ACTA Participates in the National Summit on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities

ACTA - Posted on 01 August 2009

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More than 70% of people with disabilities are not in the labor force, and those who wish to pursue a career in the arts face difficult challenges.  On July 22-24, 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts presented a National Summit on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities.  The first such gathering since 1998, this National Summit was initiated to review progress over the past decade concerning education, arts training, and job opportunities for people with disabilities who are pursuing arts careers; and develop recommendations and best practices for advancing arts careers for people with disabilities.  Other federal agencies participating included the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.

ACTA’s Executive Director Amy Kitchener was invited to participate at the National Summit, to make a presentation about her experiences in working with traditional artists who are unintentionally prevented from participating as grantees and recipients of cash awards due to their government assistance requirements limiting income.

In her presentation, Folk & Traditional Artists on Government Disability Assistance: The Cause of Unintended Barriers to Participation, Kitchener explained the issue many folk and traditional artist face: “Many of the artists we work with are older artists with disabilities who are rich in talent by require government assistance.  Many forgo accepting modest grants and apprenticeship contracts for fear of losing their Social Security, SSI, SDDI, Medicaid, or other benefits.  These artists – who are the “living archives” of America’s cultural heritage – are vital assets to their communities and our collective identity, yet they are being, unintentionally, prevented from participating in programs and from receiving official recognition for their creative genius.  Some artists who accept funds from the NEA or their state arts programs have lost their benefits for months – or even years – before being reinstated.”

As an example, Kitchener reported that in one of the more public cases, a senior Hispanic weaver in the West received a National Heritage Fellowship of $5,000 in recognition of her lifetime achievements in keeping her centuries-old Southwest weaving tradition alive in her community.  USA Today ran a short paragraph announcing the award on the front page.  Very soon after, the weaver and her husband were notified that their Social Security and related health benefits were cut.  Eventually their benefits were restored, but only through the intervention of their congressional representative.  Kitchener emphasized that this has not been the only example of National Heritage Fellows on SSI, including current, still unresolved cases in California that she has assisted with.

Kitchener also emphasized the problem runs much deeper than the National Heritage Fellowships; more than 35 states have folk & traditional arts apprenticeship programs, and it is known that many artists avoid these programs, recognizing that receiving the funds could jeopardize their benefits.

In some cases, ACTA has been able to accommodate artists receiving disability benefits by altering payment schedules to make many smaller payments that stay under the government’s monthly limits on income.

Kitchener’s presentation sparked discussion amongst Social Security Administration officials and artists with disabilities working in many disciplines who reported similar problems.

Over the three day summit, the 120 participants worked in groups to make recommendations which will result in an official report to guide the federal agencies as well as set a national agenda.  Income limits for artists and how honorific awards are treated as income by the SSA, are some of the many issues that were identified for needed reforms.

Kitchener concluded, “State and Federal programs that intend to help people are working at cross purposes.  The current system makes it difficult, if not impossible for traditional artists on disability to participate fully in state and national programs that work to maintain our diverse national heritage.  The National Heritage Fellowships, and other honorific awards involving funding, can only adequately serve artists who are not receiving disability benefits – creating a system which is unintentionally perpetuating a form of structural discrimination.”

ACTA is committed to working on a concerted effort to provide advocacy about this issue.  If you are interested in becoming involved please contact Amy Kitchener at 559-237-9813 or via email.

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