Program Profile

Feature Issue on Careers in The Arts for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities

Arts & Accessibility: Promoting Emerging Talent

Author(s)

Beth Stoffmacher is an arts specialist with the National Arts and Disability Center and center coordinator at the Tarjan Center, University of California, Los Angeles. She may be reached at bstoffmacher@mednet.ucla.edu.

Olivia Raynor is the founder and director of the National Arts and Disability Center and director of the Tarjan Center, University of California, Los Angeles. She may be reached at oraynor@mednet.ucla.edu.

A bright pink and white abstract colored pencil drawing shows movement in this detail of a larger work.

Detail of Restraint! colored pencil on paper, by Paisley Ali.

Everyone has the right to create and fully participate in the arts. For people with disabilities, the fight for equal access to the arts is part of a broader struggle for full community participation, including employment. To address this issue, the Arts and Accessibility Program was established in 2001 by the California Arts Council and the National Arts and Disability Center (NADC) at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Over nearly 20 years, the goals of the program were to further career opportunities for artists and foster equitable access to the cultural arts community. As part of this program, 290 artists with disabilities, representing a broad spectrum of artistic practices, backgrounds, geographies, and communities, were awarded project-based grants of $500 to $3,000 for professional development. Artists used the support for studio space, to create online businesses, to promote their work, to produce and record music, to enter exhibits and other events, and for professional development. Artists also used the award to navigate and advocate for accessibility within the arts community by hiring assistants and interpreters with disabilities and to teach others about disability rights, services, and accommodations.

The program’s results have included increasing artists’ self-confidence, pride in their work, and their technical skills. These artists have created a body of new work, including professional-quality portfolios, that has been showcased in local arts events, exhibits, and performances. The program has promoted artists’ work through social media, has published a book, and completed a film script. All of these efforts, and others, have garnered recognition of artists’ work, produced income from art sales, and created networking and educational opportunities for artists, employers, and communities that otherwise would not have existed.

The following artist statements represent a sampling of the many talented grantees with whom we’ve worked over the years:

Ahmet Ustunel

Ahmet Ustunel is a teacher at Lowell High School in San Francisco, California. He is a potter/ceramic artist whose work has been displayed in galleries in California and Turkey.

A man in a long-sleeved, blue t-shirt and baseball-style cap stands, smiling and holding a white cane. Behind him is a dirt road, trees, bushes, and grasses.

Ahmet Ustenel, sculptor.

My fascination with creating forms out of different materials started at a very early age. When I was 3 or 4, I began to pull the caulk from the windows of our house in Turkey, so that I could make animal figures. Eventually, someone noticed the missing caulk, and as a result, I became the only suspect. The mystery was solved when my parents found my artwork, which they thought was cute. To prevent me from stealing more caulk, they bought me a fresh ball of caulk from a window repair shop. My first figures were mostly of animals. The ones I could touch in my daily life were the easiest to make, such as fish, dogs, and ducks. The animals I could only hear about were mysterious and fun to make, because I had to rely on my imagination to create them. When I started attending a school for the blind in Istanbul, ceramics class became my favorite. There, my work won praise, and my teacher displayed it on shelves. This was the first time I felt that I could create art to please others, not just for myself. I have never thought that blindness is an obstacle to getting involved with art or in creating something. I believe it helps me to be more creative, especially when I am making masks. Masks are the first sculptural figures I focused on. I am fascinated with the variations in the human face. Every face has the same parts—two eyes, a nose, a mouth, a chin, and cheeks, eyebrows, and ears. How can it be that there are billions of different faces with such limited components? I also like to discover the forms of living things in nature, such as animals, flowers, and different plants, and I incorporate them into my masks, such as a fish tail or a bird head. I am inspired by African masks, which I love to touch whenever I am allowed, because they use some of the same forms that I use in my masks. Working with the potter’s wheel is my passion. It is something I still love to explore and get better at doing. At first, I focused on throwing techniques, and shaping objects. I moved to altering forms, texturing, carving, and glazing. Pottery is an ancient craft and there is still so much to learn. I am amazed at how much you can do with a ball of clay and a wheel. 

