Cultural Accessibility in Philadelphia, an Artblog Radio series, part 1 – Katie Samson of Art-Reach

Exciting news! Today, Artblog contributor Natalie Sandstrom begins hosting a new three-part Artblog Radio series on the topic of Accessibility in the cultural sector. This first episode features Katie Samson, Director of Education at Art-Reach, a Philadelphia-based non-profit organization dedicated to making the arts accessible and inclusive. Art-Reach celebrates their 35 anniversary this week! Check back in May for episode 2 featuring another expert in this important field.

Natalie Sandstrom (left), a smiling white woman with light brown curly hair, wearing a white shirt with black floral print and a red blazer. Katie Samson (right), a smiling white woman with blonde curly hair wearing a lavender and dark purple flannel button-up t-shirt and pearl earrings. The figures are digitally imposed onto a decorative background.
Natalie Sandstrom (left) and Katie Samson (right).

Today we have exciting news for all of you Artblog readers and listeners! Artblog contributor Natalie Sandstrom is hosting a new three-part series for Artblog Radio on the topic of Cultural Accessibility. There will be one episode each month, starting today through June, 2021. Natalie’s first guest is Katie Samson, Director of Education at Art-Reach. Whether you are familiar with Art-Reach or are just discovering them today, this podcast is a stimulating listen, chock-full of valuable information about Art-Reach and their 35 years– pre-dating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)– of “making Philadelphia the most accessible arts city in the country!” Make sure to check back next month, May 2021, for the next episode with another great expert in the field!

On Thursday, April 22nd, 2021 at 6:00 PM, Art-Reach is celebrating 35 years of access with their 35th Anniversary Celebration & Cultural Access Awards. It is free to attend, but it is a fundraising event with a $35 suggested donation.

This episode is available in three formats: Artblog Radio – here, Apple Podcasts, or Spotify; as a text transcription in this post (below); and as a video – here, or on Youtube, with closed captions available. Thank you to Kyle McKay for composing Artblog Radio’s original podcast intro and outro!





Natalie Sandstrom: [00:00:13] Hello friends, and welcome! You are listening to Artblog Radio, recorded right here in Philadelphia. My name is Natalie Sandstrom, I use she/ her pronouns, and I’m thrilled to be here to kick off this new three-part Artblog Radio mini-series on the topic of cultural accessibility. Today, we’re going to kick off the series with an introduction to this topic, um, and an introduction to a leading local organization that is just doing such great work for cultural access.

Before diving in, I wanted to just start with a couple of housekeeping items. So for those who might not know me again, my name is Natalie. I’m a contributing writer for Artblog and have been for about the past two years. And I’m also the Program Coordinator at the Institute of Contemporary Art at UPenn.


I am a white woman with curly brown hair. Today I am wearing a dark short sleeve blouse and I’m sitting in front of a white wall and you can just see the bottom of the picture frame behind me. I’m recording from my home in West Philly on the traditional territory of The Lenape people past, present, and future.

And today for this first conversation, I am joined by the amazing Katie Samson. Katie is the Director of Education for Art-Reach, which is a non-profit organization devoted to increasing cultural participation among traditionally underrepresented audiences from both the disability and low income sectors.
Katie, welcome!

Katie Samson: [00:01:42] Thank you so much. It’s so awesome to be with you. Um, So, yes, I am Katie Samson. I use she/ her pronouns. Uh, I am a white woman with blonde curly hair. I’m wearing long red earrings, purple headphones, a gray shirt with a white Peter Pan collar. I am seated in a power wheelchair, which you can’t really see in the zoom screen.


Um, and behind me is a yellow, mustard colored wall with, uh, framed pictures of family ancestors, maps, photos, um, iron work, you name it. So it’s great to be with you.

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:02:27] You have a great background for talking about arts and culture. You’re ready for it.

Katie Samson: [00:02:33] I do. I do. It’s uh, I think it, I was, it was at one point Barnes Foundation inspired, and then it just kind of spun off from there.

