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Cultural Accessibility in Philadelphia, Part 2 – Kate Fialkowski of Temple University

Artblog contributor Natalie Sandstrom returns for part two of her three-part Artblog Radio series on the topic of Cultural Accessibility. This 33-minute episode features Katie Fialkowski, Director of Academic Programs at Temple University's Institute on Disabilities. Tune in for a lively conversation about the successes and failures of disability policy!

Natalie Sandstrom (left), a young white woman with long brown curly hair, and Kate Fialkowski (right), a middle-aged white woman with chin-length blonde curly hair and glasses.
Natalie Sandstrom (left) and Kate Fialkowski (right).

Today we’re thrilled to present part two of three-part Artblog Radio series ‘Cultural Accessibility in Philadelphia’ hosted by Natalie Sandstrom! In this episode, Natalie speaks with Professor Kate Fialkowski, Director of Academic Programs for the Institute on Disabilities at the College of Education and Human Development at Temple University. The pair expand upon part one, discussing disability policy, representation, and the importance of an inclusive reframing: from ‘access equity’ to ‘cultural equity.’

If you missed ‘Part 1 – Kate Samson of Art-Reach,’ we highly recommend giving it a listen. Natalie and Kate introduce vocabulary and key issues of accessibility as it applies to the art world, with a focus on accessible programs and the architecture of museums.

Make sure to check back soon for part three, where Natalie and three expert guests take a look back at institutional practices in order to imagine paths forward to an accessible future.

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: [00:00:12]
Hello, friends. And welcome. You are listening to Artblog Radio, recorded right here in Philadelphia.

My name is Natalie Sandstrom, and today you are joining us for episode two of Artblog Radio’s mini-series on Cultural Accessibility. Today, we are going to explore policy and bring in some disability history to help us unpack the context for cultural access today. Today, I’m recording from my home in west Philadelphia on the traditional territory of the Lenni-Lenape people past, present and future.

Again, my name’s Natalie. I use she/her pronouns. Today, I’m wearing a black, long sleeve shirt. I have brown hair. I’m a white woman. I’m sitting in front of sort of a light gray wall. And you can see the bottom half of a framed painting behind me.

Joining me today for episode two is Professor Kate Fialkowski. Kate is the Director of Academic Programs for the Institute on Disabilities at the College of Education and Human Development at Temple University. She was born in Philly and is a lifelong disabilities advocate with interests in disability identity, and disability narratives. She also teaches Disability Studies at Temple and has actually been a wonderful professor of mine in that program.

So I’m super, super excited to talk with her today and share with you all of the amazing things that she has taught me. So today we’re going to be thinking about that relationship of policy to access equity and kind of thinking about how we got here.

So hi, Kate! And welcome! Thanks for being here today.

Kate Fialkowski: [00:01:52] Hey, Natalie. Thank you so much. That was a nice introduction. So I really appreciate it. Thank you.

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:01:58] Well, you make it so easy, you know?

Kate Fialkowski: [00:02:01] So yeah, let me just introduce myself and sort of set this little zoom window in which I’m operating. As Natalie said, my name is Kate Fialkowski, I use she/her pronouns. I am a pink freckled woman with strawberry blonde hair. Very messy. I got the whole boho vibe going on today since my house humidity is like 90%.

And behind me in the frame are some disability artifacts, a number of disability books, in particular first person narratives. And just the edge of the picture above my head is a photograph of myself, and I’m going to tilt my screen up, myself and my brother, David. And I want to say, for the people who are listening, I am also a person with a strong disability identity, that is both familial as well as personal. And so for me, this is not just professional.
Thanks so much for inviting me Natalie.

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:03:03] Yeah, thank you! And thanks for adding onto that introduction. I, you know, definitely want to give you space if you’d like to talk more about that at any point. I’ll just open it up.

So I think just to kind of get us started, you know, this is episode two, we’re building upon the conversation that I had with Katie Samson of Art-Reach in episode one, which really thought about accessibility right now, we thought a lot about the impact of COVID on arts programming and just kind of these dialogues of access in the fields.

And so I think, I’m hoping that our conversation today can really take that as a jumping off point and think maybe about what some of the history that got us to this point. And what’s still to be done, what other, what other entry points are there?

So I’m going to throw out that very general question and we can kind of just play with it from there.

