Accessibility To The Disabled Is New Art Focus

December 02, 1990|By Eric Siegel TTTC

You're physically disabled but feel fortunate that the exhibit you want to see is in a museum accessible to wheelchairs. But once inside, you find that the information panels are placed too high to be read comfortably.

Or maybe you're deaf and you're happy to find that the museum has provided a sign language interpreter for its guided tour. But your delight quickly turns to dismay when you discover that the objects you most want to see are in individually lit cases in a room too dark for you to make out the signing.

These were among the real-life experiences presented to administrators from arts organizations around the state, who gathered last month for a conference on handicapped accessibility. Titled "Access-Options," the event was sponsored by the Maryland State Arts Council and designed to encourage groups to accelerate, or in some cases initiate, efforts to make their offerings available to the disabled.

State arts officials admit that one reason they held the conference was the recognition that there is a problem with handicapped accessibility.

"It's clear that there's a lot of work to do," said Judith C. Levine, who was named MSAC's deputy director and accessibility coordinator in June. Some organizations, she said, "weren't sure what to do" about the problem; others "hadn't done anything."

Most of the state's major arts groups are accessible to the physically handicapped and are also taking strides to become usable to the visually and hearing impaired.

"The difficulties are in two main areas," said Ms. Levine. "The primary one is historic buildings. It's much harder for historic buildings to modify themselves without losing their historic character. The other area is the small, sometimes rural organizations."

The issue of handicapped accessibility to the arts is becoming more important as the number of disabled people increases with the aging of the population, experts say. Moreover, those who have disabilities, estimated at one in every six people, are beginning to look beyond such bread and butter issues as jobs and transportation.

"Until now, people with disabilities have focused on being able to get in the door of their jobs," said Marion Vessels, director of the governor's office for handicapped individuals and a wheelchair user herself. "That's what I'm concerned about first. Then I want to enhance the quality of my life."

That a problem still exists, nearly 20 years after the National Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibited discrimination against disabled people from any program receiving federal funds, rankles some in the disabled community. They note that the arts council receives several hundred thousand dollars each year from the National Endowment for the Arts, which it then funnels to local arts groups.

Marilyn Phillips, a disability rights activist from Hampstead who has been prodding the MSAC on the issue of accessibility, says she surveyed arts activities in Carroll County over the summer and found that more than 80 percent of them were not fully accessible to handicapped individuals.

Ms. Phillips, 46, a post-polio victim who uses a wheelchair, criticizes the arts council approach of providing information and encouragement. "They should be withholding money from organizations that do not comply [with the federal law]," she said. "That's what they would do for any other violations of civil rights, wouldn't they?"

The MSAC's Ms. Levine says she "can empathize with those who are fed up with hearing about the need for more time" and concedes "a lot of things should have been done" years ago. But she says that "given the current reality," the arts council has concluded that "the best approach is to provide support, assistance and guidelines to organizations, not to yank money from them.

"What's more important -- making this happen, or punishing people?" she asked.

In an effort to spur organizations to act, the arts agency has written new guidelines for its special project grants in direct money to those who are extending their activities to the disabled.

"I don't think there will be state funding available to do renovations -- the amount of money would be too large," says Ms. Levine. "I'm hoping we can find money to provide technical assistance."

With little additional state money available, the question becomes how arts organizations, many of them already strapped for funds, can find funds to increase their accessibility. As Ms. Vessels told the conference, "One of the biggest challenges is to be creative -- taking limited resources and existing facilities and making them accessible to folks with disabilities."

One of the organizations faced with that challenge is Baltimore Clayworks, located in a historic building in Mount Washington. Ten years old, it features a gallery, artists' studio space and classes and has an annual budget of $90,000.

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