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:02:42] Nice. I like it. I like it. So, um, I think we can go ahead and dive right in here. Um, and Katie, I know you have such an amazing background with so many different experiences. You’ve taught disability studies at Westchester University, been the Assistant Director of Museum out at PAFA, advised for organizations like the Impact Center and KSF, and now you’re the Director of Education at, at Art-Reach..

So I’m wondering, maybe we can just start this conversation by talking a little bit about your current work, um, what Art-Reach is, and maybe what Art-Reach has been doing during the past year with COVID.

Katie Samson: [00:03:25] Yeah, absolutely. Um, it’s been a whirlwind to say the least, uh, I don’t think, um, none of us expected that we would be in this situation for a year plus.

Um, and I have to say there has been some ups and downs, um, especially. You know, given the fact that we are a small nonprofit organization, that is all about being out and about in the community and driving, uh, really the narrative that people with disabilities deserve access to arts and culture. Um, and when COVID hit it really reconciled with this, um, with our mission. Our core mission. It was like all of the things we are supposed to do, we are not supposed to do.

Um, and for a person like myself who has a physical disability and a sensory disability, it, um, it was an interesting time for me personally, because there is this aspect of being a, a worker in the cultural arts, and commuting into center city, and the, the time and effort it takes to be a fully functioning disabled person, um, in that sphere with a full-time position and understanding that this new work-from-home environment really allowed a lot more flexibility in, in my own personal work experience, which, um, I really welcomed.

Uh, but there were also just a lot of complications with even my own personal care attendant, not being able to come and visit me because of the risks involved in travel during, during the lockdown period. Um, My mother moved in with me also, because of, uh, just trying to further bring in as much community as possible.

Um, I also have a roommate that’s doing a PhD who’s from Uganda who hasn’t been able to travel home to her family for a year and a half. Um, so yeah, there’s definitely been some hardships, for sure. Um, and. The work that we have been doing at art reach over the past 35 years, and I’m excited to say we are celebrating our 35th anniversary this year, so that is yeah very exciting. Tremendous that, you know, Art-Reach was founded prior to the ADA and we’re still doing the work, right?

I think what I’ve been really enamored with, I should say, in the past year and being in this position is the way in which arts and cultural organizations have been forced to pivot into this virtual space, and acknowledging that there is so much work to be done. Especially when it comes to accessibility, both with the technological and the communication barriers that exist.

Um, This, this conversation that we’re having right now on zoom, uh, through this little key hole, you know, Natalie, we’ve talked about this thing that this, this is not designed, you know, for people with disabilities, this platform, the internet, uh, the web. And so how do you start having those conversations with folks that are just getting started on this engagement– virtual experiences engagement– but also, how can we do better? And how can we, um, nudge, poke, prod, and get, get our sector to engage?

Because I think what we found is so tremendous is the engagement in some areas, especially when it comes to public programming has really blown up. And people are tuning in from Asia, and Europe, and Hawaii, and places that maybe have never have known about… eastern State Penitentiary or, you know, um, the ICA or, you know, anything to that matter, which I think is, is really remarkable.

And I, I think my hope is that it doesn’t get lost in the transition back to the new normal.

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:07:58] Yeah. I think that is so much great content to start us off with. Um, definitely bringing up a lot of really key points, including things like, flexibility was a word that came up a few times, um, virtual programs, which of course, you know, I as the program coordinator at ICA have seen firsthand as part of an institution that has really adapted our programming over the last year, and sort of thinking about what it means to be accessible to different people, um, In a virtual space.

You know, you, you talked about sort of this geographic accessibility that comes with having zoom programs that, as long as you have an internet connection, you can tune in from halfway around the world! If you’re willing to be up in the middle of the night, if you want to watch something live.

Um, but I think too, you know, there are these other components of what it means to be an accessible program that have- the conversation has shifted in a in-person versus a virtual space. And I think that brings up, um, a lot of interesting questions about what those offerings look like from things like captioning or sign language, or image description in a virtual space that might be, um, maybe a little bit weightier than thinking about things like physical accessibility.