Kate Fialkowski: [00:04:04] Thanks. Yeah. As you know, it’s hard to say what is a starting point, right?

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:04:09] Hmm.

Kate Fialkowski: [00:04:10] And I do want to say that, one of the things that’s really important is to recognize and appreciate that our conversation here today, is a conversation that, that has started way back in time. And this is just like a, like a page in a book of a series of conversations that have been happening.

So in terms of the arts, I think, where I’d like to start is Alan Lomax. So I’m going to start in a place that’s not history, but that is the arts and culture.

So Alan Lomax, and I’m not an art expert, but I was really fascinated by the work of Alan Lomax, because Alan Lomax was a curator of folk music.

And so Alan Lomax back in the 1930s actually like went around America and tried to capture the music of different populations. Because there was sort of the music that everybody was hearing. That’s like we would say pop culture, right? So there’s common cultural music, but that cultural artifacts communities have their own, their own music, their own voice, the way that they express themselves in rhythm and instruments and song and the words of the song.

And so Alan Lomax really did an entire ethnographic research process, collecting these cultural artifacts to diversify the world of music. And so, so I want to say, like, we should start with that idea of, cultural accessibility and the history with a point where we’re starting from the idea of cultural equity.

So are we doing the work? Right? Are we doing the work, like Alan Lomax did, to go out and actively pull in these resources, collect these resources and to make these voices known. So when we think about the curatorial process, when we think about disability, and art…

I’m going to mention another resource: Wolf Wolfensberger talked about, in the art that we see on the walls in museums, what is the role of, characters in the art, this characterization of disability in the arts, right? And he termed this “deviancy juxtaposition.” Which is like so meaningful, like if you look at the characterization.

So in the curatorial process, when we are trying to curate art, what is the role, or what is the appearance of people with disabilities in, in the art? And it’s always in this deviancy juxtaposition.

So for example, a little person will be positioned next to a dog or small children, right? So everything is about where the character is and what does that mean about the character? So, I’m just kind of meandering around this idea, but I think that it’s important for us to start with, and I… what are we choosing rating and what does it mean that we curate?

And what does it mean that we have this entire field of images of a deviancy juxtaposition of people with disabilities, right? So, anyway, I want to also pause to give you a chance to jump in.

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:07:52] (Laughs) I think that’s such a great place to start. Particularly because there are so many examples that we can think of not only in visual art, but kind of across media, I mean, I think the first thing that came to mind in thinking about deviancy juxtaposition for me was old, old, old, religious art. And you’re seeing images of people being magically healed, right? Of some malady, and there is sort of this early, cure focused approach that we see in the arts that, you know, kind of sets up this thinking of the medical model of disability, which, you know, you and I have talked a lot about in class, of course, but you know, for those who may not know, when we’re thinking about models of disability models of anything, that’s sort of a way of framing something.

And so the medical model is this diagnostic, cure focused model of thinking about what is wrong with a person, what needs to be fixed with somebody. And it’s kind of reductive, right? It puts the, the issue of disability on an individual. Rather than thinking about an alternative model, which is something like a, the societal model, the social model of disability that says society is inaccessible, is the issue, and we as a community– local, global, whatever– need to take responsibility and make the world better for everyone to be in.

And I think if we’re thinking about these conversations of equity and inclusion– which are two words we hear together a lot these days, or see together a lot or find in any kind of medium– these are two things that often go hand in hand, you know? And we find this outside of visual art as well, I mean, I’m thinking about performing arts, in which there are characters, you know, like the trope of, “the blind prophet,” right?

And how many other ways and how many other spaces are we coming across these really problematic representations that are not from within the community in question?

Kate Fialkowski: [00:10:19] Right, exactly. And turning the individual into a spectacle, right? So, you know, the part of the question about art is, what is the purpose of art?

And there’s a long history that is an economic purpose of art, right? So there’s the speculative aspect, we want to make an investment, there should be a big return on investment. You know, let’s collect an elite, you know, create an elite collection. And so, you know, the Interesting aspects that will draw a crowd, become part of the spectacle. And so there’s a long history of curating work where disability is part of the spectacle from an economic aspect, right?

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:11:05] Sideshow.

Kate Fialkowski: [00:11:06] The side show, right, right.

There’s that whole history. So I think that, you know, that’s one aspect is the curatorial aspect, what are we collecting? Why are we collecting? What purpose does it serve? And how is disability representation in that? What do we see when we look at people with disabilities in the arts?