Paisley Ali

Paisley Ali, of Torrance, California, is a UCLA studio arts honors graduate with thoracic outlet syndrome. She has created painting, photography, drawing, video, and ceramics that have been exhibited and honored in several national juried shows, including a national film festival. Some of her work is included in the UCLA Fowler Museum Cultural Archives. Most recently, with the help of an NADC grant, she has been focusing on writing and illustrating inclusive children’s literature as a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. 

A white woman with long, straight blond hair and blue eyes looks over her shoulder toward the camera. She is wearing a bright blue shirt and holding a digital screen and pen, with a larger screen with the same image behind it. The image shows two people dancing and drumming.

Paisley Ali illustrating .

Having grown up in five different countries with an invisible physical disability, I am acutely aware of cultural and ethnic diversity and the human propensity to define others without really knowing them. I create art with that in mind. Midway through college, my disability necessitated a refocus from painting and drawing to photography and film. Surgery and years of physical therapy allowed me to return to those genres with increased versatility.

My work often gives visibility to unseen, unheard subcultures, leading to my participation in events such as the exhibit and the UCLA conference. My series explores, through large format and X-ray photography and colored pencil, the emotional landscape of invisible disability – a liminal space where one’s disability is often challenged. My picture book, depicting a childhood encounter with an Arab princess, and my middle-grade novel about a co-ed international school soccer team grappling with ableism, sexism, racism, and adolescent angst, both highlight marginalized groups. In each, the narrator’s disability is not the center of the story, nor does it define the narrator’s character. Like many in the disability community, I feel that distinction is important. I’m currently seeking a literary agent who shares my commitment to broader disability representation.

Joshua Ramirez

Joshua Ramirez, a visual artist, is completing a master’s degree in art education at Azusa Pacific University and lives in Pico Rivera, California. He may be reached at joshuaramirez19@apu.edu.

A man with a beard and mustache and wearing a red apron sits on a stool in a workshop. An American flag hangs above him, and on the wall behind him are rows of screwdrivers, hammers, and other tools.

Joshua Ramirez, visual artist.

The first time I walked on the USC campus, I was collecting recyclables with my father. A decade later, I attended USC on a full academic scholarship, graduating at the top of my class from the Roski School of Art & Design. I could have made every excuse to fail, but I turned obstacles into strengths and created art from adversity. As a first-generation, low-income student with a disability, I have never let my circumstances dictate who I am. Yet, it was because of these challenges that I built an unbreakable passion for the arts and became part of the difficult conversations that produce systemic and transformational change. After a difficult home life and a period of homelessness as a teen, my mental illness became my greatest asset. I was able to start programs that prevent stigma and I’ve advocated for those who have mental illness. I’ve made more than 100 speeches to thousands of people, sharing my personal story of struggle and survival, as I continue to overcome immense adversity. I saw every failure as an opportunity. I saw all the racial and social injustice I have faced as a chance for growth.  But I know I am capable of so much more. I plan to start my own non-profit, with its primary focus on using art as a form of recovery for those afflicted with mental illness. This vocation is a lifetime commitment to lead by example. I truly believe that a fallen tree serves a greater purpose. I am that tree, leading others over the current. 

Noah Erenberg

A man hunches over an abstract painting as his brush strokes the canvas.

Noah Erenberg, visual artist.

Noah Erenberg is a self-taught visual artist whose work is inspired by California’s central coast, media images, and rock and roll. His work was featured in a 2018 solo exhibition at the San Luis Obisbo Museum of Art. In 2020, he created a mixed media video under a grant from the NADC. Noah is on the autism spectrum and has a unique way of viewing and interacting with the world. Having the freedom to express himself visually is one of the most important parts of his life. He lives in San Luis Obisbo, California. 