Cause when you’re on the computer, you know, you don’t need to have, um, a big aisle, for example, uh, in an auditorium type space. So maybe we could talk a little bit more about some of these offerings, um, some of the things that you’ve seen in these virtual spaces, um, maybe even thinking about things like Art-Reach’s own cultural accessibility conference, which reached a much larger audience last year with the virtual, the virtual platform.

Katie Samson: [00:09:58] Yeah. So with the work that we do with Art-Reach, on any given non COVID year, right? We are trying to help arts and cultural organizations build audiences, and create and expand accessible opportunities. So that is recognizing that there is a Title III of the ADA, and there are accessible services that are required under the law that need to be provided.

And a lot of those requirements come with a burden that is put on a person with a disability to request those services. And what I found since, I would say maybe the summer when we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the ADA, there has been a really interesting transition that has occurred with our sector. In providing a more universal design to cultural programming, in the aspect of, Yes. Captioning will be provided. Yes. A American sign language interpreter will be present in the zoom screen at all times. Yes. Each presenter will verbally describe not only their appearance, but any slides that they’re showing, any video that has shared, any sort of visual content.

So, covering some of the basic elements of Title III from a universal design aspect, but also I’ve seen some really remarkable ways in which, organizations like the Rock School of Dance for example, in their “Nutcracker 1776,” were able to provide a PDF, at home document, that families could print out, cut out art activities, engage with the virtual content in their own time, but also it had ASL interpretation, it was audio described, an entire track of the show… and people had options! And that is pretty tremendous that an organization is taking steps, not only to be inclusive and intentional, but also thinking about kind of the multisensory appr- approach to learning and…

Some of these aspects that I think we don’t often focus on, which can involve people with… people who are neurodiverse, or people with intellectual or cognitive disabilities, that may require a little extra time. May require simple language, simple instruction, or also requires some movements, some… engagement that is not just about watching and learning, but is activating, um, activating your own kinesthetic learning experience your own body in, in the process.

And I think what has been. So interesting to see, is folks that are leading by example. So someone will maybe take part in, in something or, or watch a webinar and say, Hey, you know, I saw this happening over there. Maybe we should do it too. And there has been such an incredible outpouring of support from, uh, accessible consortium’s all across the country like Chicago, Seattle, um, uh, MAC in New York, as well as the Kennedy Center lead organization, providing free online opportunities for people to really learn.

And when we launched the Cultural Accessibility Conference virtually, we were kind of one of the first ones to say like, Hey, we’re going to do it. And we’re going to hope that people need it and learn about it and engage. And, yeah, we, we expanded from 75 and our first year to 238, and I think eight countries represented, and 34 different States, and it was, it was freaking awesome!

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:14:25] It was, it was such a great program. And I also think about how relatively early in the pandemic that all came together because that conference took place in the mid September? Something like that? And so if you think about the turnaround time of, of organizing something like that, um, it was such an impressive experience and, and the content was so timely.

And, you know, I think you, you just spoke about these organizations that have put together, um, at-home materials, or videos that include, maybe educators that pause, and give an opportunity for someone to respond, or to get up and move, or to do an art activity, um, or another non-art activity at home. And I think that even at the conference, there were these opportunities that you had, um, the live sessions, but then you also had sort of these like Ted Talk-style prerecorded sessions.

And so if, if you’re thinking about sort of this lead by example model, Art-Reach is such a perfect candidate to be an organization that people should follow. If they’re interested in getting some of these tips and tricks. Um, I also just want to go back to something we’ve thrown out a lot, which is ADA.

So for people that might not be familiar, ADA stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed in 1990. Um, so Katie earlier you said we last year celebrated the 30th anniversary of the ADA, and that Art-Reach has been around now for 35 years, so predating the ADA. Um, and a lot of what the ADA focuses on is sort of providing these quote unquote “reasonable accommodations,” uh, oftentimes architecturally, but also in communication.

Um, and so episode two of this podcast series is really going to look at policy more deeply, but I think it’s, it’s interesting as well, just to point out that so much of this, um, these historical documents, or experiences, continue to evolve as we have different tools available to us like zoom, or like, you know, virtual, virtual programs, virtual guides, social stories, pre-visit narratives.