The second thing that I would say is then, the history, a history of artists with disabilities. So not just the curatorial process, but now artists with disabilities, and what role do they play? And from an equity perspective, we have the huge field of the “outsider artist,” right? The people who are not following the tradition.

So I want to mention, one artist in particular, whom I am totally infatuated with their work, the artist’s name is Judith Scott. And so Judith Scott is a tactile artist that did work based in found objects. And so they would find objects and then ensconce, entomb, wrap them in elaborate textiles and would make for small wrapped objects that could be maybe handheld and enormous objects as well.

And the, the art is really remarkable, but it’s always contextualized as outsider art, Judith Scott is a person with disabilities, and then I think because of the economic aspect and part of that spectacle of disability, like let’s kind of set this up and tell people the backstory.

So, I don’t know, I think that they’re kind of tied together. What role do we allow artists with disabilities to play? And, and how often do we kind of move them over into the outsider space, which I think sort of creates that spectacle, you know, maintains that spectacle role. I don’t know what you think.

Are you familiar with Judith? I don’t, I don’t know if we’ve ever talked about Judith Scott before.

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:13:24] I am. Yeah. I don’t think we’ve talked about her work in class, but one of the other artists who always comes to mind when I see her work is Yayoi Kusama, who of course is having such a big moment, and texturally spatially even I see a lot of similarities in their work. But of course that’s never a connection I’ve seen made, I think because we have these different almost fears of influence between a mainstream, or blue chip artist, versus a person who’s been positioned an outsider artist.

And I think that language is so telling- “outsider,” right? We’re still, we’re still using this word as a whole category. You know, it’s like when we think about folk art or craft or whatever, these are all also ways of categorizing that sort of have these effects of othering or creating these hierarchies.

Kate Fialkowski: [00:14:26] And diminishing. Right.

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:14:27] Right. That are reinforced through terminology, and I’m not sure what purpose in a contemporary setting, these still serve, other than just being able to say, like, this gallery is over here, this gallery is over here, right? In some kind of encyclopedic museum. But I think language just comes up as a big part of this relationship of the work, whether it’s visual art, performing arts, whatever, to the interpretation.

Kate Fialkowski: [00:14:58] Right. I think that that’s a… you know what you said, like what’s the purpose of the language anymore? So when we think about, the work that we have to do to make something, you know, more equitable– cultural equity– and we look at cultural equity in our institutions, you know, I think a large part of the work that we have to do is to really examine those kinds of things.

What roles are we allowing this population to play? And what language are we using to describe that work? Obviously one of the other dimensions is, how do we… How permeable– I’ll use that word– how permeable are the walls of the art institutions? So, you know, by design, art has always been about exalting, self aggrandizement of Kings, right? Elite collections.

And so historically the big institutions of art were in those same kind of buildings, right? Like Capitol buildings, large steps on the top of a hill, like the Parthenon. Right? And so when we talk about cultural equity, we’re really talking about permeable, borders and boundaries. And are we letting people in or are we maintaining elitism?

And I think that there’s a big difference between categorization of collections, you know, the curatorial process, so categorization– which we still have to be careful with, as we said– or, are we really using that as an implicit method of elitism, of, you know, restricting who is allowed in the space and, and what role can they play?

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:17:03] Hmm. Yeah,

Kate Fialkowski: [00:17:05] You know, so…

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:17:05] I think that’s a great point.

Kate Fialkowski: [00:17:07] I think a lot of what we talk about as access, is about who do we allow in. And we think about that in a physical space. But part of the question is, but what role do we allow them to play? Are they in the curated works? Are they the artists that we do curate, is this population part of the staff, is this population part of our funders? And certainly, is this population, a population that can enter the building and are welcomed in the building.

But I would say that all those proceeding things are factors of being welcomed. You know, they’re all part of the welcoming and the equity.

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:17:47] Yeah, just those sort of key points of representation. Are you going to go into a space that you don’t feel… that you feel you’re alone in, in many ways? So I think some of those points that you’ve made about who’s on staff, what needs to change, et cetera. Those are definitely some things that are going to come up in episode three of this series, which is kind of the, the “wishlist” episode for the future. So we’re doing some great foreshadowing there.

