Sensory-friendly performances are popping up all over the Triangle this holiday season, making it easier for those with disabilities such as autism or visual impairment to enjoy the arts. Betsy Jones Ludwig, 54, executive director of Arts Access in Raleigh, says a $162,000 grant from the John Rex Endowment will open even more doors. Here she talks about why it’s important for every child to participate in the arts, and how the arts have helped make Raleigh a “boom town.”
Q: Arts Access is the only nonprofit in North Carolina dedicated to making the arts accessible to everyone, serving more than 2,600 people. What will you do with the grant money?
A: We’re working both in the schools and with the community arts organizations, so Artspace and Arts Together, Raleigh Little Theatre and Theatre in The Park. We’ve been offering trainings and are making an impact whenever kids with disabilities can experience the arts.
Q: How are you helping with arts inclusion in the Wake County Public School System?
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A: A lot of arts teachers who get kids in the classroom haven’t had special education training. But these kids are coming into their music classrooms and theaters, so we really thought we could make an impact by providing training, resources and ideas for how they can better include kids with disabilities.
Our teachers are saying, “I want to do it well. I don’t want a child to be in the corner and not painting because he can’t tolerate the feeling of paint on his hands.” They want to modify their classes so they can include people from the beginning. They see it as just as a way to do their jobs better. In the end, that means kids having a vibrant meaningful arts experience.
Q: Why is it important for kids with disabilities to embrace the arts?
A: Our long-term goal is they’ll find friendship and meaning in a high school theater club or other outlet. It’s really a place of belonging and meaning for a lot of kids who are marginalized.
If you have a child with autism and you try to take him to a loud, noisy theater experience, that may not be successful. One of the things we’re working on right now is sensory-friendly production. Theatre in The Park is doing one in December, and we’re also working with Raleigh Little Theatre, but you create an environment that’s very welcoming for kids on the spectrum. There are all these cool strategies you do to make that happen.
Q: Why is this so important to you?
A: I’m very passionate about it; I really believe the arts matter for all kids. If you’re already somebody struggling with challenges or barriers, the arts is somewhere that allows for friendships, success and finding gifts and talents.
Q: Who is affected?
A: In Wake County schools, there are 20,880 students with an identified disability. That’s a large group, including learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder. We haven’t limited our work by disability. We’re not just coming in and working with kids with autism. Our workshops and training have been on behavioral and emotional challenges, autism, blind and low-vision, hearing impaired.
Q: What’s been the response from parents?
A: They’re thrilled to know someone is thinking about their kids. If you have a kid with a disability, you’re pretty slammed. Finding out where programs are, wondering if they’re going to be included and welcomed – and with good modifications. There wasn’t a good connect with the resources.
Q: The Americans with Disabilities Act has been law for 27 years. Why is arts inclusion coming so late?
A: It’s taken a long time for people to buy in. It’s both the advocacy movement and people with disabilities asking for it. It’s like the seat belt thing; it’s not just a good idea – it’s the law. This move has been happening nationally.
Q: How will arts inclusion affect Raleigh?
A: Raleigh is a boom town partly because of the arts. When you look at what’s happened with CAM and the arts district and the theater companies, the arts are big business. You really can’t leave people behind. You can’t ask for federal and state tax dollars and not think about including all people. I’m not really trying to change hearts and minds; I’m trying to enable people to do something that most of them want to do better.
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Betsy Jones Ludwig – Tar Heel of the Week
Born: Oct. 11, 1963
Family: Married to Warren Ludwig; 11-year-old daughter and two grown step-children
Organization: Arts Access, Inc. (artsaccessinc.org)
Hobbies: Bike-riding, yoga and the theater: “I’m not an artist myself, but I’m an arts patron.”
Fun fact: Self-described ham