December 1, 2023

The Disability Futures initiative, a scholarship established last fall by the Ford and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support disabled artists, is being expanded. The foundations announced on Friday that they would provide an additional $ 5 million to support the initiative through 2025, including backing two more cohorts of 20 fellows.

The scholarship, established by and for disabled people, is designed as an 18-month initiative. It provided unrestricted $ 50,000 grants to 20 disabled artists, filmmakers, and journalists selected from across the United States, administered by the United States Artists arts funding group.

But Margaret Morton, director of creativity and free expression at the Ford Foundation, said it was clear from the start that it couldn’t be just a one-off endeavor.

Projects carried out by members of the first cohort will be showcased on Monday and Tuesday at the first Disability Futures virtual festival, with programs from some of the country’s leading disabled artists, writers, thinkers and designers. It’s free and open to the public.

Among the highlights: a disabled portrait session with filmmakers Jim LeBrecht and Rodney Evans, painter Riva Lehrer, and journalist Alice Wong; a conversation about the connections between climate justice and disability justice under the direction of Patty Bern; and a virtual dance party by clothing manufacturer Sky Cubacub with music by DJ Who Girl (Kevin Gotkin). Evening catwalk appearances by models wearing items from Cubacub’s Rebirth Garments and a meditation experience with the Black Power Naps initiative with Navild Acosta and Fannie Sosa are also on the program.

“It was really profound for me to see how interested the first cohort fellows were in empowering others in the community,” said Emil J. Kang, Arts and Culture Program Director at the Mellon Foundation, in an interview on Thursday .

The next scholarship class will be announced in 2022. They are selected by peer counselors who are disabled artists themselves.

But the feedback from the first class, said Morton, was open: Do even better in the selection process.

“One of the fellows challenged us,” she said that there is only one Native American fellow. “And we appreciated that and were challenged to get it right and make sure we had a deeper pool.”

The scholarships offer flexible compensation options. The money can be distributed in a lump sum, in payments or even on a deferred basis, depending on what works best for the artist.

The scholarship “made an incredible difference in my life and career,” said writer and photographer Jen Deerinwater in an email. “It has given me more financial freedom to pursue more artistic pursuits such as music without the risk of losing my disability and health care.”

The pandemic made the foundation leaders “deeply aware of the challenges that disabled professionals face,” said Morton. About one in four adults in the United States has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We got a deeper impression and a better perspective of what it’s like to navigate the world,” she said.

The overall goal of the program is to help the artists make connections, Morton said.

“Our biggest dream is visibility,” she said. So that the audience can see the artists and the funders see that “they should start investing in disabled practitioners”.