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Ableism 101: Why does this matter?

For this month's Pedagogy Happy Hour, I'll be joining my friend and colleague, disability advocate Vicki Singer to discuss ableism in the private voice studio. But why should this matter to you if you don't currently have any clients with physical disabilities? It matters a lot, friends. Maybe more than you might initially realize.

Most of us, I'll venture a guess, don't have many clients with physical disabilities. And if you do, you've likely done some work to help make your lessons more accessible for them. However, what if we designed our spaces and our pedagogy in such a way that clients knew they would be welcomed before they even needed to discuss any accommodations? What if we could make our recitals accessible for every parent, grandparent, family member, and friend so they knew ahead of time they would be able to attend without worrying or asking for accommodations? This is the goal of accessible studios: to lower the barriers to entry, so that from the first moment a potential client even reads about you on your website or hears about you from a friend, they will know it's possible to work with you, and, more importantly, to thrive in your studio.

Ableism can be sneaky. I know I never have the intent to discriminate against someone with a physical disability. I would do whatever I can to make my space welcoming to anyone that had a need for accommodation. Yet, by only addressing the situation after the fact, I may be perpetuating ableism without intending to, because I may be inadvertently leaving barriers in place that could make working with me harder than necessary.

These are some questions I've been thinking through:

  • What do clients see when they visit my website? Do I have any kind of language that indicates I have a welcoming space? Are there pictures with diverse types of bodies? (Current answer: No, but I've got a plan to change.)

  • Do my policies communicate a welcoming culture for all types of clients? (Watch this video from Dr. Shannon Coates about inclusive cancellation policies for neurodivergent folks. Very challenging thoughts!)

  • Do my marketing and socials communicate inclusion and accommodation? Can I "say" that without explicitly saying it, by word choice and a diversity of images? (Also no to this, but now that I'm aware I can make steps toward change.)

  • Is my physical studio space able to accommodate someone with a physical disability? This one is very hard, because you may not be in a place where you can change our physical spaces, particularly if you rent your space, or if you teach from your home. You may not want to remodel your physical studio space to accommodate wheelchairs or may not have the budget to do so. If that's the case, then what is the best plan for working with a potential client? (My answer to this is maybe, since I am planning to remain mostly online for the foreseeable future. But I still need to do some serious thinking through all of that.)

These types of questions have helped me to recognize that I unintentionally leave out the invitation for folks with different kinds of disabilities to contact me for their voice study. There are certain things I can think of that I can change right now, and will start to talk about them with you in the next few weeks, but also there are things that I'm going to need to either get some help with, or come up with alternate plans. I believe that doing the work ahead of time, even before I need to think of this, will help me to be a more inclusive teacher and pedagogue. And that's why I think knowing what ableism is can be incredibly important to explore, even before it's needed.

This matters because if we want to see a diversity of bodies on stages, we first must get them into our studios. Every type of body deserves the chance to make their voice heard, and we have the opportunity to be the first doorway to allow that to happen for singers with physical disabilities. Beyond that, every human being deserves the right to sing. And they deserve the chance to see someone just like them on stage. Representation matters, and therefore accessibility matters. It is our great privilege to open our studios to singers who have the passion to sing and invite them in. Addressing ableism helps us to widen that invitation to people who we might have unwittingly excluded before.

I hope you will consider joining me and Vicki for our conversation this week. Registration is $25 and open to any voice teacher or voice student who would like to engage in this important work. You can register by clicking this link: Ableism 101 Registration

Photos by lucas souza and Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels.

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