Context Brief: Deaf and Disability Arts

We have prepared a series of context briefs that contain key information and resources about emerging, minoritized and less-understood arts communities and practices. Our intention is to foster greater understanding, and help ensure that internal and peer committees are equipped to make informed recommendations.

Each Context Brief is a living document and is updated from time to time to evolve with the ongoing dialogue about the topic.


Key characteristics of the Deaf and disability arts sector

For the Canada Council, Deaf and disability arts are artistic practices in which disparate, collective cultural experiences of being Deaf or having a disability are central to the exploration of narrative, form and/or aesthetics. Grounded in the social model of disability, these practices break with dominant artistic conventions in creation, production and dissemination and shifting perceptions and understandings of the human condition. The work spans the performing and studio arts, combining customary and contemporary forms and aesthetics in ways that are often unique to the sector.

The social model of disability

The social model of disability distinguishes between “impairment” and “disability.” Impairments are physical, mental or learning conditions that may be evident or not and that have long-term, temporary or fluctuating effects. Disability is an experience of exclusion or disadvantage created when society fails to accommodate and include people who have impairments.

The social model challenges dominant models that frame impairments as characteristics that an individual must cope with or overcome. Instead, the social model focusses on the transformations and adaptations that society must undergo to accommodate individuals. It rejects the notion that individuals must change or “improve.” Instead, impairment and disability are treated as valid and integral parts of identity.

Deaf and disability arts, as a distinct field, is founded on the core values and principles of the social model and disability rights movement which maintains the following:

  • Deafness and disability are collective identities rather than medical categories.
  • Deaf and disabled people should have full control and authority over determining their own goals as active and contributing citizens.

Diverse expressions through Deaf and disability arts

Work from the Deaf and disability arts sector frequently exposes social injustice, inequality and systemic exclusion. Deaf and disability arts also often reflect pride in and celebrate the unique experiences and vantage points of people with impairments. These distinct perspectives form the basis for a diverse set of artistic practices, including Deaf Music, DeVIA (Deaf visual image art) and wheelchair dance.

In addition, the ways in which people identify within the Deaf and disability arts sector are extremely complex. It is important to note that artists who are Deaf or have a disability do not necessarily include or represent being Deaf or having a disability within their work. Many choose to define their practices along traditional disciplinary lines.

The Council has observed that the range of aesthetics, degree of innovation, and scale and scope of activity within the Deaf and disability arts sector has risen dramatically over just a few years.

Three distinct communities

The Canada Council recognizes that, in broad terms, there are three distinct communities within this sector:

  • people who are Deaf;
  • people who have disabilities; and
  • people who live with mental illness.

While there is some degree of intersection, these communities have distinct histories with respect to norms and values, as well as experiences of and responses to discrimination and exclusion.

People who are Deaf

Deaf arts are created by Deaf people and explore identity, community and relationships—both with the dominant hearing culture and within Deaf communities. Many Deaf people identify as a linguistic minority rather than as a disability group, using sign languages that are regionally and culturally specific and are distinct from written and spoken languages. (In Canada, these are predominantly American Sign Language, the langue des signes québécoise and various Indigenous sign languages.)

People who have disabilities

Disability arts are created by people with disabilities who use their experiences of disablement as a point of departure towards creation. Impairments, whether learning, physical, psychological, neurological, sensory or intellectual, are not framed as limitations within the artistic process but as grounds upon which choices are made in terms of form and aesthetics. This work counters and expands dominant notions of beauty, autonomy and power, which commonly represent the disabled subject in terms of pity and charity.

People who live with mental illness

Mad arts are created by people who live with Madness and are an expression of Mad Pride. The term “Mad” has been reclaimed by people who identify as living with mental illness or psychiatric disabilities and symbolizes pride, collective identity and community building. Within this context, mental illness is not framed as pathology, but rather as integral to identity and experiences shaped by social determinants of health such as income, social status, employment, working conditions, housing and food security.

Issues and analysis

Power imbalances and inequities

One cannot fully understand the artistic practices of people who are Deaf and/or have a disability without understanding that society has persistently met deafness, disability and mental illness (or psychiatric disabilities) with negative reactions, from ancient times to the present. These reactions have led to societal transformations such as the eugenics movement, which resulted in the systemic victimization, persecution and genocide of Deaf and disabled people around the world. This legacy of inequity continues to be challenged by Deaf and disability rights supporters through advocacy, legal action and collective cultural expression.

Experiences of inequality are understood to be a result of political, social and economic discrimination. The focus is on addressing the inequities that can lie within:

  • the built environment, including inconsistent levels of accessibility within venues and transportation and service systems;
  • content delivery, including the absence of sign language interpretation and alternative formats;
  • time allotment, including lack of flexibility in the scheduling and pace of events; and
  • language and communication, including terminology, attitudes and structured behaviour that are dismissive of Deaf and disability realities.