But I actually wanted to go back for one second, to another point you made, which was, you said something along the lines of, you know, these buildings on a big hill with tons of steps leading up. And even that is something that up until recently hasn’t necessarily been physically accessible.

I mean, we talk about… Mostly so far we’ve had this conversation about sort of what’s on the walls in a building who’s on stage, et cetera. But from a visitor perspective, there are these architectural barriers as well, that really go back to as recent of a history as the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, that it wasn’t until then that these buildings needed to have a ramp so that people could traverse those big, huge stairs.

I mean, even (chuckles) someplace like the PMA, right? We’ve got our local example of big old stairs. Very, very, culturally recognizable big old stairs there.

Kate Fialkowski: [00:19:16] It is, and it’s the epitome of that, you know? On the hill, right?

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:19:23] Yeah.

So just sort of some of these points that we can weave together. There’s all these layers of what access, equity, representation, means, from both an inside physical spatial way, as well as an outside, if you’re thinking about those permeable boundaries. Which I love as a phrase. So, anyway… I just wanted to hit on that. (laughs)

Kate Fialkowski: [00:19:49] Yeah, you mentioned, you know, you mentioned the ADA and I mean, gosh, like the 1990’s is a long time ago, if you think about it. But the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the passage of the Americans– you know, so all of this is like my point of view, right– so the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act was really an economic act.

So a large partial portion of what is codified is about the ability of people with disabilities to be employed- so it decreases barriers to entry to employment. And so the ADA, fundamentally in the United States, which is different than, the law in the rest of the world is the convention for the rights of persons with disabilities- the UN convention.

Our act is really an economic, has an economic focus. So, you know, so it still plays that role. Like We still fundamentally in the United States have an entrenched idea of who is allowed, where, and when we open up doors, we’re typically trying to open them up so that there’s an economic rationale to that, right? There’s an economic rationale to opening the doors.

One of the, the economic rationale is if we have special programming, we can sometimes get funding for special programming, right? But that’s not an equity perspective, that’s an economic perspective. And that’s why we need different voices to participate in the conversation.

So if we have all the same people, historically that we’re in an institution, how can you have all the same people having a new conversation? You need some new people in as well to sort of stimulate the new conversation. So anyway, you know, you think about these grand elite institutions, where the architecture has meaning, you know, the place, the space, the location, you know, the geography on the hill has meaning.

You would think we could do a better job of incorporating accessible architecture into the building instead of finding an entrance in the back in the, you know, the rear delivery parking lot, where we can put in an elevator. And so people who are using alternative mobility devices have to come in through the entrance where, you know, bulk supplies come in and out.

So again, you know, what is the impression that you get when you don’t get the experience, the TA-DA (holding hands up to gesture surprise) I mean, it’s meant to be overwhelming. It’s meant to be like looking at the face of God,

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:22:47] Right, sublime!

Kate Fialkowski: [00:22:49] Yeah! It’s supposed to be the sublime.. You are supposed to be awestruck by this experience and you really don’t get that awestruck experience crawling around in the alleyway, you know, three paces to the left of the trash can coming in the back elevator and then winding your way down the dark hallway.

So I don’t know. I just think that we’re sitting here at so far removed from the introduction of the ADA and so many amendments and changes to it, and you’d think we could… we could start, you know, being creative about our design and that that would be part of the, you know, the artistic process, the conception of space, right?

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:23:32] Hmm. Yeah. I think for me that really begs the question of what more is there to be done, whether in a policy realm or elsewhere, you know? Is policy– more policy, more, you know, legal enforcement, or new laws, or whatever– is that the way to kind of continue to make change, make improvements? Or are there other methods that should be explored more fully?

Like, how do these ecosystems kind of work together to continue, right? If we’re going to look back in another 30 years, how do we forge on down this path?

Kate Fialkowski: [00:24:14] Right. Well, so personally, I spent a lot of time on the policy side. And where I am today is, I feel that policy is always about a minimum standard. Because it always follows a litigious route. And so there’s something about it inherently that like falls to a minimum standard. And the problem with that is I think that when people feel that they’ve made the effort to make the minimum standard, they’re good, they’re done. Check that off the list.

And when we think about cultural equity, and frame it in that way, we acknowledge that we are never done. So I think that the first thing that we have to do as, you know, all institutions– academic, arts, whatever– is that there has to be a great reframing of this, from access to cultural equity. Are we allowing voices in? And do those voices, because of their participation, do we give them the power to change things?

