“ If life gives you lemons, just take the damned lemons.” Not the classiest way to kick off a blog post, but I wanted to give you a little taste of the gung-ho attitude that blew minds at the Walker not too long ago.
On the 13th of May, the Walker Art Center hosted The State of Things: An Update on Accessible Cultural Programming in the Twin Cities as part of a larger endeavor to increase awareness around the growing accessibility of cultural activities in the cities. And I’m not kidding when I say ‘larger’. Present at our event were over 60 people who were either representing different educational and cultural organizations or attending as individuals invested in the access community. The central idea was ‘radical inclusion:’ giving equal consideration to different ways of experiencing the world. Following the keynote address, we had a panel discussion followed by a Q&A session, both of which I’ll cover in a separate blog post so that this one doesn’t turn into a skyscraper of text.
As we all know, no self-respecting event dares to launch itself without an amazing keynote address. Enter Leslye Orr, a woman who not only took those lemons and made lemonade, but also helped children all over the country do the same.
In her brief introduction, Courtney Gerber of the Walker Education and Community Programs Department delivered a salient quote: “ Disability is a mainstream aspect of being human. It’s not special or other – it simply is.” The words belong to Nina Levent, who works with the Art Beyond Sight program in New York City. They struck a resonant chord not only due to their insight, but also because of how unnervingly well they applied to the keynote speaker of the day. As she stepped up to the podium and faced the audience with a friendly smile, Leslye seemed filled with confidence and a radiant joie de vivre. Very far from the stereotypical portrait of disability.
“ You never know about disabilities,” observed Leslye, whose slender frame houses an immense capability for greatness. On top of being a seasoned playwright, she’s also a performer, an author and a theater workshop instructor for voice, improvisation and acting. She also owns and runs private theater company Dreamland Arts with her husband, Zarawaar Mistry. Impressed? Wait until you hear that Leslye is legally blind – she was born with tunnel vision. Yet her disability, like that of many others, isn’t always immediately perceptible to others. As Leslye cautioned, it’s important to remember that a person’s disability may not necessarily manifest in the most obvious of ways. To avoid being equated to the disability, an individual sometimes manages to rearrange his or her lifestyle in a way that hides it rather well.
At this point, I was a little tempted to consider the afore-mentioned process as a heartbreaking form of compensation. Leslye caught the thought before it took off and firmly popped it with a pin. “ Why can’t what we’re missing also be something we enjoy? There’s so much pity for the disabled. Don’t assume they’re miserable,” she pointed out in her address as I struggled to curb my blush. “ These people have their own delightful experiences that are specific to their condition. It’s their world. They’re fine with it.”
A very striking point. With all acts of charity, the line between sensitive, sincere concern and dehumanizing condescension can wax thin. When we think about people with disabilities, there’s always the tendency to focus on only the tragic and caricaturize a living individual. It’s a common mistake that rears its ugly head in many circumstances.
During two separate activities Leslye asked children to describe an alien of their own design and write essays about their friends with disabilities. In both, the children focused on the differences between them and the subject of their descriptions. In the case of the aliens, they were extolled with affectionate curiosity and wonder. But when it came to the friends with disabilities, pity and sadness permeated the narrative. Leslye asked the children to consider a healthier possibility: why not talk about your friends in the same positive way as you did about your aliens? “ We are proud of ourselves”, said Leslye in her address, her voice quiet but resolute. “We like who we are.”
In addition to coping with her own challenges, Leslye has had an extensive history of helping others who encounter physiological and mental disabilities on a daily basis. As a child, she took care of three brothers with disabilities, two of whom passed away at an early age. The experience was painful and difficult. Nevertheless, it taught her how to interact with people with disabilities and endowed her with a strong, vivid imagination: two skill sets that would later help her use performance art to bring joy and empowerment to children with disabilities.
From helping said children stage stuffed animal puppet shows to conducting disability workshops in high schools in numerous states, Leslye has poured her altruism and ingenuity into a dizzying array of philanthropic activities. She has also written and illustrated a book called The People on the Corner that introduces ideas of disability and diversity to a younger audience.
In describing the contents of the book, Leslye asked the audience: “ If you aren’t exposed to different kinds of people when you’re young, how can you grow up accepting them?” It was a haunting question that really highlighted the importance of holistic early cognitive development in the fostering of a more tolerant society.
But learning is never just a one-way street – in this world, everyone is both a teacher and a student. “ It’s important to keep mainstreaming and mixing different ways for people to keep communicating their ideas,” Leslye noted, underlining the fact that all individuals have the potential to contribute something valuable to the discourse on art and accessibility.
It was a lot to digest in one go, and I had a feeling that most of our guests weren’t used to fully re-examining their perceptions of people with disabilities at ten in the morning. Thankfully, Leslye was completely aware of this. She moved on to the realm of more logistical concerns, suggesting practical ways of making an institution a more welcoming place. Don’t underestimate the importance of good signage: try to make ones that can be easily removed from walls and perused up close. Make sure that transportation options are highly accessible. And last but definitely not least, remember that people choose to visit museums when they can relate and engage with what’s on display. Without this crucial process, the connection is lost and then so is the interest.
In the wake of such a compelling and thought-provoking keynote address, there were plenty of ideas and questions to share. Stay tuned for Part Two, in which I share the details of the enlightening panel discussion and Q&A session which followed! If you’re interested in watching Leslye’s keynote address instead of just reading about it, here’s the video.