The experiences of Deaf and disability inequity are also strongly informed by race, class, gender, gender expression and sexual orientation and by histories of colonization and immigration. Within Indigenous nations and some racialized communities, notions of disability and mental illness are often strongly influenced by collective experiences of trauma and social alienation resulting from the legacy of colonialism and racism.

Key challenges facing Deaf and disability artists and arts organizations

Over the past two decades, advocacy by Deaf and disability communities has resulted in legislative change, greater levels of access and more active participation in all areas of Canadian life, including the arts. The Deaf and disability arts sector has experienced rapid growth, with an explosion of new creation and higher profiles for this work. This has, in turn, encouraged many artists to take pride in self-identifying and exploring this aspect of their identity.

Despite these positive developments, there remains a lack of infrastructure both within the Deaf and disability arts sector and within the greater arts milieu to support training, creation, production and dissemination of Deaf and disability art forms and works. In addition, because much of the work challenges dominant aesthetics and worldviews of disability, norms by which the majority compares, views and assesses art may not apply.

Aesthetics recognition

Deaf and disability arts have unique aesthetics. Disability-specific dance, for example, typically explores themes of beauty, autonomy and power, incorporating the physicality and movement of various mobility devices (wheelchairs, walkers, canes, prosthetics) as a critical part of the artistic creation and exploration. Deaf music is visual rather than auditory and is based on sign language.

These artistic forms challenge the very foundation of mainstream arts disciplines and aesthetics, demanding that audiences view the work through a different lens. For example, to appreciate Deaf and disability-specific dance and theatre, mainstream artists and audiences accustomed to seeing athletic, agile bodies on stage must expand their notions of beauty to include individuals with physical impairments and view mobility devices not as symbols of limitation and confinement but as tools of artistic expression. Recognizing the historic treatment of impairment and disability and understanding that definitions of artistic merit are fluid are therefore critical when assessing the work of artists who are Deaf and/or have disabilities.

Inadequate funding and infrastructure

In recent years, the Canada Council and many provincial and municipal funders have launched strategic initiatives and programs that focus on developing the talent and capacity of Deaf and disability artists and arts organizations. However, the sector continues to be critically underserved, as evidenced by funding statistics.

Accessing ongoing support continues to be a particular challenge for Deaf and disability arts organizations, which are particularly under-represented in core funding programs. Like other minoritized communities—and, arguably, to an even greater degree—Deaf and disability arts organizations experience systemic barriers such as a lack of infrastructure, including human and financial resources, accessible facilities, and administrative, marketing and fundraising capacity. As a result, applications from these groups may indicate:

  • a greater dependency on public funding;
  • higher costs related to making artistic environments and artistic content more accessible (e.g., attendant- and sign language-related costs); and
  • more reliance on volunteer or in-kind services.

Building infrastructure and capacity are essential to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the Deaf and disability arts sector.

Few avenues for dissemination

Although the amount of work emanating from the Deaf and disability arts sector has dramatically increased over the past decade, limited infrastructure exists for the presentation, exhibition or publication of this work. Mainstream Canadian presenters are only beginning to take an interest in programming Deaf and disability arts, in large part due to persistent advocacy, as well as growing international recognition and interest in the work.

Despite this momentum, traditional presentation circuits remain fairly inaccessible to Deaf and disability artists. Lack of formalized networks, promotional materials and overall visibility means that presenters have few opportunities to preview this work. Furthermore, venues are often physically inaccessible to artists from the sector, and the work is not always well understood by mainstream presenters with limited knowledge of Deaf and disability arts practices. The limited number of Deaf and disabled arts professionals occupying decision-making roles within Canadian arts institutions further contributes to these obstacles.

In response to these limitations, Deaf and disability artists are often obliged to:

  • self-present their work;
  • take advantage of alternative performance or exhibition opportunities in non-traditional venues and settings;
  • develop new digital platforms for their work; and
  • develop their own festivals or presentation and touring networks to reach and develop their audiences.

Thus, the artistic CVs of Deaf or disabled artists may reflect different presentation credentials than those of non-Deaf or disabled peers (e.g., presentations at conferences or community-based venues). Peers may also erroneously perceive these presentations as less “professional” than those in more conventional spaces because community-based venues or conferences may pay lower artist fees.

On an international scale, Deaf and disability artists are also increasingly building their profiles and networks, connecting Canada to Deaf and disability arts sectors in England, Europe, Asia and Australia. However, presenting or exhibiting Deaf and disability art is often more expensive because of higher accommodation and accessibility costs. This may either deter presenters from engaging artists or result in lower artist fees or more in-kind services and agreements. Fully understanding and validating the different contexts and settings where Deaf and disability artworks are presented is thus essential.