There’s just a plethora of tools that have become available in sort of unexpected ways, I think, during the pandemic.

Katie Samson: [00:17:06] Yeah, I think, um, there’s, there’s an expression that goes back probably a few generations before us, that’s um, something about, um, “When you know, better, you do better.” Um, and something about this idea, that I would say within the first eight weeks of lockdown, everybody was, “Oh, I’m going to take this webinar, and I’m going to jump on this because, I don’t know what I’m doing!” Right? If we can’t, if we can’t do anything we can all learn.

And it was, uh, it was a really important time for us to, I think, lean into this idea of professional develop and learning and how effective it can be during this time, especially with the uh, just unbelievable, um, social justice movement that has taken over with, um, Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate, Indigenous People, and the recognization. of, uh, you know, land acknowledgement, but also reconstructing the narrative around colonialization and…

Accessibility Inclusion is all a part of that. And to not understand intersectionality at a point like this is, uh, is challenging when I have unfortunately had to justify why it’s important that staff still needs to be trained in understanding disability, and an etiquette, and the law. Because, we, if anything that we’ve learned in this time is that from designing exhibitions, to providing a theatrical experience, to opening up a public garden exibit, that if you’re not thinking about inclusivity from the beginning, then you’re leaving people out of the conversation and you’re leaving people out at the seat of the table.

And, um, so I think that aspect of learning and engagement is something that I’ve really tried to push a lot more in this time, because now is the time. We’re in a, we’re in a rebuilding stance. We are in a process of learning and engagement of knowing better, to do better. And we have to go beyond ADA because there’s so many aspects of ADA that come in at the end as an afterthought. And no one should feel like they’re an afterthought, whether they’re a child, or an older adult, um, you know, someone with dementia and their caregiver, or perhaps a teenager that has like severe anxiety, and has been isolated for quite some time.

So when we talk about this understanding of disability, I think we also have to open ourselves up to the fact that, you know, we’re, we’ve all been there at some part of this. Um, whether it’s temporary, whether it’s invisible, whether it’s visible, um, we’ve all shared a little bit of that empathy of knowing what that isolation feels like.

And to try to put that forward in the work that you do, um, at this time, I think is, is galvanizing.

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:20:57] Mm, galvanizing is such a great word. I think that really points to a lot of the unexpected community building that has taken place during this time. I think of resources, again, such as Art-Reach and the Cafe Series that you put on, which are some ongoing, um, trainings, or panels– I’m not sure quite if trainings is the right word– workshops, that are wonderful learning opportunities.

Um, and I think that moments like that or programs like that are a great way for the community– um, particularly the Philadelphia community, which is often so well-represented at those programs– to have these conversations that can sometimes happen just inside institutions or, um, among individuals. And so taking these to a larger public, even through opportunities like this conversation today, is really so important in building resources, and creating new resources, and reaching new communities. And so I guess with that, I’m sort of wondering if maybe we could talk a little bit more about some of these resources and opportunities.

Um, not only for institutions to kind of better this work, but also maybe just individuals who might be listening to this conversation, or people who would be interested in learning more, who are at different stages in their own, um, accessibility journey.

Katie Samson: [00:22:35] Yeah! I mean, Some of the, some of the starting blocks, I always tell people is, is try to learn the history of the Disability Rights Movement, first and foremost. Right? We don’t get a lot of it in school. We don’t get a lot of it, right! We don’t get a lot. Um, we’re not necessarily tested on it, we don’t have to write essays on it unless it’s sort of a self directed, um…

And I think what’s been so interesting, and I found in some of the research that I’ve been doing is interest based learning, now more than ever, is, is what people are very much engaged with. Especially young people. Um, and. Younger generations like, um, you know, Generation Z, and millennials, they get it. Because they’ve been dealing with inclusion for most of their lives because of the ADA, because of the IDEA, because of some of these laws that directly impacted their understanding of, uh, being welcoming and inclusive in the classroom.

