Kathy Coleman, beyond disability

The disability-arts champion's unexpected death shocks the community. But the organization she built vows to keep building.

When Kathy Coleman had cancer many years ago, the treatments changed her body. She wanted to understand those changes, and as someone who loved to dance, she thought dance might help.  “I really wanted to explore my body,” she said in a 2014 interview with Cheryl Green.  “And I really wanted to connect with it in a way and learn about it differently.” She began taking dance classes, then joined a dance company, where one of her teachers — herself not standard dancer-size — had the unusual notion that “you didn’t all have to look the same way. [That] was really powerful to me.” 

That mind-opening experience helped inspire Coleman to found Portland’s Disability Art & Culture Project, which over the past 15 years has shown artists and audiences alike that art doesn’t have to be limited to narrow traditional notions of what is beautiful, or who can create it. It’s spawned a groundbreaking dance company, a festival dedicated to art created by people with disabilities, a leadership training project, and more. And under her leadership, DACP showed how the arts can uniquely contribute to social change.

Kathy Coleman, far right, and dancers.

Coleman, who died unexpectedly last month in Portland, left a lasting impression on Oregon artists and audiences — that rare figure who not only creates an enduring new institution, but also an enduring new perception, by expanding artists’ and audiences’ idea of what art can be. 

“She was just a force, an irreplaceable piece of Portland arts,” says Wobbly Dance co-founder Erik Ferguson.

Coleman grew up in a musical family, early on learning to play guitar, piano and then oboe. And “I always loved to dance,” she told Green, “like on the dance floor, shakin’ your booty, or like in the ‘80s when we were doing the whole New Wave jumping up and down stuff.”

After that dance company epiphany, dance ignited Coleman’s activist art. She and other Portlanders had studied with Alito Alessi’s famed Eugene-based DanceAbility organization, which has won a worldwide reputation for its work with dance and disability. But they couldn’t always find a place in Portland to create all-abilities dance. So Coleman decided to start one. 

“It was just a brewing time, with a bunch of people with disabilities saying, ‘I wanna do my artwork. And how do I do it, and where do I do it?’” she told Green, a disabled media access specialist, filmmaker, audio producer, and DACP board member. “That’s when Disability Art and Culture Project started. We really wanted to have a place to perform and to dance and to create our own work.” 

Dance did become DACP’s major initiative at first, but over the next 15 years, the project embraced other forms of art and activism, including reading groups, movie nights, a zine, and other activities revolving around disability art, activism, and culture.

Disability Pride Art and Culture Festival brings a disabled artist to Portland to perform and to work with local artists, providing local artists opportunities to forge connections and helped build community with interact with disabled artists outside Portland. That exposure to the larger world of disabled arts provides Portlanders a broader, empowering perspective. 

“People didn’t realize that disability art is international,” Coleman told Green in the podcast interview. “Some people don’t even know it exists! There’s disabled artists all over, and there’s festivals, performances, dance companies, and theater groups. It’s not something like this unique, little, ‘special’ thing that happens that some cute disabled person is doing in Portland. And we wanted to show that to people by bringing [guest artists] in and giving people opportunities to work with people and network.”

•  DACP hosts the Portland ReelAbilities Film Festival, a national festival that screens films that have a disabled protagonist at the center or are made by disabled people.

Rejecting Economic Ableist Limits (REAL) facilitates moving disabled people into social and political activism through a leadership institute and workshops. “There are a lot of people and organizations that advocate for or with disabled people,” says Heather Minton, who’s been named DACP’s interim director, “and Kathy was really passionate about creating a space where disabled people can do the work themselves, can have their own voice and agency and make political change.”

• DACP’s school programs and youth dance company give emerging artists a chance to learn to choreograph and learn dance skills and concepts. That educational emphasis filled a serious gap. “There isn’t enough out there for arts for people with disabilities to really learn a craft or to participate in arts, unless it’s in a specific disability program or impairment-focused program,” Coleman told Green in a podcast interview. 

