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Wordmark reads, artsUNITE / UNITÉ des arts Leadership Masterclass Series, Presented by RBC Emerging Artists

Shay Erlich, seated in their wheelchair, smiles broadly against a white background. Their hands grip their rims like they’re about to wheel backwards.



00:00:01 Audio Description:

In a large dance studio, Shay Erlich clicks wheels used for dance onto the axle of the manual wheelchair.

00:00:09 Audio Description:

Shay pushes purposefully on the vivid purple rims of the wheels.

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Gliding, they reach their arms out and out, then groove, accentuating the beats.

00:00:18 Audio Description:

ArtsUNITE Leadership Masterclass series presented by RBC Emerging Artists.

00:00:25 Shay Erlich

This ability art is just this incredible world where

00:00:32 Shay Erlich

all of these new futures are possible because we’ve historically been excluded from the ways that things have been traditionally done.

00:00:40 Shay Erlich

It’s such a new and emerging discipline in art that there are so many stories of disability that it’s so new to give disabled artists the power to tell their own stories, as opposed to the stories that other people imagine.

00:00:54 Shay Erlich

And so it’s a really powerful way of changing our understanding about what it means to be disabled in today’s world.

00:01:01 Shay Erlich

And I find that really appealing.

00:01:05 Shay Erlich

I’m Shay Erlich and my Masterclass is going to talk about making a living in disability art.

00:01:11 Audio Description:

Shay Erlich. Making a Living in Disability Arts.

00:01:14 Audio Description:

Shay rolls backwards, grooving the ribs playfully, a shift of weight swings them into a turn.

00:01:21 Audio Description:

They look over their shoulder, their shoulders pop up and down, gloriously happy.

00:01:26 Shay Erlich

The thing that I’m really interested in is world-building and talking about how do we build worlds both imagined as well as influencing the worlds that we’re in here today.

00:01:39 Shay Erlich

And like the real space.

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What does it look like in a world where it’s safe to actually love being a disabled human?

00:01:51 Shay Erlich

And how do I build a world where the only thing that I know about disability is love?

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Love for my body.

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Love for

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others. Love for where everyone else is coming from. Love for being able to meet my needs and the needs of the folks around me, and to believe that we can meet everybody’s needs and still accomplish something beautiful and moving and brilliant together.

00:02:14 Shay Erlich

And in our capacity to form relationships and communities that are grounded in true care and love and respect.

00:02:27 Shay Erlich

If you’re not excited by those possibilities, then I don’t know what’s going to excite you! So I’m really interested in looking at that relationship between disabled people and strangers in public space and sort of

00:02:41 Shay Erlich

cripping it and querying it and making it really apparent that the problem isn’t that disabled people exist in public space, but the expectations that people have of how disabled people exist in public space.

00:02:55 Audio Description:

Getting Started – Building a resume.

00:02:57 Shay Erlich

It’s OK to start saying that you’re an artist without knowing everything, without knowing how to do everything you want to do and to just say I think I’m in a place now where maybe it’s time to get started.

00:03:08 Shay Erlich

The first step is building a resume.

00:03:12 Shay Erlich

And it’s really scary and it’s really intimidating, but it’s not that bad.

00:03:18 Shay Erlich

Chances are good that you have probably already done a whole bunch of things that count. So much of the time when I’m talking to disabled young people and supporting them with this step, they’ll come in and they’ll say, oh, I really don’t have anything to write on my resume.

00:03:31 Shay Erlich

These are the starting, these are,

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these are the stepping stones.

00:03:33 Shay Erlich

These are the first things that you should be putting down.

00:03:36 Shay Erlich

Being an artist doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have produced your own work.

00:03:41 Shay Erlich

It can mean I have participated in something and it is just as valid to be choreographed

00:03:48 Shay Erlich

on or to be part of an ensemble as it is to have had your own project that you have started from beginning to end and that you’ve taken, you know, every creative role in full ownership over some great things is like now with social media and Instagram and TikTok, you can build up a whole repertoire of film work without even really thinking about it.

00:04:09 Shay Erlich

Everybody’s got a camera in their phone.

00:04:12 Shay Erlich

And so what have you created and put online for your friends or your family, or for just whoever or other disability community members that you haven’t even thought about?

00:04:22 Shay Erlich

Put it together, create a little reel, and you’ve got a demo reel, which is another like big professional tool that feels scary

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that doesn’t have to be. So it’s more important to make sure that you have

00:04:34 Shay Erlich

a fulsome list of all of the things that you have created than it is to worry about,

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oh well,

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should I leave off something that I made ten years ago because it was just the small thing?

00:04:46 Shay Erlich

Put it on there.

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You want it to show how your practice has changed over time as well. As much of the world is professionalizing,

00:04:54 Shay Erlich

the arts is increasingly becoming a place where folks are hoping that emerging artists have post-secondary education in the arts.

