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Deaf and Disability Arts Practices in Canada: Summary

October 20, 202120 October 2021

Deaf and disability arts

Canada Council for the Arts


V. Leduc, M. Boukala, J. Rouleau, M. Bernier, A. Louw, A. McAskill, C. Théroux, L. Grenier, L. Parent, S. Bouscatier, S. Heussaff, D. Saunders, T. Tembeck, C. Grimard, E. Marcelli, and O. Angrignon-Girouard

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Based on interviews and focus group sessions with 85 artists and cultural workers, as well as a literature review, this report provides an overview of the artistic practices of “Deaf artists and artists with disabilities, … and related findings concerning accessibility, equity, self-determination, and support”. The report is intended to “foster the development of culturally equitable practices” in the arts sector, assist arts organizations in their development, and aid the practices of Deaf and disabled artists.

The report, led by a team “predominantly made up of Deaf and disabled people”, uses “Deaf and disabled” to describe “people who are Deaf or disabled, have an impairment, are hard-of-hearing, are late-deafened, have Usher’s syndrome, are ‘mad’, are neurodiverse, are neuro-atypical, have a cognitive disability, have an intellectual disability, or live with a mental illness or mental health issues, etc.”

Citing the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability, the report indicates that 22% of Canadians 15 or older – or 6.2 million people – “had one or more disabilities that limited them in their daily activities”. However, the report also notes that some Deaf people may not view their deafness as a disability and may not have self-identified as disabled in the survey.

The report notes that disabled artists are “doubly disadvantaged”, given that disabled people are less likely to be employed and artists’ earnings are lower than those of other members of the labour force. As noted by one artist, “we struggle to find the money we need just to survive week to week, let alone to create our work as well”.

Beyond simple access to artistic culture, the self-determination of Deaf and disabled peoples is identified as a key issue: “artists shape culture, some claim to be politically committed, some share their imaginations and views of the world. They also want to be involved in all situations that concern them.” One artist indicated that self-determination involves “deciding for myself what’s important for me, my rights as an equal citizen of the world”.

Practices that could support “the self-determination of Deaf and disabled artists [include] equity policies, the funding of practices, events ‘by and for’ [i.e., with active participation in spaces for dialogue and networking], and tools and resources to develop exemplary know-how”. The report provides links to various resources “to support the development of Deaf and disabled artistic practices”.

Regarding the artistic practices of Deaf and disabled peoples, the report refers to a typology from the Deaf, Disability, and Mad Arts Alliance of Canada. The range of practices encompasses:

  • Art and disability (“a traditional art form practiced by artists with disabilities”)
  • Disability-inclusive art (art that provides “accommodations that allow non-traditional artists to adopt traditional aesthetics”)
  • Disability-identified art (“which embraces and promotes disability politics, culture, pride, prioritizing things like resistance and affirmation and vision”)

The report identifies major challenges faced by Deaf and disabled artists and provides potential actions to lessen the challenges and promote Deaf and disabled arts practices. A summary of some findings regarding each challenge follows:

  • Funding: Funding processes that are not accessible are therefore discriminatory. For example, an emphasis “on written materials puts Deaf artists at a disadvantage”. The report suggests “implementing equity measures” as well as “providing qualified mentoring and sensitive administrative support”.
  • Accessibility: For Deaf people, accessibility challenges “impede full cultural citizenship”. Specific hurdles include “a lack of interpreters, of information in LSQ or ASL, of subtitles or picture-in-picture interpretation boxes in videos”. The report recommends that “the accessibility of training, production, and dissemination venues” be improved and that awareness of ableism and audism be raised.
  • Cultural representation: Depictions of Deaf and disabled peoples are rare in the arts and culture. Those that exist are frequently stereotypical, overly negative, and lacking in complexity. The report suggests the development of “an ethics of cultural representation by including Deaf and disabled people in scriptwriting and validation of media content”.
  • Communications: Complexity of the language of funding applications can be a significant challenge, “particularly for artists who are Deaf, neuro-atypical or cognitively impaired”. A participant noted that many people with intellectual disabilities are “structurally excluded from post-secondary education”. The report recommends that information be distributed “in simple and easy-to-understand language”.

The report concludes that, “drawing on their experiences of various types of oppression and marginalization, but also on pride in their belonging, the artistic practices of Deaf and disabled people contribute to the creation of representations of deafness and disability that go beyond – and even deconstruct – the medical paradigm by emphasizing the positive affirmation of their various experiences”.

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