My favorite colors are red, blue, and pink. I like to paint abstract paintings because I like bright colors and crazy shapes. Abstract painting reminds me of hip hop music. Abstract means, from my head. I feel peaceful and free when painting. Art means everything to me.

Diana Elizabeth Jordan

Diana Elizabeth Jordan is an actor, solo artist, filmmaker, artist educator, and disability influencer who lives in Los Angeles, California.

A Black woman with short hair, wearing a black floral shirt, smiles broadly and directly at the camera.

Diana Elizabeth Jordan, actor and advocate.

Diana offers a dynamic and powerful alternative to the traditional keynote address through her one-woman shows, performance lectures, and spoken word concerts. She is a living example of resiliency and triumphing over adversity. Diagnosed around age 2 with cerebral palsy, which mildly affects her speech and gait, she grew up with a tenacious determination to not let adversity stand in the way of achieving her dreams. Jordan was the first actress with a disability to obtain a master of fine arts degree in acting from California State University Long Beach. She also holds certificates in occupational therapy (University of Kansas) and social emotional arts (UCLA). She has been cast in more than 60 theater, film, and television productions, including CBS’ S.W.A.T.  She hosts the weekly vlog A Morning Cup of Joy. Jordan’s talents extend beyond her love of performing. She is an award-nominated director and a member of SAG-AFTRA and Actors Equity Association. She founded The Rainbow Butterfly Café, an edutainment production company, and Dreaming Big on Swing Entertainment. She has been teaching acting to youth and adults for more than 30 years and is currently one of the acting teachers in residence at Performing Arts Studio West, a professional studio for artists with disabilities. She serves on the SAG-AFTRA National Performers with Disabilities Committee and is one of the advocates with disabilities for Women of Color Unite. Jordan is committed to entertaining and empowering audiences in celebrating inclusive diversity, disability intersectionality, resiliency, empathy, personal growth, and professional development. Whether portraying a character or sharing a personal story, Jordan touches the hearts of audiences with her creativity, vulnerability, and honesty.

“I often heard through my life how much someone admires me for overcoming my disability and I always feel the need to correct that well-intentioned compliment. I haven’t overcome my disability. I am on a continuing personal and artistic journey to eradicate stigmas that are associated with having a disability. I am a BIPOC, disabled, multi-disciplined artist. I celebrate the intersectionality of all my identities. I remain committed as an artist – whether I am acting, directing, producing, or teaching – to normalizing the disability experience by ensuring diverse images of disability are inclusive and visible in telling the stories of the human experience.” 

Dawn Grabowski

Dawn Grabowski, of Los Angeles, California, is a performance artist who lives with spastic cerebral palsy. 

A white woman with straight, blunt-cut hair stands, smiling, with a forearm crutch. She’s wearing a bright pink shirt under a lilac cardigan.

Dawn Grabowski, performance artist. Photo by Penny L. Moore.

Dawn Grabowski likes to be known as an actress first, and actress/performer with a disability second. Her disability is just another part of her, like her brown hair or her big smile. It doesn’t define her life. She is an award-winning actress, motivational speaker, writer, and comedian who wrote, produced, financed, performed, and presented Always Going Up in the Los Angeles area. She received her first big break when she appeared in the movie Jerry Maguire with Tom Cruise. She is a proud recipient of the Christopher Reeve Acting Scholarship Competition and the Norman G. Brooks Comedy Competition. She created a short film entitled Shattering Images and a full-length digital feature film entitled Dangerous Perceptions, which she wrote, produced, financed, and performed. She has created four web series and performed a comedy show, Dawn Grabowski: Open Heart. Flat-Chested. Brass Balls! She has a bachelor’s degree in theater arts from Stetson University and a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies from Kaplan University. Dawn strives for excellence in her craft and has taken her love for acting and extended it to other areas of the business. Her goals are to make you laugh, entertain you, and work with you soon!

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Laughter Love Persistence Passion | Dawn Grabowski, one of the artists who has worked with the National Arts and Disability Center, is featured in this documentary.