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

State of the Arts: The Inclusion of Persons with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in the Arts Community


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.

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.

The ADA was a foundation on which we can—and must—build. In our work as artists, we must continue to interrogate: are humans of all different forms meaningfully included in our spaces, our companies, our communities? Are we mandating that artists with disabilities are visible and centered, both on our stages and in our audiences? We must continue to fight against the fears and biases that allow our field to justify its fractioned engagement of disabled humans, and actively chart a course toward adapted environments and prideful representation of disability in our work. 

— Regan Linton, actor, director, artistic director of Phamaly Theatre Company. (Bienvenu, B., and Tuzzolino, L., 2020).

A closeup view of a bright orange and pink flower opening.

Detail of Rose Rainbow Sorbet by Coby Walters, a conservation photographer living with autism. In 2016 and 2020, the National Arts & Disability Center at UCLA funded his work through the Arts and Accessibility Program. Photo courtesy of Pine Meadow Photography

Participation in arts and culture is a fundamental part of community living. The right to access, participate in, and enjoy arts and culture by people with disabilities is both a cultural right and civil rights issue. According to Article 5 of the 2001 UNESCO Declaration on Cultural Diversity, the protection of cultural rights is inseparable from other human rights and freedoms – the right to equality, the right to work, the right to an adequate standard of living, and the right to education. Everyone should have the right to freely participate in the cultural life of their community, to enjoy the arts and its benefits (UNESCO, 2001). For people with disabilities, equity, access, and inclusion are fundamental to participation in the arts. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, mandating barrier-free access – both physically and programmatically – to employment, public services, and public places, such as schools, theaters, galleries, and museums. These requirements that aim to make it possible for people with disabilities to participate in everyday social and economic activities remain elusive for the 61 million Americans with disabilities (National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, 2020), and the 7.4 million who have intellectual and developmental disabilities (Residential Information Systems Project, 2020). For equitable access to the arts to be achieved, individuals with disabilities must be included in all aspects of engagement to ensure their diverse perspective and ideas are central to the planning, creation, and presentation of artistic work and spaces (Bienvenu, B., and Tuzzolino, L. 2020). 

The discussion that follows considers some of the remaining barriers to and approaches for expanding the inclusion of artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in the arts community. 

Myths and Misconceptions 

There are a range of myths about the skills and abilities of persons with IDD that contribute to misconceptions about their capacity to learn, work, be creative, integrated, and included in the arts. Ableism is a form of discrimination and social prejudice against persons with disabilities based on the belief that able-bodied is the normal and superior condition. Disability is linked to ill health, incapacity, and dependence (McLean, 2011). Stereotypic beliefs such as, “We can’t believe what these artists can do despite their disabilities” separate artists with IDD from the mainstream arts community. For community members who may not have experience interacting with a person with IDD, particularly if the person is non-verbal or uses non-standard communication methods, these narratives may lead to misunderstanding and negative assumptions. Designing collaborative work between dancers with and without disabilities has been an approach used to address misconceptions. AXIS dance, one of the most prominent physically integrated dance companies in the United States, has been at the forefront of bridging contemporary dance, integrated dance, and disability culture through the power of collaboration by commissioning work with well-known contemporary choreographers. According to Judith Smith, co-founder of AXIS, familiarity is key to the company’s approach to combatting misconceptions about disability. Through exposure and public engagement, integrated dance changes the way we think about bodies, dance as an art form, and who the dancers are (Marshall, 2017).

Arts Participation

People with IDD should have the same opportunities as people without disabilities to actively engage in the arts community as artists, administrators, visitors, or audience members. More than 50% of U.S. adults actively participate in arts activities, whether through attending artistic or cultural events, as a creator or performer, as a learner of an art form, or as a consumer of artistic content through electronic media (National Endowment for the Arts, 2019). Adults with disabilities are less likely than adults without disabilities to have participated in the arts, whether it be attending a live performing arts event or visiting a gallery (National Endowment for the Arts, 2015). Other barriers to arts attendance by people with disabilities include transportation, physical access, availability of information and effective communication, and cost. 

Meaningful integration into the arts community will require fundamental capacity building and changes in every aspect of arts organizations, beginning with policies and budgets that reflect their values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Seating configurations in a theater, marketing strategies, and budget allocations for access and accommodations (captioning, sign language interpreters, audio-description, ticketing) that go beyond the minimal compliance with the ADA are all items worth deeper consideration. The ADA is an important piece of making theater accessible (Sandahl, C. 2018), (Loeppky, J. 2021). True accessibility will take sustained, additional work from the cultural arts sector by prioritizing inclusion and accessibility at the forefront when a program or event is being planned or designed. These designs must include audiences, performers, and backstage workers.

