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How this Vermont organization is making the arts world more accessible for artists and patrons with disabilities

Several items are resting on a wooden table. On the left to right are a white and blue brush with a long handle, a small metallic scouring pad, purple flower-shaped hair ties, a white fluffy cleaning pad, a black ice scraper and snow brush, some brown plastic combs, a light green loofah, some blue, white and purple curled ribbon, a black, long-handled grill scrubber and a yellow foam scrubber on the end  of a blue and white handle.
Katie Miller, Courtesy
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Inclusive Arts Vermont has a mission to ensure anyone at any time can attend any arts event in the state and participate in it in any way they choose. This weekend, the organization holds a paint-a-thon fundraiser. Some of the accessible art-making supplies that artists with disabilities can use include combs, snow brushes and foam pads with long handles.

Vermont boasts a vibrant and rich arts community. But Katie Miller has a question: "What is the experience like as an artist with a disability?"

Miller is executive director of Inclusive Arts Vermont in St. Albans. That's the organization that grew out of the disability rights movement with deep roots in the state since the mid-1980s.

And today, it's still working to make art and art venues more accessible in multiple ways. One is by helping organizations revamp physical spaces.

"You know, there are some performance venues where we have all these beautiful old buildings in Vermont, and people can get in the door as an audience member," Miller said. "But performers can't get to the stage if they use a mobility device."

Miller added that empowering not just arts organizations, but workplaces, too, helps move the needle on creating inclusive spaces.

"You can have a ramp to get into a theater, but what happens once you're in there?"
Katie Miller, executive director of Inclusive Arts Vermont

Inclusive Arts Vermont is mission-driven. The goal is that any person, with or without a disability, can go into any arts organization in the state and participate in any program in any way they choose.

"I think that's creating change," Miller said. "It's making things more accessible. But you know, there's a reason we exist! To teach people about the importance of accessibility and teaching people that accessibility is more than just getting in the door, you know? You can have a ramp to get into a theater. But what happens once you're in there?"

Miller has had arts inclusivity on her mind since grad school.

"I wrote my graduate research on how to make the arts more accessible to rural communities," she said. "For me, I've always wanted to use the arts to increase inclusion and accessibility for all people."

And with an art-for-everyone mindset, Inclusive Arts Vermont offers professional development, teaching artists and other educators in order to create classrooms that emphasize arts integration for all types of learners.

"A huge part of our work and our focus right now as an organization is on systemic change, because we can offer inclusive and accessible programs for people with disabilities, but we can't be in every classroom, every arts organization, everywhere all the time," Miller said.

She added that Inclusive Arts Vermont's focus over the past few years has been on offering training programs for for-profit and nonprofit businesses. The trainings, Miller said, "help make their programs that they offer and their work environments more accessible for people with disabilities."

Katie Miller from Inclusive Arts Vermont talks about the organization and "POP," a paint-a-thon fundraiser on Aug. 13:

Katie Miller, from Inclusive Arts Vermont

Heidi Swevens serves as Inclusive Arts Vermont's director of community partnerships. Swevens is a visual artist. In their early 20s, they experienced significant vision changes, and they had to create ways to be a part of the visual arts community.

"There were things that felt really off-limits," Swevens said of the arts community. "That was 25 years ago. But for me, art and expression just has been vital to my wellbeing."

Swevens connected with Inclusive Arts Vermont — then known as VSA Vermont — and reveled in the ways that the organization "removed barriers," they said, "so I could show up and enjoy the event."

This moved Swevens to join the organization in order to make that inclusion happen for others in the arts community.

"Because I do believe accessibility is a shared and collective responsibility," they said.

Swevens’ example of their own art embodies the Inclusive Arts mission. It's a photography collection titled, “Do You See What I See?

The exhibit began as part of the University of Vermont's Disability Awareness Month in 2006. Now, it lives a new life as an online show.

Over the years, Swevens has added written as well as audio verbal descriptions to their 20 photographed images and created an almost choose-your-own-adventure aspect to the now 16-year-old project.

