A father wrote a note last summer for the sensory-friendly performance of “Gruff!” attended by his child with autism. He thanked Muhlenberg College Summer Theatre for the effort to understand the daily challenges faced by families like his. “Our son may not have the chance to do so many things in life that others do,” he said. “It was a very special day.”

Randall Forte
Randall Forte, Executive Director of Lehigh Valley Arts Council

Engagement in the arts affects people in deeply quiet ways, and it can be particularly magical for those with disabilities who may not get to experience as much as the rest of us.

I understand the isolation that a disability can instill because for the past nine years, I have coped with Parkinson’s disease. The anxiety of controlling my tremors in a public arena often makes me feel uncomfortable. My biggest fear is not knowing what the future holds.

I recently completed a nine-month acting class as a creative outlet — I needed to shake up my life. A former professional actor, I had not been on stage in almost 20 years. The time away from the craft, in addition to the challenge of maintaining my concentration while on stage, was, at times, frustrating.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the camaraderie of the class and felt empowered by the process and the performance. The journey allowed me to confront my Parkinson’s in both a private and public way that made me feel less isolated and whole again. Today, I feel less apprehensive about tomorrow.

The Lehigh Valley has a rich and diverse arts culture, but too often those experiences are closed to people with disabilities. Most of us can go to a concert or a play with little thought of attendance details. But those who experience hearing or vision loss, or have mobility or developmental challenges that require special accommodations, are often barred from cultural events you and I take for granted.

Thankfully, that is about to change. On Friday, after nearly 18 months in development, Arts & Access, a yearlong celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act through the lens of the arts, will be launched by a coalition of Lehigh Valley nonprofit groups. Spearheaded by the Lehigh Valley Arts Council, in cooperation with the Lehigh Valley Partnership for a Disability Friendly Community, more than 30 cultural organizations have teamed up with social service agencies to create a schedule of more than 40 accessible events through June 2016.

Arts & Access events will expand our characterization of community to include people with disabilities, and of course, their caregivers, families and friends. According to U.S. Census data estimates from 2012, the number of non-institutionalized people with disabilities living in the Lehigh Valley is 81,000, or 12.7 percent of the population; this represents a significant number of potential new audiences.

A healthy community welcomes diversity and provides all people access to its quality of life. Our cultural community has opened our doors wider and created a menu of varied and compelling programming, On Sept. 29, for example, Daniel Lasko, a retired Marine corporal and a member of Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team, is the featured speaker for the Raker Lecture Series at Enger Memorial Chapel; on Aug 1, the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival is offering an audio-described performance of the comedy “The Foreigner” for the visually impaired.

But this year should only be the beginning. If we want to create a more inclusive region moving into the future, we encourage community involvement. The Arts Council will offer a series of public meetings to help us all break through the discomfort of political correctness and listen and learn from each other. Among the topics for discussion are “How engagement in the arts is transformative” and “Which disability owns the handicapped parking spaces?”

Visit ArtsandAccess.org, our new Web portal and central information hub, to see the calendar of accessible events. Join us at the launch party at Good Shepherd’s Health & Technology Center from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Friday. Together, we can transform the Lehigh Valley into a truly open, united community that embraces all its citizens.

by Randall Forte, Executive Director

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