Black and white photo of a woman with long hair, wearing a bikini on the beach in a wheelchair.
Artist and disability advocate April Hubbard, one of the planners of the Disability Atlantic Arts Symposium. Photo: A.Y. Taylor Photography

A new online symposium is bringing together disabled artists in Atlantic Canada. The first Disability Atlantic Arts Symposium runs October 22-24. The event is free, and features panels on establishing careers in ableist spaces and funding access, along with a conversation with funders and a closing night cabaret.

“Atlantic Canada has the really unique challenge of us being so spread out, as a population of disabled artists,” April Hubbard, one of the conference planners, said in an interview. “We are isolated, be it geographically or by type of disability, so there isn’t much chance for these types of connections. To have these conversations and talk about what our experiences have been, and how we can support each other, either in making art or in self-care, is big.”

Hubbard, who is based in Halifax and is primarily a circus and drag arts performer, is one of four planners (one from each of the Atlantic provinces) of the symposium. She said the fact that disabled artists took the lead in planning the conference was critically important. It meant they could focus on relevant subjects and also arrange the event so the panels and cabaret unfolded with lots of time between each event.

“For organizers who live with disability ourselves, there is only so much energy in a day,” Hubbard said. “We wanted people not to have to choose between events, to have them spread apart, allow breathing room and work that self-care into the symposium.”

Selfie of woman with curly hair and glasses, wearing a black top. A colourful painting is partly visible in the background
Writer, visual artist, and filmmaker Anna Quon in front of one of her works of art. Photo contributed.

Writer, visual artist and filmmaker Anna Quon is a panelist appearing at the symposium on Friday evening. (Quon and I are both members of the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia board.) In an interview, she said it’s “really refreshing and really important” to have an event led by Disabled artists. “As well-meaning as some organizations can be, I do think they don’t know what people with disabilities, Disabled artists, are up against… The space can be safer and more inclusive if it’s run by people who do know about that.”

While access to funding is a challenge for many artists, Quon said Disabled artists face additional barriers, often including poverty, a lack of credentials, and gaps in their resumés.

Noting that she can only speak from her own experience, Quon said, “If you are a little different, a little odd in your approach or the way you relate to others and to your work, people just look at you askance… To get grants to do your own thing you have to have a certain level of recognition and a certain track record.”

She added, “I grew up in a privileged household, comfortable, middle class, and went to university before I had my major mental health episodes. So I had that piece of paper in my hand. I had a resumé. But not everyone who is mad or who is disabled has those things.”

The symposium grew out of the JRG Society for the Arts, founded by documentary filmmaker Rachel Bower in memory of her late partner, Justin Robin Grant, a longtime camera operator for This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Grant had ALS, and had to stop working when he was no longer able to operate large equipment. But Bower says he never stopped shooting videos, directing short films using GoPro cameras attached to his wheelchair.

“It was super-fun,” Bower said in an interview. “I was trying to think of a way to honour him, and thought about how much fun he had making those videos. He needed someone like me to provide access support, and I realized there was no cross-country grant for artists that was disability specific. So I thought, why not start one?” The society now offers three awards annually to Disabled artists: a cash prize of $3,500 open to emerging artists from anywhere in Canada, and awards offering mentorship and services for theatre artists and Atlantic Canadian filmmakers.

Headshot of a woman with shoulder-length hair and glasses, holding her hand with index finger pointing upward in front of her mouth. She is standing in front of a neutral background.
Theatre New Brunswick artistic director Natasha MacLellan. Photo: Jennifer Harrison

Theatre New Brunswick artistic director Natasha MacLellan sits on the board of JRG. TNB and Neptune Theatre provide studio space for the winners of the JRG Theatre Artist Award. But MacLellan said she and Neptune artistic director Jeremy Webb realized supporting Disabled artists meant more than just space.

“For Jeremy and I — as theatre companies, it’s not a lot of work to slot someone in, give them space,” MacLellan said in an interview. “But are our spaces barrier-free? Do we offer other supports? Can a blind person come in here and work? Do we offer ASL if a deaf person comes in? There is so much to be considered in the disability arts community. As we reached out to artists, we realized what was needed was something to gel and create a sense of community.”

MacLellan raised the idea of the symposium with Bower, and then offered to have Theatre New Brunswick host the event.

“JRG is so small, and it’s really hard to pop something like this up, especially when your goal is to make sure everyone is paid a fair fee. But Theatre New Brunswick has infrastructure — so we can put all these cheques through our payroll, we can make sure people get T4As, and we have a production manager and director of communications. The infrastructure is all there, so it’s not difficult for us to put it through our producing machine,” McLellan said.

While the “Conversations with Funders” panel and the online cabaret closing out the symposium are open to all registered participants, the panels on navigating barriers to funding and establishing careers in ableist spaces are open only to those who identify as having a disability. “We ask that you please abide by this request,” says the symposium’s registration page.

“We decided we wanted all the panels to be a space for disability-identifying individuals,” Hubbard said. “These are very sensitive conversations, and there is a lot of emotion that comes with that. We wanted to create a space that felt safe and where people were understood… It allows a little more freedom for people to open up, have honest conversations, not feel judged, and have a space where we can be honest with each other.”

Quon agreed. “It means we will speak about things differently, and people will be able to ask questions they are more comfortable asking. I think that’s great,” she said.

The cabaret, which features pre-recorded spoken word poetry, drag, burlesque, circus and contemporary art performances is designed not only to showcase talent but also, MacLellan said, to connect people like herself with Disabled artists. “I hope that people make connections, and maybe friendships and partnerships will be formed. I hope everyone who attends feels less alone and comes away with knowledge they need and funding programs that exist,” MacLellan said. ” I hope people like me, people who have power in the arts world — and what I mean by that is the ability to program, people who curate — I hope they tune into the cabaret so they can see the breadth of talent in the region. So I hope conversation is happening not only among artists but also among artists and programmers, institutions.”

Organizers hope this will be the first of many Disability Atlantic Arts symposia, and that it will lead to greater opportunities for Disabled artists in the region to form connections and networks.

Too often, Hubbard said, arts organizations reach out to Disabled artists with an attitude of giving them opportunities, “rather than how can we really collaborate.” With the symposium, she said, it’s “exciting to come at it as Disabled artists, with the focus on how can we support each other and create a network to keep this going long term.”

Tickets for the symposium are available here.

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Philip Moscovitch is a freelance writer, audio producer, fiction writer, and editor of Write Magazine.

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