Inclusive Arts Vibe Dance Company is the nonprofit arts organization’s best known activity — and the one “closest to her heart,” Minton says. “That’s when I saw her face light up and saw the joy more than any other venture I worked on with Kathy. It was always really important that it was a cross-ability dance company — physically disabled, intellectual disabilities, able-bodied dancers. That was what brought her the most joy.”

Coleman’s inherent inclusivity led her to establish a dance company that purposely included not just, say, wheelchair users, but instead dancers with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. Members range in age from middle school to their early 20s. Under the company’s auspices, Coleman taught dance in local schools, and the company performs regularly around the community and stages a festival every other year.

“The dance company is a great example of bringing art the community wouldn’t normally see,” Minton explains. People unfamiliar with DACP sometimes say, “‘Oh, you do art classes for disabled people!’ No, we find the artists that are already there, already making art and happen to have a disability, but haven’t had the exposure or attention they need. We provide a space and a spotlight for artists that would be harder to find in non-disabled spaces.” 

Coleman: an irrestible force.

 Broadening Worldviews

It’s also a place for people of all abilities to find fun and community — but much more, if they want it. “You could engage superficially and just enjoy the dance,” Green says, “or you could engage more deeply and see how it was about social justice.” 

IAV’s mixed abilities model, and the fact that the dancers themselves choreograph their own moves, send important messages to both the artists and audiences. 

First, the company’s work demonstrates that dance made by disabled people has its own inherent value, not to be compared to some arbitrary standard — “the idea of flaunting disabled bodies and not making it about ‘Look how close they can get to regular dancers,’” Green explains.

Second, presenting a space for that wider perspective invited a wider range of art and artists to community stages.

Third, DACP’s norm-busting philosophy offered disabled artists a broader palette.

“We wanted to expand what it meant to be an artist if you have a disability,” Coleman told Green. “It doesn’t have to be connected necessarily to your impairment or somehow getting over your disability or learning social skills. But it can be about the art itself and the creativity itself.”

Coleman with Subashini Ganesan, Portland Creative Laureate.

Expanding Audience Perspective

DACP’s perspective-broadening applied not just to artists, but also to audiences. DACP performances naturally draw family and friends of the performers and people interested in disability arts and culture. But Coleman insisted that DACP shows are “not just for disabled people or people who identify with having an impairment in any way,” she told Green. “It’s not about art therapy or recreation. It’s art, basically. So, it’s the same that would go to any other art event.”

That audience gains a much richer perspective on what artists can do and what art can be. “We get comments from our performances like, ‘Gosh, I didn’t think people could memorize that much,’ or ‘I never thought of dance that way before,’” Coleman told Green. 

When audiences are exposed to art liberated from the conventional perspective of companies that feature only a narrow range of bodies and abilities, “they see that art can be something that doesn’t have to look one way, that art doesn’t have to be able-bodied,” Coleman told Green. “There can be many ways of having art that’s based on different minds and different bodies and give a different picture of what creativity is and what art is.”

Insisting on Inclusion

Despite its multiplicity of programs, “for a long time in DACP’s history, it was kind of a one-woman show,” Minton remembered. “Only in the last few years has it had a staff. [Coleman had] been doing this work for 15 years. I’m sure she got discouraged and had low points, but she never stopped moving. She just had that unstoppable drive.” 

For all her solo efforts, though, Coleman drew support from a wide variety of artists and community members. “She had a very quiet demeanor, not effusive,” Green recalled. “Once you got to know her, you’d see that she was very thoughtful — a really engaged critical thinker” who wouldn’t accept easy answers but instead pursued the context behind whatever issue she took on. Yet she could be silly and sweet around her friends. “She laughed a lot,” Green said. 

DACP’s diverse artists and audiences stemmed from Coleman’s resistance to ghettoizing art made by people with disabilities. She insisted that projects involve a range of ages, abilities, races, genders. That included people with many different disabilities, from physical to intellectual to sensory and all the rest, as well as people without apparent disabilities.

