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Editorial: The Arts--A New Vehicle For Social Change

The arts can be a powerful tool to support social change!

Consider the time of slavery--music was always present among the field workers. Likewise, songs, slogans and chants are usually present on the picket line. And, today, more and more persons with disabilities are turning to the medium of film to expose outdated and stereotypical attitudes.

Whether it is a theatre group providing opportunities for performers who are blind, the culture nights at Ryerson University or the growing number of disability film festivals worldwide, the arts are increasingly being used to challenge the status quo. Such vehicles and events focus attention on archaic thinking, and provide new opportunities for persons with disabilities to participate in a widening range of artistic pursuits, be it as a career, for personal growth or for entertainment.

People who are blind or vision-impaired can create art, just about any kind of art, and they can enjoy art, just about any kind of art, when adaptations and access features are present.

Art doesn\'t have to be merely visual, as many perceive it to be. And when it comes to people who are blind or vision-impaired, art doesn\'t have to be restricted to music, piano tuning or craft-related pursuits, like making brooms and baskets, which often appear at sheltered workshops. Blind people can (and do) draw, paint, take photographs, write, etc. It happens everyday--more often than many would think.

We often highlight the barriers blind people face in the areas of education and employment, but what about the barriers in hobbies and other leisure-related activities? Being able to fully enjoy one\'s free time is also an important aspect of life. If we are denied full or equal access to "free time activities", in addition to education and employment, what is left?

Methods of providing leisure time and arts-related access can benefit all people, regardless of vision level. For persons who are blind, for instance, attending movies and watching television are experiences greatly enhanced by audio description; however, many non-disabled friends and family members also find they get more out of a show when this feature is present. Hands-on, interactive sections of museums, furthermore, not only mean increased access for people who are blind, but they also serve the needs and preferences of children and those who learn best through tactile and participatory experiences.

Changing attitudes remains at the heart of much of our work, and the arts can be a powerful tool to support our liberation, as can words.

Language provides insight into how we think and how we view others. If our goal is to support an improved quality of life, community inclusion and self-determination for all persons with disabilities, then society cannot continue to use language that demeans persons with disabilities and separates us from our non-disabled neighbours.

Unfortunately, many of the words society uses to describe persons with disabilities are either negative or quickly take on negative connotations. Phrases like "afflicted", "suffers from", "victim of", "normal", "burden", "uplifting", "inspirational" and "courageous" all separate us from the rest of our fellow citizens.

And euphemistic phrases like "differently abled", "physically challenged" and others quickly take on the negative attributes of the phrases they are trying to replace.

Sometimes these euphemisms are simply used to mask the user\'s discomfort when thinking about persons with disabilities or when in the company of one of us.

Disability in general, and blindness in particular, frightens most people. Some sighted people go so far as to blindfold themselves for a brief period of time to try to gain a better understanding of "what it\'s like to be blind". However, these attempts provide a false sense of reality, as they are short-lived and the participants know they can remove the blindfold at any point in time.

As a result, they are more likely to show people the difficulties that would result from suddenly losing sight, rather than what it is really like to live life with vision loss, after some time for reflection and rehabilitation has passed.

Simulating disability is dangerous and is more likely to merely reinforce existing negative notions, rather than provide a real learning opportunity.

The general public doesn\'t want to think about disability, and the fact that people are just an accident away from joining the disabled community is a scary prospect. So, again, we become separated from common humanity, treated as fundamentally different and alien.

Non-disabled people further hide their fear and discomfort by turning us into objects of pity, comforting themselves by their own kindness and generosity. It is this response that lies at the heart of the discrimination and exclusion we face--in employment, in access to goods and services, in access to all the things non-disabled people take for granted.

These negative attitudes are too often reinforced by the ways in which we are portrayed in the everyday media. If persons with disabilities were better represented in media boardrooms, our issues would receive more attention and more appropriate treatment.

Art can serve as a tool to forge change, but it is also a product of existing values and attitudes. This reciprocal relationship occurs on both a personal and societal level. Through the arts and media, we can push boundaries, and by pushing boundaries, we have the opportunity to unlock doors and open minds--both our own and those of others.

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