Six Highlights from MRAC’s Arts & Disability Community Research

A group of people and one dog wearing a service vest pose smiling for the camera

by Scott Artley, MRAC Accessibility Program Director

This winter, MRAC has been developing a new grant program supporting the inclusion of people with disabilities (PWD) in the arts. VSA Minnesota, the state organization on arts and disability, formerly had a similar program called “ADA Access Improvement grants” that ran for ten years. This grant program was funded through MRAC dollars, but administered by VSA Minnesota. Now that VSA Minnesota has sunsetted (closed permanently) MRAC has brought the administration of this grant program back in-house. 

We’re taking this moment, built on the foundation that VSA started a decade ago, to recalibrate how we approach this work. The process for developing this new Accessibility program involves research about what the disability community needs to access the arts, and imagining various scenarios for how resources can be distributed to reach this goal. This research will inform my recommendations to the MRAC Board of Directors, who ultimately hold the power to approve any new programs.

I started this research just two months ago, and the process has been brief, but rich. As an artist with disabilities myself, it has been a gift to investigate the breadth and interconnectedness of this complex topic. I have learned so much, but the following are six major highlights from the research that will most significantly guide our next steps.

  1. Current MRAC groups are thinking about inclusion for people with disabilities, and our process advantages groups reporting the participation of people with disabilities…but we get few applications by groups with disability leadership.

In our 2018 and 2019 funding cycles, about 60% of applicant groups reported having a Board-approved ADA Access Plan, and another 12% reported having one in development. In both years, however, ADA Plan status had no significant correlation with whether or not a group was funded.

Projects that report people with disabilities (PWD) as a population they intend to serve were more likely to receive an award, probably due to MRAC’s current practice of asking applicant groups to address inclusion for people with disabilities in their narratives. Groups led by PWD (self-defined by groups as 50%+ of their staff/board identifying as PWD) don’t appear to be disadvantaged during the funding process. However, these groups are very few in number, representing just 6% of our total pool of both applicants and grantees, even though it is widely estimated that 15-20% of the general population lives with a disability.

  1. The former VSA Minnesota grant program tended to fund larger organizations at a disproportionately high rate, and they captured 64% of the total dollars awarded. Overall, nearly half of all awards (and 39% of all funding) went to just ten organizations.

MRAC generally only provides grants to organizations with annual budgets of $400,000 a year or less, but VSA’s ADA Access Improvement grants were open to organizations with budgets up to $5 Million. With no other funding dedicated to accessibility in the region, VSA’s broader eligibility meant that larger organizations had incentive to prioritize the inclusion of PWD, but they also fared better through the application process compared to grassroots organizations that MRAC typically serves. They also requested larger awards than their smaller counterparts, which meant that in the end they received nearly two-thirds of all dollars awarded.

Eight focus group participants seated on chairs in a circle
Focus group #1 participants gathered in a circle to tell 1-minute stories about arts accessibility.

One noticeable finding is that a handful of organizations received the lion’s share of grants. The vast majority (76%) of organizations applied less than three times out of the 20 rounds available, and three out of five organizations (58%) applied once and never again. Of the top ten grantees—those ten organizations that were most frequently awarded over the ten years of the program—80% have budgets larger than the typical MRAC ceiling of $400K, and all are located in the cities of Minneapolis or St. Paul (none are in the greater metro). While they submitted 31% of applications, they received 47% of awards and (as noted above) 39% of all dollars awarded during the grant’s ten years of operation.

  1. Our community surveys showed us that financial challenges are the most common barriers PWD report as responsible for not participating in the arts. For organizations, it’s making PWD aware of opportunities to participate. For both groups, the next-most common barrier was transportation-related issues.

In our survey of PWD, 82% of respondents reported financial challenges as a barrier, and 52% reported issues with transportation as a barrier. Not knowing about opportunities to participate was the third-most common barrier (42%). By a significant margin, financial and transportation challenges rose above issues like physical and sensory access that we so typically consider when thinking about accessibility.