There are professional learning opportunities that can assist cultural arts organizations to expand their capacity to provide accessible arts programming, such as the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability Programs . The National Arts and Disability Center at the University of California Los Angeles has information and training resources for planning and implementing changes in accessibility resources .

Dancers with and without visible disabilities sit, stand, and kneel in a clump on stage, facing different directions. The dancers raise their upper limbs into a gesture with closed fists as their thumbs and pinkies point out and upwards. The dancers wear silver, flowing costumes.

AXIS Dance Company performs Petrichor-The Smell of Earth After Rain in 2019.

Careers in the Arts

In 2020, 17.9% of persons with disabilities were employed, compared with 61.8% for persons without a disability (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021). While this represents a decrease from previous years that is attributed to COVID-19 pandemic, lack of labor force participation is a decades-long trend for persons with IDD. For those who are working, most are employed part time, at low wages and in low skilled jobs (Winsor et al, 2021). There are a multitude of individual barriers to employment that have been identified as interfering with a career in the arts, including concerns about public benefits, lack of education and training, and stigma (National Endowment for the Arts, 2016).

Arts workers are an immense occupational category that includes designers, architects, fine artists, writers, photographers, musicians, actors, dancers, and choreographers. Arts sector work is as foundational in America as farming or manufacturing. According to a Brookings Institution report, creative industries employ 7.6 million people, representing 4% of total employment, and 15% of monthly earnings nationwide (Florida and Seman, 2020). Compared to other occupational groups, artists are nearly four times more likely to be self-employed (Office of Research & Analysis, 2019).

People with disabilities represent a small fraction of arts workers: 4.32% of actors, 7.7% of artists and arts related workers, 5.7% of dancers and choreographers, 5.9% of media and communication workers, 4.68% of photographers; 5.4% of writers and authors, and 4.39% television, video, and motion picture camera operators and editors (Sheehy, J. 2019) Thus, while the arts are a viable career option, a professional career in the arts by people with disabilities remains elusive.

Artists with IDD have not experienced the same access to arts careers as people without disabilities. More typically, their arts experiences are situated within a therapeutic service paradigm (art, dance, music therapies) through activities in an adult day program, or art center and excluded from the mainstream arts and culture sector (Finley, 2011). Day program and art center practices and services are evolving due to changes in the core funding for their programs from Medicaid. The relatively new Home and Community Based Service rule by Medicaid will require that all day services are person-centered and are integrated in and support full access to the greater community. This includes the opportunity for individuals with IDD to seek employment, work in integrated settings, and earn a competitive wage. Final implementation of the rule is on March 17, 2022. We are encouraged to see new program designs that offer many more opportunities for integration into the community. Some programs are facilitating attendance and participation in local arts events, skill-building for exhibitions, and collaborations with mainstream artists. Some are employing artists with IDD to work as arts educators, leading classes and presentations.

There are a vast array of potential arts and arts-related careers in media, performing, visual, and literary arts, as well as a multitude of arts-related jobs in industries such as fashion, marketing, design, photography, graphic and visual design, gaming, and technology. There are also jobs that are situated in arts-related or creative industries, such as art educator, instructor, ticket taker, office worker, tour guide, and jobs that are situated in arts environments such as art stores, galleries, museums, cultural centers, bakeries, or flower shops.

Internships and apprenticeships in the arts for individuals with IDD are rare. Notable exceptions include the Experiential Education Initiative Internship (EEI) program at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., which selects young people for internships that explore careers in the performing arts environment, along with interns without disabilities. They are exposed meaningfully to a range of arts-related careers, from front of the house to retail operations and administrative offices. Other internships include the Urban Artisans program at ArtMix , Museum Access Consortium , Baltimore Clayworks, and Make Studio Art


People with IDD should have the same opportunities as people without disabilities to actively engage in the arts community as artists, administrators, visitors, or audience members. There is a need to remove attitudinal and architectural barriers precluding full participation in the mainstream arts community. Expanding access to artists and audiences with IDD is not just about adaptative equipment, building ramps, and special seating, however. There is a need for individuals with IDD to have the opportunity to be exposed to the full range of arts and arts- related careers and have access to the necessary supports, education, and training in order to pursue those careers and participate to the fullest in their community. 

Baltimore Clayworks  | This video shares Baltimore Clayworks’ mission and programs. The organization offers internships that promote careers in the arts.


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