Um, and so I think learning that history from the Disability Rights Movement, “Crip Camp,” the film that was put out on Netflix this past year that was produced by Michelle and Barack Obama, uh, w is a tremendous film! And it’s something that I think everyone should see. Um, and it, it tells a story from a framework that uh, recognizes that disabled bodies have a story to tell, right? And, and that story is everybody’s story. It’s a collective story.

Um, so I think, well, I think the sort of starting out point of learning the history, but also from a perspective of, um, like, knowing and understanding, you know, one in four people in America has a disability. And Philadelphia, here in Philadelphia is the highest rate of disability and the top 10 Metro cities in America and….

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:24:43] That’s right. 16% here in Philadelphia.

Katie Samson: [00:24:46] That’s right. And we could see that
change in the upcoming release of the 2020 Census, which I don’t know, any day now we’re supposed to be getting that data, who knows, um, how exactly accurate it’s going to be. But, um, I think understanding just that demographic alone. ..But also, I think it’s really important that lived experience has to, has to take its place in people’s understanding and learning.

Whether it’s a parent, a sibling, a relative, a neighbor, a community member… and that, uh, We often talk about this idea of saying something like disabled forces, like able-bodied and, um, I think, uh, Judith Human, who’s a disability rights activist, she also says this, and I really appreciate it-

By using a term like non-disabled, rather than saying able-bodied, or quote, unquote normal– because the demographics are actually highly in the favor of someone acquiring a disability at some point in their life, whether it’s temporary or permanent, whether it’s visible or invisible, and so– understanding that lived experience and building that empathy is an important aspect of the learning process.

Um, But also just the sense that, um, it shouldn’t fall on one person at one organization. It shouldn’t be the Program Coordinator. It shouldn’t be the Education Manager. It shouldn’t be the Guest Services, um, Supervisor. Disability and accessibility impacts all parts of an organization. And if you don’t think that, then you need to think about why you don’t think that. And you need to address the where’s, and the why’s, and the how’s, and the who’s, of what’s make you say what’s making you say that? And what type of learning needs to be done to expand your your capacity for, for growth and learning?

Because there are people out there with disabilities who have money to spend, they have an income, they may have a discretionary income, but they have an income. There are. So that’s your donors, right? That’s your development aspect.

There are people out there that are trying to engage, but may not be able to reach you because your website is not accessible, and you have zero image descriptions that are backing up your cool, and hip, and awesome gallery exhibition that you’ve just decided to put up on your website.

So I would question, you know, those that are not necessarily thinking along the terms of access and wanting to know where to start, questioning these ideas of, was this made with me in mind? Was this made with Aunt Agnes in mind? Was this made for my neighbor Joaquim down the street?

What are we leaving out? Who are we leaving out? And when, when are we questioning that aspect to it?

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:28:17] I think that’s such a great prompt, um, and such a great way to sort of really, turn on empathy for people. And to really have sort of this imagination exercise that goes into this questioning process. Um, some of your points about disability history, from mentioning Judith Human– who was heavily featured in “Crip Camp”– um, to these other aspects, as well as these points about empathy, really remind me of one of the key phrases of the Disability Rights Movement, or mottos or slogans, whatever we want to call it.

“Nothing about us without us.”

So, you and I have talked about this before, as well, about thinking about what, when you are maybe an institution building a program, or really trying to reach, um, the disability community, or whatever, how are you making this effort sustainable? How are you making it meaningful? How are you doing this work without tokenizing anyone?

And I think that going back to these essential points about intersectionality, again, particularly within the Philadelphia community, this can apply to any group of people, right? How are we getting input and feedback from the communities we’re trying to reach in a meaningful, welcoming way?

And I think that COVID, and being virtual, and you know, everyone working from home has definitely given people sort of a forced perspective on the importance of all of these various realms of accessibility. Um, thinking about, you know, what is the process to move about the world and the way you need to, or execute the work and the way that it has to get done?

Um, That just really opens up a whole slate of conversation, um, that I, I hope… I echo what you said, that I hope this is definitely going to be something that all of this momentum will just continue to snowball more and more and more.