So if your role is, you’re only allowed to come to the museum on Free Tuesday Night, your voice will never be a voice of change for that institution, right? If you are always coming just for specific programming, then you’re not really changing things.

Everything stays the same, except for that one exceptional night. So I think reframing. When we reframe to cultural equity instead of accessibility, that is not a policy statement. Now, it can be an institutional policy statement, but not a legal policy statement from the government, right?

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:26:28] Yeah, I think that differentiation between, national policy, state policy, local policy, and then an individual organizational policy, is super important to make. I think particularly when we’re talking about the arts, you know, you see a lot of museums, theaters, whatever, publishers, I guess, that have their mission statement on their website.

And in a way we can kind of think of those as a policy statement, right? Whether or not we’re using that same language. The purpose is, that declaration of purpose that we see at the start of a piece of policy. And so I think those levels are kind of an interesting way to think about change on various scales, platforms, timelines, moving forward.

Kate Fialkowski: [00:27:23] Right (nodding head).

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:27:27] Excellent. Wow. So much, so much good stuff in here. I’m just learning so many new things all the time! It’s great (laughs).

All right. So I would really kind of like to wrap up by thinking a little bit more about our current moment, right? We were recording this at the end of June in 2021. Over the past year, we’ve seen so many different kinds of changes take place, whether they are social, political movements, as well as of course, coming out of a pandemic.

And if we’re thinking about, in particular, cultural equity, you know, what can we– as individuals, as organizations, as a society– learn and leverage from some of the experiences that we’ve all had? Collectively or individually, because of course, you know, some of these have been very community-specific moments.

So, so what is a takeaway or a few takeaways that maybe we can all continue to ruminate on moving forward in your opinion?

Kate Fialkowski: [00:28:44] Yeah. You know, I really feel like… As much as things change, they stay the same. And so the questions. I just feel like the questions are the same. So during this year we made a tremendous shift moving from in-person and face-to-face to, this, you know, to and alternative media, and using that for communication.
But the questions still remain the same because, it is not true that the internet is ubiquitous, that it is ubiquitously available, right? It is not considered a utility.

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:29:30] Mm-hmm.

Kate Fialkowski: [00:29:30] And so it is not made available in that way. And so we still have so many people who are left out. So I want to go back to, I want to end maybe where we started.

Alan Lomax went into the Appalachian area, right? I mean, we still have to go out. And my concern is– and a lot of people are happy about the technology, and there’s some great things about it, but– sometimes they just become more excuses for us not doing the hard stuff. And in order to really have cultural equity, we have to go out and do the hard work.

And we have to go and meet people where they are and we have to, you know, go and spend the time and sit with people and get them engaged. And in that process, there isn’t a process of going to those people and telling them something. You’re learning, they’re learning, you know? It’s a mutual learning experience. And so we have to go in that way. That there is an exchange, a cultural exchange that’s happening.

So I guess I would say that in this moment, I see this big shift to a technology where we still have so many people who are left out. People who can’t see the screen, people who can’t read the information in the transcripts and, and people who use alternative ways of expressing themselves. So how are we going out and really soliciting the greater community in our processes?
So, anyway, I’m sort of left with a bunch of questions instead of a bunch of answers from this year.

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:31:35] I think that’s sort of ideal, right? The questions are the things that, you know, keep challenging everybody to… do better? So if we’re left with a pile of questions, that kind of sounds like a great outcome to me (laughs)

Kate Fialkowski: [00:31:51] Yeah.

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:31:53] Awesome. Well, thank you again so, so much for your time for sharing all of these brilliant thoughts, and names, and resources, all of which will be made available on the post page for this episode on Artblog’s website.

I’m going to wrap it up here. Just, again, thank you to all of our audience members, our listeners, our viewers for tuning in to this episode on art blog Artblog Radio! Thank you Kate for joining me. And everyone, I hope you make sure to tune back in for episode three, where we will consider the future and think about what more we can do to better this work. Maybe some of those questions that Kate has posted will continue to percolate for us.
So thank you again, and we’ll see you back here soon.

Kate Fialkowski: [00:32:46] Thank you! (waves goodbye) Appreciate you, Natalie. Thanks so much.

Natalie Sandstrom: [00:32:49] Thanks! (chuckles)