Jean Kennedy Smith, a Muse for the Disabled

The women who launched VSA arts talks about her 25 years of spreading the word that creative self-expression should be accessible to all

By John M. Williams

Jean Kennedy Smith was U.S. ambassador to Ireland from 1993-'98, but you'll probably recognize her for her middle name -- she is the sister of President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. She has another claim to fame: In 1974, she founded VSA arts -- an affiliate of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts -- to provide arts education and programming for adults and children with disabilities. Her book, Chronicles of Courage, written in collaboration with George Plimpton, was published by Random House in 1993 and details the challenges faced by 16 artists with disabilities.

Today VSA arts -- the acronym stands for vision, strength, and artistic expression -- is an international nonprofit organization that offers fine arts opportunities in 80 nations worldwide for those with disabilities. Its theme: Promoting the creative power in people with disabilities. VSA arts claims literally hundreds of thousands of artists -- disabled as well as able-bodied -- as members.

Another Kennedy sister, Rose Marie Kennedy, is mentally retarded. Smith's experiences with helping Rose Marie live a full life gave her an insight into the abilities of people with disabilities. Recently, I spoke with Ambassador Smith about the arts -- and how artists with disabilities can benefit from assistive technology. Edited excerpts from our conversation follow:

Q: What motivated you to start the VSA arts?


In the '70s, the Kennedy Center of Performing Arts, of which I sit on the Board, realized that arts education was not being pushed as much as it could be. George Stevens [who was the chairman of the board] and I realized that artists with disabilities in school needed to be encouraged to develop their talents, and to have a showcase and a voice on their behalf. And so we started the VSA arts.

Q: Critics of the VSA arts say that without the Kennedy fame and fortune, it wouldn't have the prominence it has today. How do you answer them?


I can answer that question in two parts. The first is having the Kennedy name is an asset to VSA arts.

The second part is: Remember, VSA arts is an international program. It's what people do locally to develop and showcase the works of artists with disabilities that counts: They raise their own money. They put on their own shows. They develop the talents of their artists.

Art is self-development. Without self-development but without financial support from the community and government and patrons, the talents of artists wouldn't be developed.

Q: Where do you get your funding?


Through grants from the U.S. Dept. of Education, donations from private individuals, and corporate contributions.

Q: What do you get out of your association with VSA arts?


For me, it's seeing artists with disabilities being recognized for their achievements. VSA arts encourages integration and self expression through drama, dance, music, creative writing, and the visual arts. A photo exhibit of artists with disabilities was recently held at the National Press Club. Everything that encompasses art we embrace into our programs. We see art as a community activity, and we encourage community involvement as essential to the arts flourishing. America is strongest when it is an open society. As such, artists with disabilities prosper from an open society.

Q: Assistive technology is a growing field in the lives of people with disabilities. What role do you see manufacturers having in expanding opportunities for artists with disabilities?


Manufacturers of various assistive technologies must realize there are gifted artists with disabilities who need technological assistance to develop their talents. By developing assistive technology for artists with disabilities these manufacturers can also expand their business. The profit incentive is a great motivator.

I believe most artists with disabilities are largely unseen, and therefore they are an overlooked market for manufacturers. I encourage manufacturers to visit our partners and offices, and learn the needs of disabled artists so they can develop the programs to improve the opportunities for artists with disabilities to succeed. They can learn about us by visiting.

Q: Give me some examples of the types of products that disabled artists need?


Manufacturers of cameras could develop sharper lenses for visually impaired photographers. Manufacturers of low-vision products could develop software that makes it easier for artists with visual impairments to draw or paint better. Better writing-and-editing programs should be developed to benefit writers with disabilities working from home. These programs should be easily adaptable to text-to-speech programs. Wheelchairs need to be improved to give painters the ability to raise and lower themselves so they can work better with canvas. Advances in voice-recognition programs could help artists unable to utilize a keyboard write and improve their design and layout skills.

Software can be developed to help artists with disabilities teach art -- there aren't many artists with disabilities teaching. Better communications devices must be available for speech-challenged individuals so they can discuss arts more articulately than they do now. Manufacturers could also develop scholarship programs for artists with disabilities. There are a myriad of opportunities for them to work with artists with disabilities and enhance their careers.

Q: What else?


Online training programs must be accessible to artists with disabilities. Adobe's PhotoShop needs to be more accessible to blind users. The developers of drafting programs, speech-recognition programs, and artistic programs for learning-disabled people should be mainstream programs. IBM, Microsoft, Compaq, Hewlett Packard, Adobe and the Information Technology Association of America should assume the leadership and develop software for artists with disabilities. By doing more for artists with disabilities, they sell more of their products. Let's remember that art is big business, and it can even become bigger as more artists with disabilities are developed and become renowned.

Q: How about the roles of business and government in supporting the arts?


Governments have always sponsored the arts, and they will continue to do so. Still, they can always do more on every level. They can fund more arts communities and programs. The arts have to become more of a priority for schools, where these talents can be developed, and government can ensure this.

While corporations have a history of supporting the arts, there are too many who don't. I think their lack of financial support results because they don't see supporting the arts fitting into their corporation's tough image, rather they see it as a frill. Corporations must see that arts are big money. When they understand the community and economic value associated with the arts, they will support them. More education needs to be done among corporations to create an awareness of the arts value to them.

Look at the museums in New York that produce revenues. Look at the art sales where millions are raised. I believe there are artists with disabilities today whose abilities are comparable to the greatest artists in the history of the world. These artists need to develop their talents so they can be discovered. Corporations can help them and profit.

Q: Is equal opportunity for people with disabilities a human rights issue?


Yes. But an economic issue, too. Worldwide artists with disabilities given the chance to develop their skills can lift themselves out of poverty. Poverty is an economic issue as well as a social one. Teach people skills and they can get themselves out of poverty.

Q: Why do you believe it is so difficult for artists with disabilities to receive the recognition they deserve?


People don't realize the arts challenge the artist mentally and physically. Because they don't, people believe an artist with a disability is an oxymoron. When people see the works of artists with disabilities their opinions change, and they start supporting the arts. To spur competition, the works of artists with disabilities should also be included with artists without disabilities. This promotes integration between artists with and without disabilities.

Q: How important is improving accessibility to artistic events?


When communities sponsor art exhibits, they need to make sure they are physically accessible to people with disabilities using wheelchairs. They need to make sure they have assistive listening devices for people with hearing impairments. They should hire sign-language interpreters for the deaf. Their publications should be produced on tape, in large print and in braille. Their should be augmentative communications devices for people with speech impairments to speak clearly. These actions open the arts for people with disabilities and increase the revenues for the sponsors.

Q: What would you like the VSA Arts accomplish that it hasn't?


I would like to see it more pervasive in our country and the world.

Q: Thank you Ambassador Smith.


It's been my pleasure. Come back again.

Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.

Got a comment or question? Please visit our Assistive Technology interactive forum

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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