00:05:02 Shay Erlich

And it feels really important to say that post-secondary education can be really inaccessible to disabled folks and that there are a lot of disabled folks who are intentionally pushed out of academia. I want to be very clear and explicit and intentional in saying that being a self-taught.

00:05:21 Shay Erlich

Disabled artist is super valid and there are so many things that you’re going to see from your own experience that folks who

00:05:28 Shay Erlich

have lived in this world and have access to post-secondary education

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won’t ever see, and that your lived experience is really valid and gives you a really unique perspective that this industry needs, regardless of what your educational background

00:05:43 Audio Description:


00:05:46 Shay Erlich

The first thing about approaching networking is, who do

00:05:49 Shay Erlich

you already know.

00:05:50 Shay Erlich

Chances are good that there are folks in your networks in your communities who are already doing things.

00:05:58 Shay Erlich

Things that you’re curious about, things that you’re interested about. Like the biggest thing about networking is being curious.

00:06:04 Shay Erlich

It’s not always about it being transactional.

00:06:06 Shay Erlich

It’s not always about it immediately leading to work or immediately leading to an opportunity.

00:06:11 Shay Erlich

It can sometimes just be like, hey, can you tell me a little bit more about this because this is something that I’m curious about, and

00:06:16 Shay Erlich

I wanna understand how it works.

00:06:18 Shay Erlich

And people really respond well to curiosity.

00:06:22 Shay Erlich

People are almost always willing to tell you something that they’re passionate about.

00:06:28 Shay Erlich

So if you’re looking to find a community of artists in general, certainly look into what kind of arts organizations are in your area in terms of finding disability arts community.

00:06:37 Shay Erlich

Tags on social media are your friend, you know, start looking up disability arts start like if you’re a wheelchair dancer.

00:06:44 Shay Erlich

Look at the wheelchair dance tags.

00:06:46 Shay Erlich

If you are a disabled painter, find you know disabled visual arts tags or disability, disability visual arts tags, and find them.

00:06:55 Shay Erlich

So many people are willing to.

00:06:57 Shay Erlich

Disabled folks especially know the pain of not being able to find community, and so a big part of just networking is not being scared of other people, which is really intimidating as a disabled person’s

00:07:12 Audio Description:


00:07:14 Shay Erlich

Mentorship is one of those areas where the standard advice that gets given to sort of emerging artists generally can be really complex and complicated for disabled artists.

00:07:22 Shay Erlich

I think that good mentorship understands that disabled people are already like whole humans, that they’re a whole person with their own perspective

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and approach. And so good mentorship is flexible. Good mentorship is not

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outcomes-invested. Good mentorship is leveling the playing field so that everyone has as much power and autonomy in that situation as it’s possible for folks to have.

00:07:48 Shay Erlich

I’d say if you,

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trying to figure out if this is a mentorship that’s going to work or not,

00:07:54 Shay Erlich

come back to those internal feelings of like, how am I feeling when I’m with this person?

00:07:59 Shay Erlich

Am I feeling safe?

00:08:00 Shay Erlich

Am I feeling like my ideas are respected?

00:08:03 Shay Erlich

Do I feel like it’s a generative space, or do I walk out of my encounter like feeling like I’m all hunched over and protective,

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and like wanting to just like not be vulnerable in the

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Space? And really paying attention to all of those internal cues about how are you feeling about representing your art.

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How are you feeling about representing your authentic self?

00:08:23 Shay Erlich

The more that you’re kind of holding onto and feeling like I don’t feel safe to say this, the less likely that is to actually be a productive mentorship relationship.

00:08:33 Shay Erlich

Horizontal mentorship is this really, like, great thing that you sometimes get the opportunity

00:08:40 Shay Erlich

to do. And it’s this idea of like that, there is no real mentor or mentee, but that we are two

00:08:46 Shay Erlich

humans coming together, two or sometimes more. Horizontal mentorship can sometimes mean that there’s a whole cohort of, you know, 10 or 20 folks learning something together or engaging in a process together, and that everyone has something to add.

00:09:00 Shay Erlich

And everyone has something to learn and that we will all come out of this encounter changed by it.

00:09:05 Shay Erlich

And I think that where it is possible for disabled folks to seek out opportunities for horizontal mentorship, particularly with other disabled artists, is where you’re going to find

00:09:15 Shay Erlich

so much richness. My experiences of horizontal mentorship have 100% made me the artist that I am today, working in collaboration with other disabled artists who are at every stage of their journey.

00:09:28 Shay Erlich

There has always been something that I have learned from it, new ideas about different access features.