DACP’s diversity grew out of Coleman’s inherent inclusivity. “I like to see communities of people coming together,” she told Green. “I don’t wanna see us separated. I think we have more in common than we have that’s different. I mean, our impairments might be different, but our experiences in the world are often the same. Might be different situations, but we experience a lot of similar things around not belonging, not being accepted, oppression, ableism. Those things we share. And I just think it’s powerful when we can come together as a group and not separate from each other.” 

Redefining Ability though Art

As the REAL project demonstrates, Coleman’s contributions transcend the arts, extending into the political realm, such as her work on the now defunct Portland Commission on Disability. Yet she didn’t really see a distinction between arts and politics. Along with opening opportunities for artists with disabilities, Coleman believed, DACP’s programs achieve a broader social impact beyond the art itself. 

“Disability and art are all connected to how we make our way through the world, with economic justice and racial justice and social justice and all the things that we experience day to day,” she told Green. “And a big piece of what DACP wants to do is change the perception of how people value and perceive disability in general. And I feel that art’s a really powerful way to do that.”

DACP is already proving her right. Coleman told Green that in the years since the organization’s debut, “there’s this shift. You see people talking more about the arts than actually about the impairment or the disability. And that’s the shift we wanna see. We wanna have people be seen as whoever they are. So, if they’re artists, if they’re performers, then we want them to be seen as artists and performers, not just the focus on disability.”

Seeing how powerful and valuable art created by people with disabilities can be can change how people of all abilities understand not just art, but also disability itself.

“Disability doesn’t need to be seen as a problem or as something to overcome or as something that is a terrible thing, necessarily,” Coleman explained on Green’s podcast. “I mean, there may be aspects of impairment that suck, that aren’t fun to deal with. But overall, it doesn’t mean we need to be treated differently as human beings. And that’s what I feel like DACP brings through the arts and through the social justice lens: for people to be seen just as human.”

DACP doesn’t just change artists’ and audiences’ ideas about disability. It also provides a social model that transcends art. Simply by combining dancers of various abilities onstage, IAVD makes a powerful political statement. “Disabled and non-disabled youth and adults sharing the stage equally, co-choreographing things — that’s radical,” Green said. “It’s a microcosm. Look at this huge range of people collaborating, each giving and sharing and taking from the other, learning how to work together. It’s absolutely a model.”

The multiple dimensions of dance and movement.

Lasting Impact

Much of Coleman’s impact extends beyond the institutions she created and performances they spawned. Her example inspired other artists with disabilities to expand their own artistic and social visions. “I am in her debt,” says Wobbly’s Ferguson. “My concerns were quite provincial before Kathy. Even though she is only a few years my senior, it was Kathy who really introduced me to the depths of disability and culture. Her reach was so vast, we keep thinking of people we need to check in with,” he says, reeling off names of well known Portland performers who worked with Coleman, like Meshi Chavez, Pepper Pepper, Mizu Desierto and more. “National disability arts scholars are in mourning with us. Her contribution to this community was immense and I have no clue what we are going to do without her.”

Yet even while reeling from the shock of her passing, Coleman’s colleagues vow to continue her work. Planning for next year’s Disability Pride Art and Culture Festival continues. The biennial ReelAbilities Film Festival (which alternates with the DPAC) abides, with tentative plans to make this year’s edition a tribute to Coleman. Dancers from Inclusive Arts Vibe Dance Company are striving to put together a performance that honors her, and the weekly dances will continue. 

“Kathy led a life committed to Disability Justice, equity, advocacy, and peace,” reads DACP’s official announcement. “Her incredible work with DACP spanned the arts, political activism, and community education. It is our dream to continue her vision and carry on her legacy with DACP and its programs.” 

Coleman herself clearly believed that the prospects for the movement she helped lead is bright. “Portland is gonna be the disability arts hub of the future,” she told Green in 2014. Thanks to her committed work, the many artists she touched and inspired, and her determined, inclusive, expansive vision of what art can be and who can make it, that future may already be here.

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