Katie Samson: [00:30:23] Yeah, and I think there also is this aspect of, um, you know, not necessarily being about cultural competency, but being about cultural humility. And sort of understanding that the work is intentional.

Um, it is kind of, it’s honoring beliefs, and customs, and values, but it’s also recognizing a power imbalance, and the fact that that power and balance exists, and needs to be in some ways, dismantled. In many ways, dismantled. And also just, understanding that you can make mistakes. And you will make mistakes, and you need to go forward with those mistakes, acknowledge them and move on. Right?

I mean, I, in, in my own journey as an advocate, and a person with a disability, I sort of didn’t come at this immediately, right? And, and I acquired my disability when I was 20 years old and I’ve only lived half my life as, as a, as a disabled woman. And I think understanding that some of this advocacy didn’t come immediately to me. And it also didn’t come with great comfort and ease.

When I was first working in this field, I just sort of felt like, you know, Oh, ask the girl in the wheelchair that works here, “What should we do about this like physical accessibility situation?” Um, as you were saying, that sort of tokenization, um, I didn’t welcome it at first. And I, um, I almost kind of hid behind the historicity of museum culture, right? And the objects are just as valuable as humans, um, and if not more so, right?

And all of these things that I’m now, I go back and think to myself, like, okay, I, I definitely made some mistakes, but, but needing to sort of acknowledge it. And some of that really happened even just this past year with our, our cultural accessibility conference and recognizing that you know, a person from India who is just starting out on their, uh, advocacy and access journey, that’s doing this work, may not have the means to pay a full hundred percent cost that it takes someone who’s working in the same sector that’s located in Chicago. And, and acknowledging that we’ve made some mistakes there, and some scholarship funds were not made available for those overseas and, and things like that.

So I think it is the, the, the work that is being done to acknowledge that we’ve, we’ve really moved beyond the sense of, uh, of, of competency. Um, and. To also kind of embrace, as you were saying, this idea of building a community. It’s not just about building audiences, you’re building a community that will not only come, but sort of pay you back tenfold.

And I was just talking about this today with John Orr, our Executive Director at Art-Reach, and people tend to overuse the phrase that comes from the film of The Field of Dreams, “if you build it, they will come.” And I was sort of thinking like, we need to say something more like, “if we build it, we will come.”

So if you invite us in, if we are part of the build, we will show up and we will take notice, and when you will tell our friends. Right? And there is a, a great comfort in the disability community when things are intentionally done for them. And I think, uh, Alice Wong says this in her book, uh “Disability Visibility,” and it just, it really speaks to this, uh, notion of feeling included, um, that is just so it’s so important and so valuable.

And it, it makes everybody just feel better. And that’s, that’s what we need right now. Yeah.

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:34:38] I love that. I think that’s such a great turn of phrase and I think that sentiment, if we build it, we will come as sort of a perfect wrap up for this episode!

I can’t believe we’ve already been talking for more than half an hour! Um, I think we’ve just sort of scratched the surface on how much there is to talk about and to unpack. Um, and so I hope that our listeners and our viewers are inspired to come back for episodes two and three, which will continue this conversation with some new, some new individuals, um, expanding upon what we’ve touched on today, as well as people who will look into some of the great resources, and individuals, and films, and books, that have come up today as well.

So, Katie, I just want to thank you again, so, so much for your time, for your insights, for all of the personal and professional anecdotes you’ve shared today. Thank you.

Katie Samson: [00:35:39] You’re so welcome. This was really great. And, uh, People can definitely reach out, uh, to art reach, where we are at Um, I am And we welcome people to our upcoming conference in mid-September to really engage, and become access allies, um, in the, in the sector! And really, and really build, um, we want to make Philadelphia the most accessible city in America for arts and culture.
And, uh, And those who are listening to this podcast and in part of the Philly Artblog can really help us get there.

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:36:24] Definitely. Definitely. Well, thank you again! This has been Natalie Sandstrom for Artblog Radio. Thank you for joining me and everyone makes sure to tune back in next month for episode two, on disability history and policy!
Thank you so much.