However, there are still issues, and accessibility within the performing arts sphere remains a challenge. For instance, the School of Drama’s Hutchinson Hall is only partially accessible by wheelchair for those with movement impairments.

Of course there is a wide range of disabilities, and they each require individual accommodations; some are physical, some are not, but all should be kept in mind when thinking about the different aspects of everyday life, including the experience of participating in and watching the performing arts. 

“Sometimes we get very specific on the types of disabilities we think about when we want to accommodate,” Adiam Tesfay, director of Academic Support Programs, said. “So … we have wider rows and we have doorways with push buttons and things, but we didn't necessarily think about the fact that the seats are really close together, and somebody with social anxiety might not want to sit that close to other people.” 

So while UW tries to ensure that everyone’s needs are being met, there are some gaps. 

“We don't right now have a system or a practice of accommodating signed performances or listening-assisted performances,” Geoff Korf, executive director of the School of Drama, said. “We want to do that and we are working on a strategic plan.”

In terms of representing students with disabilities in the performing arts, all schools and departments within the performing arts discipline advertise ensuring diversity within their performers and standing against discrimination. While nobody is explicitly excluded based on their abilities, the outreach to students with disabilities is surely lacking. 

Hopefully, steps toward a more open and inclusive environment in the arts on campus will be taken, starting with an action plan devised (and updated quarterly) by the School of Drama in the spring of 2020

“A big focus of [the strategic plan] is anti-oppressive practices, accessibility practices, and inclusion practices,” Korf said. “So we're intending for it to include measurable steps towards creating more access for the disabled, as well as other marginalized groups.”

Reach writer Lilli Trompke at arts@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @LilliTrompke

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