For our survey of organizations, the most common challenge (making PWD aware of opportunities to participate) was about 15 percentage points above the remaining front-runners. While transportation was the next-most common barrier (44%), it hovered among the group of remaining challenges (which included trouble finding physically accessible sites, providing services like sign language interpretation, and affording to provide discounted or free tickets to patrons with disabilities). That the challenge of making PWD aware of an organization’s offerings outpaced the other barriers to this degree is significant. This finding aligns with a situation we at MRAC hear from organizations again and again—”We offered an access service, but no one showed up to use it.”

  1. Organizations and PWD have divergent ideas about how MRAC dollars could address their arts accessibility challenges. Organizations see the most value in two major buckets: 1) funding to provide access services, and 2) projects that either attract PWD to arts experiences, or that bring their art to disability communities directly. PWD, on the other hand, prefer to see dollars given to individual artists with disabilities and organizations led by or providing programming designed primarily for disability communities. 

In the same duo of surveys, we asked respondents to rate how effective various configurations of resources (called “scenarios”) would be to reach the goal of increasing the participation of people with disabilities. A chart that includes responses of “Very likely” to improve the participation of PWD is included here, and illustrates just how divergent the opinions are. For example, PWD are about twice as likely to support direct grants to individual artists with disabilities than they are to support grants to arts organizations for access services and accommodations. This pattern is reversed for organizations in a similar proportion.

A bar chart showing survey responses for various funding program scenarios
Click image for longer verbal description of chart, including the data table.

The overall pattern (which is demonstrated by the trend lines) shows just how differently PWD and the organizations wishing to serve them are thinking about how to accomplish this work. The ratings of scenarios are almost the inverse of each other. Recognizing that divergence is important, and reconciling it will be the challenge. However, it’s clear that both surveys demonstrated significant support for MRAC providing non-monetary resources like trainings, 1-on-1 consulting, and opportunities for mentorship.

  1. In-depth interviews with stakeholders revealed that the big steps forward will only happen with culture change. MRAC can advance this shift by facilitating trainings, consultations, and partnerships that put PWD in positions of power.

“Having a ramp doesn’t necessarily make it accessible.” This was a quote from one of the eight stakeholder interviews I completed in the last month. While the community surveys were a good way to gather a great number of opinions, it is a superficial kind of inquiry, and interviews provided a deeper dive into the nuances of accessibility from the lived experiences of people actually doing the work. Every single interview, in one way or another, reinforced that accessibility isn’t a series of tactical strategies like installing an automatic door opener or offering ASL interpretation. Instead, it’s a way of thinking. It’s the practice of considering all abilities at every step, and repeating that practice until it’s second-nature. MRAC can’t be wholly responsible for the wider cultural shift that needs to happen, but we can help make space for our corner of the art world to dig into that work together.

  1. Focus groups confirmed that centering PWD in funding programs is critical, both as recipients and decision-makers.

We held three focus groups in December made up of eight participants each. Leah Cooper of Wonderlust Productions combined her arts leadership experience with her artistic practice of “story circles” to facilitate conversation about funding scenarios. At each of these gatherings, participants told us that flexibility is the greatest access strategy a funder can adopt. They also asked that MRAC work from a disability justice perspective, embracing all the ways that race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship, and any other nexus of oppression intersects with disability. Critically, participants asked us to center PWD at every stage in the process, aligning with the motto at the core of disability rights activism: “Nothing about us without us.”

I’m so grateful to everyone who contributed to this process. Now that the research period comes to a conclusion, it’s time to wade through all of the data, reflect on MRAC’s values, and generate programs that support the goal of broadening the participation of people with disabilities in the arts. For the first iteration of these programs, there will be a March 30th deadline for projects beginning June 24th, 2020 at the earliest. Stay tuned for guidelines to be published at the end of January.

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