Rejecting Economic Ableist Limits

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.

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