"As it turns out, some other people also love to hear and create verbal descriptions, kind of a 'universal design for learning' thing!" they said.

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The interaction within the exhibit comes when a viewer can choose to see the photos before reading the description, or wait until after.

"I thought that could be playful," Swevens said. "Because it really explores, you know, 'What does it mean to see?'"

Swevens has also added a poetry component to the gallery tour.

"At some point, the 'Do You See What I See?' — there wasn't an 'I' in there," they said. "It was like, 'Let's explore what it means to see, to connect, to understand.'"

Swevens said when they had just acquired a digital camera, and the sun was beginning to rise through the kitchen window, they looked out and snapped two shots.

A landscape image.
A thin band of white snow forms the bottom edge of the image.  It curves almost undetectably; a slight hill rising on the left. A darker layer of shadows combs the snow before distinguishing itself into trees just above the midsection of the image. The now-apparent forest appears in front of a pale orange-pink sky. Trees are seen in varying heights. Several thin trunks reach from the shadows beyond the top of the image.  
A faint orange ball of light relaxes on the shadows just to the left of the image’s center. The sky fades into a textured white cap at the top edge of the photo almost balancing the curved layer of snow below the shadows.  
The entire scene blends and blurs in the absence of precise edges. Without distinct boundaries, the images seem as if they are dancing on an invisible breeze—as if the trees themselves were smudged into the fading colors of the morning sky. Or as if the trees themselves were emerging from the faint orange light we have learned to call the sun.
Near the bottom left corner, a blurred figure is visible. A snow-covered roof seems to hover over a double-paned window and blend into the shadows.  The right side of this small structure becomes evident after distinguishing the roof and window. A line of small blurred prayer flags hang from the roof’s edge and dance on the invisible breeze.
Heidi Swevens, Courtesy
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Heidi Swevens took two photographs out their kitchen window one morning. One came back crisp and defined. One blurry. They chose the blurry image to include in the "Do You See What I See?" online gallery tour. The photograph is titled, "The Morning's Kindness."

"When I came back to the photographs, there was one crisp, silhouetted one with, you know, the trees and these deep purples and pinks," Swevens said.

Meanwhile, the other photo was blurry.

"And the colors were faded and pastel," they said. "That reminded me a little bit of Claude Monet."

The blurry photo is the one that made it into the online gallery, and is titled, "The Morning's Kindness."

"It reflected back to me the beauty of the way that I see, and how different it is," Swevens said.

"It reflected back to me the beauty of the way that I see, and how different it is."
Heidi Swevens, on their photograph "The Morning's Kindness"

Miller says arts organizations statewide can learn to open their spaces and design exhibits for all audiences, specifically those that have been left out of traditional gallery viewing experiences, like those with blindness or low vision.

And both Miller and Swevens offered up a free way that venues can begin today to upgrade gallery spaces to be more inclusive: by providing a quiet room for folks with social anxiety or sensory sensitivities.

Galleries and venues can also provide tactile representations of artwork, or even 3D prints of selected pieces, "so when we're talking about the curve of someone's body, or the shapes in an abstract piece, they can actually touch and feel it," Swevens said.

The poster is black brick with teal blue paint and the words, "POP, Paint on Pine, 8/13/22, The Soda Plant". The image includes a photograph of the storefronts located on Pine Street in Burlington.
Katie Miller, Courtesy
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For adults and children with disabilities who want to express themselves through the arts, Inclusive Arts Vermont offers many resources.

Inclusive Arts Vermont will hold a fundraiser on Saturday, Aug. 13 at noon, called “POP,” or “Paint on Pine.”

Participating teams will create a giant community canvas at a paint-a-thon at the Soda Plant on Pine Street in Burlington. The art created will then be auctioned off.

All are welcome to drop by and watch or participate. They'll provide accessible art supplies and smocks.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontpublic.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered, Weekend Edition Saturday and Weekend Edition Sunday.
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