Diversity in Accessibility

By Lisa Husseini

Early in August, hundreds of arts professionals flocked to Pittsburgh, PA to attend the Kennedy Center’s Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) Conference. Arts administrators, performing artists, arts lovers, and arts educators spent six days discussing accessibility in the arts today, what the struggles are that we face, and most importantly, how we can achieve arts accessibility for all people – not just those who are most convenient to reach.


Photo: KC LEAD Conference via @AccessLead

I had the extraordinary fortune of attending this conference, and of being a part of this hugely important conversation. I was curious before attending as to how much would really be accomplished. What could really be covered in less than a week? What actual discussions can be had in that large of a format? And at the end of the day, when it came time to have the most difficult conversations, would we?

We did.

The entire experience was an incredibly authentic, honest, and thought-provoking journey culminating in a session which forever changed the way I view inclusiveness. The final session I attended was entitled “Diversity in Accessibility” and took on the form of a 2-hour round table discussion with around forty people from all walks of life. This session was a radical eye opener for everyone in attendance, myself included.

The simple action of engaging with others not only provides us with answers but it also starts to build an environment in which change is possible.

During “Diversity in Accessibility,” four moderators from arts service organizations asked the question “What can we do better?” The answers poured out in the form of frustrating anecdotes and helpless pleas. We heard about artists being turned away from opportunities due to a misunderstood disability. We discussed the pervasiveness of racial tokenism in artistic programming and the insensitivities which accompany those decisions. We grappled with the unfortunate truth that too many organizations are only interested in being accessible when there is grant money involved, and asked, “when that money disappears, what then?” The discussion was overwhelming but inspiring. Amongst the high emotions, defeated sighs, and personal frustrations, the truth remained that we were having this conversation – a conversation which is not had nearly enough.

What I took away from this session, and from the conference as a whole, is that the road ahead is not easy. The wonderful depth of the human race makes it very hard to be inclusive. For example, what is accessible to one 15 year-old girl of Mexican descent living in NYC may not be inclusive to another 15 year-old girl of Mexican descent living in NYC. Why? Because there are so many things that define us, not only our age, gender, race, and location. It seems obvious when it’s spelled out, but it’s also very easy for us all to forget when the time comes to instill change.

The good news is that despite all of the difficulties, we have one enormous resource which, when used correctly, can help us move towards accessibility, inclusiveness, and equality.

We have each other.

We have the power to reach out to people in our community and ask the questions that lead to the difficult discussions. This simple action of engaging with others not only provides us with answers but it also starts to build an environment in which change is possible. As we look forward to this new year at Artsmith, I know I will be pushing myself to ask, “what can we do better?” and I encourage you to do the same.