Multiple systemic barriers

Deaf and disability artists continue to experience various systemic and attitudinal barriers within the Canadian arts sector that lead to discrimination, tokenism and exclusion. Despite years of professional practice, artists often find themselves labeled as “non-professional level” instead of “professional level” and their work is frequently undervalued. Cultural misrepresentation is an ongoing concern, with various mainstream art works depicting people who are Deaf or have disabilities in stereotypical ways, ranging from tragic (evoking pity) to heroic (rising above their disabilities).

Artists within this sector also experience barriers similar to those experienced by regional artists with respect to isolation, self-reliance/inter-dependence and creative survival. It is also critical to understand that the high turnover of artistic leaders within Deaf and disability arts organizations is often related to a lack of disability-related supports. In general, greater awareness of the broader social, institutional and historical contexts that affect people who are Deaf and have disabilities is required.

Less income, availability for work

Although inadequate remuneration for artistic work is a universal concern for Canadian arts professionals, artists who are Deaf or who have disabilities are the lowest paid of any Canadian artists due to increased barriers to employment opportunities and the frequent devaluation of their work.

Deaf and disabled artists are also more likely to rely on provincial or territorial income support programs. These types of programs fund disability-related supports and services, which are often costly. However, these programs also strictly regulate the income and funding that artists are allowed to receive from other sources and restrict the amount of monies individuals may hold at any given time. This can limit Deaf and disability artists’ professional development opportunities.

Artists who are Deaf or who have disabilities may not, for instance, be as readily available to participate in large-scale projects, extended artistic residencies or workshops as other artists. They may at times be forced to decline artist’s fees, since portions may render them ineligible to receive disability-related supports and services through their income-support program.

Their need to navigate accessibility and disability-related issues, as well as restrictions on accepting income, may also result in longer creation and production cycles. Projects may take longer to complete, continuous work may be more difficult to maintain and there may be significant breaks in an artist’s career—or even annual breaks or pauses in programming by Deaf and disability arts organizations.

Limited opportunities for training

Formal training opportunities that are sensitive and accessible to Deaf and disability artists are limited in Canada. Issues of physical access, as well as a lack of accessibility to curriculum and teaching methods, present formidable barriers for Deaf and disabled artists. There is also little recognition of Deaf and disability arts practices within formal training institutions. Even well-funded and established training institutions rarely offer sign language interpretation or accommodations. As a result, many artists are self-taught or mentored—often free of charge—by leaders within the Deaf and disability arts community.

Given these restrictions, Deaf and disability arts organizations are increasingly engaged in a wide spectrum of training and knowledge-transfer activities, including mentorships, apprenticeships, workshops, labs and specialized courses. Because of the extremely small pool of professional artists fully trained in Deaf- and disability-specific art forms, many arts organizations in the sector must recruit, cultivate and train artists to populate their productions and exhibits. Performing arts groups, in particular, frequently start their own training programs to nurture the next generation of artist-practitioners. These groups may invite foreign guest artists (who may benefit from more robust legislative support in their countries compared to Canadian artists) to enhance their pool of performers, mentors and creators and enrich their repertoires.

The Council’s equity considerations for Deaf and disability arts

What is equity?

Equity is a principle and process that promotes fair conditions for all people to fully participate in society. It recognizes that while all people have the right to be treated equally, not all individuals experience equal access to resources, opportunities and benefits. Achieving equity does not necessarily mean treating individuals or groups in the same way but may require the use of specific measures to ensure fairness.

Ensuring equitable access to its programs and services is a core value of the Canada Council. It is a long-standing commitment dating back to 1991, when the Council established the Equity Office to improve access for Canadian artists from Indigenous and culturally diverse communities. In 2008, disability was named as a new area of exploration in the Council’s strategic plan, and the Equity Office expanded its mandate to include Deaf and disability artists and practices.

Legal considerations

The Canada Council’s commitment to advancing Deaf and disability arts is based on fundamental human and legal rights, including cornerstone legislation such as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Human Rights Act, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as well as specific legal rulings. The Council uses this legal framework as the basis for accommodating and supporting applicants, peer assessors and staff who are Deaf or who have a disability.

The Council’s formal recognition of Deaf and disability arts

The Council recognizes artists who are Deaf, have disabilities and live with mental illness amongst the equity-seeking groups for which it has developed specific definitions, policies and mechanisms, as identified in the Council’s Equity Policy.

In 2010, after extensive consultation with Deaf and disability arts communities, the Council published Expanding the Arts: Deaf and Disability Arts, Access and Equality Strategy.

With the 2016 publication of its strategic plan, Shaping a New Future 201621, the Council reiterated its focus on supporting Deaf and disability arts as one of its ongoing commitments. The Council took a fundamental step forward in this commitment in 2017 by recognizing Deaf and disability arts as a distinct field of practice across all programs. In 2019, Expanding the Arts II: Deaf and Disability Expression and Engagement Strategy was released as an update to its original Expanding the Arts strategy.