00:09:35 Shay Erlich

We’re all,

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we all have our own niches that we like to explore and and experiment in, and we’ve all given them so much thought. And so bringing us all together, you get this really intentional engagement with a huge breadth of

00:09:51 Shay Erlich

just knowledge and brilliance and wonder, and

00:09:56 Shay Erlich

it’s magical. Like these are spaces where magic happens, where relationships form, where collectives form, where you suddenly learn that you don’t have to do this alone. And even just that, like sure, we came together for a week and we just talked to each other for a week, and we played around,

00:10:15 Shay Erlich

and we, you know, use some artistic tools to get to know each other

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Better, and our own practices and our own thoughts and thinking a little bit more.

00:10:22 Shay Erlich

But there’s something so comforting about like being out in the world, and even though I do a lot of my artistic work by myself or in very small teams,

00:10:32 Shay Erlich

there’s something really comforting knowing that those, you know, other ten humans who I spent a week with are out there doing their thing, too, and that I’m really not as alone in this work as it can sometimes feel like you are.

00:10:44 Audio Description:

Balancing Benefits and Income.

00:10:47 Shay Erlich

I think that the balance between like skill-building and sharing opportunities and income generating opportunities is going to be different for every artist.

00:10:57 Shay Erlich

A lot of disabled artists have this thing in the back of their heads, which is that they are relying on disability benefits to survive, and that that shapes what kinds of opportunities they can or can’t say

00:11:08 Shay Erlich

yes to, particularly early on in their artistic careers.

00:11:13 Shay Erlich

Because it can actually be problematic for disabled artists to earn too much money right at the beginning.

00:11:19 Shay Erlich

And so at the beginning of your career, especially when you know that you might not be able to earn enough money to survive off of the income that you’re generating, but that you might generate more income than it’s safe for you to earn off of your benefits without impacting them,

00:11:33 Shay Erlich

it might actually be a really, really important thing to move more towards the opportunities that are honoraria based, or that are less

00:11:44 Shay Erlich

paid opportunities, because they are what will allow you to have a solid foundation to move off of benefits in a safer way in the future. If that’s your goal or if that’s never your goal, you may never be interested in doing things that have significant commercial appeal because you know that that will be sustainable for you.

00:12:04 Shay Erlich

And that it is safer to have little bits of income here and there rather than something that is constant and steady, and that you can live off of.

00:12:13 Shay Erlich

So every disabled person sort of needs to know what the thresholds are on their own individual financial situation and make decisions based off of that.

00:12:23 Audio Description:

Grant Application and Accessibility Support.

00:12:26 Shay Erlich

So many arts councils have what’s called application support, and that’s where you can get in touch with the program officer and say, hey, I’m a disabled artist for whatever reason, you don’t even necessarily have to give them the reason filling out the application by myself is hard for me and I require support funds to pay someone to help me

00:12:46 Shay Erlich

put the application in. And so if you are a disabled human who struggles

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with executive functioning and organizing your thoughts, or if you are someone who struggles with the actual act of writing, or if, for example, you’re a deaf artist who’s applying, using ASL as your primary language and you need support with translating that into English for a council jury to read and make sense of, those are all

00:13:10 Shay Erlich

expenses that you can have the Arts Council take on. There’s usually a limit to how much money they’ll give you for an application, but they try and make sure that that amount of money is like appropriate to get through the application with the support

00:13:23 Shay Erlich

that you

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Need. So that’s in terms of being able to put your application together. In terms of for your project itself,

00:13:29 Shay Erlich

many arts councils also have what’s called an accessibility fund. And what that is there to provide funds for is, say that you are an artist who, like using myself as an example, as a dancer, I will

00:13:43 Shay Erlich

often use a PSW in the studio,

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because I need someone to, you know, remind me to eat and drink and take breaks and bring things to me so that I’m not, you know, running around all over the place using a whole lot of energy that I need to be using for dancing

00:13:58 Shay Erlich

just doing the kind of stuff that I need to do to take care of my body. And so there are all kinds

00:14:03 Shay Erlich

of different things,

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from accessibility support that you might need for your project, it’s going to be unique and different for every disabled human and for every single project.

00:14:13 Shay Erlich

I don’t think that I’ve ever asked for the same thing for like 2 projects because,

00:14:18 Shay Erlich

for me, accessibility is very contextual and it very much depends on exactly what I’m doing.

00:14:24 Shay Erlich

A lot of first-time grant applications make the mistake of forgetting to pay themselves as artists, and they just like, oh yeah, I’ve been making art for free for years,

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I don’t need to pay myself because I’ve never been paid.

00:14:36 Shay Erlich

That’s actually something that will work

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against you in the granting process, and you typically won’t get a grant if you have not actually budgeted to pay yourself as the artist.

00:14:44 Audio Description:

Learning what you need

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as disabled artists, we will always need supports and accommodations.

