From Observer to Researcher
I always wanted to make people’s lives a little easier. I distinctly remember when I was in elementary school, a fellow student who used a wheelchair was halfway across an open field. It had just started raining, and everyone ran back inside because the classroom bell had rung. I ran to him to help him get out of the rain and back to his classroom. At that moment, I did what I thought was the right thing. I never thought twice of it. I suppose this day could have been the start of it all. My circle of close friends and family includes people with disabilities. I get to see their moments of self-empowerment and also their moments of struggle. However, I didn’t really start focusing on disability access until I had an experience that made me think seriously about what I could do on my part.
Growing up, my dad cultivated my interest in art by taking me to museums and discussing works. My love of museums carried into adulthood, and, during a particular visit to a well-known museum with my deaf partner, we came across a video piece of people talking. The video didn’t have any captions. My partner became visibly frustrated, and, at that moment, I realized how unfair it all was: how being differently abled makes this difficult, how he must constantly go out of his way to ask for transcripts or other accommodations just to try and experience art in an equitable manner with his significant other.
That experience at the museum became embedded in the forefront of my mind, giving me a sense of passion and purpose throughout graduate school, where I studied arts management. Eventually, an opportunity presented itself: I was able to channel these feelings into a paper where I got to ask questions. I wanted to see if others felt the same way I did.
This class assignment eventually turned into an official research project. From the very beginning, when I started the paper, and continuing to this day and hopefully for years to come, I learned a lot. I went into the project inexperienced with conducting interviews, but, with practice, I became relatively comfortable and persistent. I discovered that interviewing was a good fit for me as a research method. I'm not one who likes to talk a lot, and interviewing allows me to mostly listen and write down others’ thoughts on a subject. However, the project was not without its difficulties. It ended up being much longer than the original assignment, and I often wondered if I was in over my head. Imposter syndrome caused me to doubt myself and worry: was I the right person to carry out this research since I did not have a background in disability studies and do not identify as being disabled besides wearing prescription glasses? These moments of self-questioning passed over time with words of encouragement from my mentors.
While I can’t yet see the full impact of the research, I know that it has started conversations. My hope is that, at the very least, those close to me who inspired this paper will benefit from it in some way. I also hope that like-minded individuals will have the same experience coming across my paper as I did with the works of people before me, such as Amanda Cachia, a curator who I had the honor of interviewing for my report. Discovering the contributions of the individuals I interviewed has shown me how extraordinary and influential we can be when we educate each other and act as a collective.
My inquiry grew into a policy report that I developed with Bronwyn Maudlin for the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture. Read or listen to our 2020 report “Accessibility and the Arts: Reconsidering the role of the Artist,” available on the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture website.
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- Bronwyn Mauldin and Amy Shimshon-Santo.↵