Seeing in the Dark: Deaf Painter Discusses Barriers for Artists with Disabilities

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According to a 2012 Census report, 56.7 million Americans have a disability. This figure translates to roughly 19 percent of the population -- making people with disabilities the largest minority group in the country.

But despite the size of this demographic, people with disabilities have the lowest numbers of educational attainment and work participation -- facts that queer and deaf artist Bex knows all too well, and believes heavily impacts artists with disabilities.

“Having the time and the space to create art is a luxury,” she said. “Disabled people are twice as likely to be poor compared to able-bodied people, and far more likely to be unemployed.”

The 28-year-old San Francisco Bay Area resident believes people with disabilities face discrimination and lack of access -- despite the existence of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) -- and that people with disabilities incur additional costs that create barriers to art training.

“The cost of living for disabled people is higher than average due to medical care and adjustment costs,” she said. “And that’s all before you even get to the art world side itself.”

Bex was born and raised in Los Angeles, and is the only deaf person in her family.

She shared, “When I was finally diagnosed, I was about 1.5 years old. It took a while to get the diagnosis, because my mother unfortunately had to deal with a succession of extremely dismissive doctors, one of whom even suggested that it was all in her head.”

“Initially,” Bex continued, “My parents were pretty upset and sad about the fact of my deafness. There’s a story about my mom despairingly talking about it on the phone with my grandmother, and Grandma just goes, ‘So what? Just teach her sign language.’”

Bex’s journey into the arts began as a small child, and her earliest drawings were in pen.

“According to my parents, I didn’t care that I couldn’t erase, so pencils, colored pencils, and crayons came much later,” she said.

She moved on to oil painting by the age of 7 and at 18, moved to Northern California to study at the California College of the Arts (CCA), where she completed her undergraduate degree and an MFA in Comics.

But while Bex was able to pursue an art education, she points out most people with disabilities are not able to attain training due to cost.

“The most expensive colleges in the country are art schools, not Ivy League schools. Ivy League schools, being rich, distribute a lot of financial aid to their students -- so if you make a list of the 10 most expensive four-year, private, nonprofit colleges and subtract the average amount of grant/scholarship aid at each institution, a majority of the list would consist of art schools and conservatories,” she said.

The artist also shares that navigating the art world is tougher for people with disabilities -- especially for those without art contacts.

“Breaking into the art world demands copious amounts of networking, and a lot of that begins in art school,” she said. “Unless you’re awarded a full scholarship, the playing field is usually not level, and I think it’s why so many disabled artists’ work ends up being categorized as outsider art.”

Bex’s brush strokes have been described, by the arts and design magazine Eclectix, as a mixture of surrealism, science fiction scenarios and a female under the influence of German Expressionism, and she states her disability, queerness, and Jewish faith have all had some impact on her work.

“There is a very strong sense of abjection in my work. I believe it rises not just from being queer, but also from being disabled, as well as Jewish -- the implicit knowledge that just by having the audacity to merely exist, you are loathed,” she said.

The painter mentioned her art is not about deafness, but admits she does share some similar themes as other deaf artists.

“There are sometimes themes such as isolation that do have a history of being in other deaf artists' work as well,” she shared. “It's a specific kind of isolation -- not the universal, generic sort, but one that stems from a baked-in language barrier and lack of comprehension on hearing people's parts. They might distantly relate, but have never personally experienced it.”

Bex interned with the Emmy-winning show “Robot Chicken,” and is now working on a graphic novel. You can follow her on Twitter @radiant_spores or visit her website at www.bexfreund.com.

Belo Cipriani is a disability advocate, a freelance journalist, the award-winning author of Blind: A Memoir and Midday Dreams, and the spokesperson for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Learn more at www.belocipriani.com.


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