00:14:52 Shay Erlich

So from the earliest understanding of what your project is, or from like the first moment that you’re talking to people about participating in their projects, you should be thinking about what it is that you need to do

00:15:05 Shay Erlich

that. I take a really like

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dynamic understanding that accommodations are never the same across circumstances and that what you need to make one situation work might not be what you need to make another situation work.

00:15:19 Shay Erlich

I find that the process of negotiating accommodations usually starts with having to get

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a really good understanding of what is going to happen.

00:15:28 Shay Erlich

It can be really hard to predict what you will need if you don’t understand what’s going to be asked of you.

00:15:33 Shay Erlich

I think that the first step to being able to create sort of timelines for projects that work for you is being able to be honest with yourself, which can be a challenging thing.

00:15:45 Shay Erlich

There’s always going to be a balance point between budget and timeline.

00:15:51 Shay Erlich

And so I think it’s really important to recognize that those two things are always in relationship with each other.

00:15:56 Shay Erlich

There will always be things that are within your control,

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there will always be things that are not within your control. And that can be the deciding factor of like whether or not you say yes or no to a project would be,

00:16:08 Shay Erlich

this is a project that I’m interested in, but given you know the budget and the timeline, it’s just not going to work for my body.

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Or are these things flexible so that it can be something that works for my body?

00:16:20 Shay Erlich

And finding out what those answers are and using those answers to guide whether or not this is a good opportunity that will sustain you or whether or not this is the kind of opportunity that might burn you out and harm you.

00:16:32 Audio Description:

Acts of Love.

00:16:35 Shay Erlich

So first I want to say that saying no to things is an act of love.

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It is an act of honoring your own boundaries.

00:16:44 Shay Erlich

It is an act of

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feeling like good about only wanting,

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about deserving, to be working in environments that are going to feel good for you. There’s this notion in the arts that you have to sacrifice for your art,

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and like,

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but sacrifice what?

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And to what extent?

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I think that we have glamorized sacrificing to really be code for putting up with potentially problematic working conditions, or working with teams that it’s just not a good fit, and it’s going to be a miserable experience.

00:17:18 Shay Erlich

And for me, the way that I understand

00:17:21 Shay Erlich

saying no to something I understand saying no to something as an act of love for myself. To say like,

00:17:27 Shay Erlich

I love, I love my work when it’s done in an environment that is supportive to me.

00:17:33 Shay Erlich

Talking about accessibility with folks requires a particular kind of vulnerability, and so it requires, like a vulnerability and an openness,

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and just like being able to accept that like

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nobody can do, nobody can do everything. The idea that people are 100% independent is a myth that you,

00:17:51 Shay Erlich

you know, as soon as you ask them how they ate their breakfast that morning kind of starts to unravel for anyone who we start to ask that question to.

00:17:59 Shay Erlich

And so why is it that just because it’s a little bit more apparent in disabled bodies than non-disabled bodies, should this be a conversation that we need to be scared of having?

00:18:09 Shay Erlich

It means that we have to think about, what is the typical

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process of the way that this type of an art product would get made.

00:18:17 Shay Erlich

And does that actually make sense in the context of the humans who are coming together to make this art?

00:18:23 Shay Erlich

A lot of the places where disabled and non-disabled artists get into a lot of challenges in working with each other is that

00:18:33 Shay Erlich

folks are scared to own their feelings. And so it can, because we’ve had so many times where our feelings haven’t been heard or respected

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when we’ve tried to bring them into the room, like, that’s just baggage that we all have as humans.

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And that’s not a disabled or non-disabled thing that we live in a society that encourages us to set aside

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our own emotional experiences for the ease and the sake of the space.

00:19:00 Shay Erlich

That is

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where there is so much power in undoing that, and being able to sort of name the tension, because then you’ve made the problem –

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It’s a narrative therapy technique

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actually. It is about, hey, we’ve got a problem here.

00:19:17 Shay Erlich

What are some ideas for how we can solve it?

00:19:20 Audio Description:

Why Disability Arts.

00:19:23 Shay Erlich

Why disability arts? Because

00:19:26 Shay Erlich

the social consciousness of what it means to be disabled has to change.

00:19:31 Shay Erlich

We don’t see changes in policy without changing our social consciousness about who is disabled, how many of us are disabled, what it means to be disabled, what is a disability story. And what better way to change public consciousness than through storytelling,

00:19:47 Shay Erlich

and through art, and through world-building, both in how we create worlds that we show to others, as well as the worlds that we create while we’re building these worlds.

00:19:58 Shay Erlich

And I think of arts as just this, like beautiful playground for test driving different visions of what we want our future to be until we see the future that we actually want.

00:20:08 Shay Erlich

The arts are where I play, and then the rest of my life is how I dig in and make it happen.

00:20:15 Audio Description:

Shay in the studio rocks back to balance on only rear wheels, rotating in a tight circle.

00:20:21 Audio Description:

They drift contentedly across the studio, enjoying the expanse of space.

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