Through art, SMFA, Student Accessibility Services asks students to show what disability means to them

Attendees of the Fall Exhibitions Opening Reception held by the Tufts University Art Gallery examine the new works on Sept. 20 2018. (Lilia Kang / The Tufts Daily)

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which recognizes the role of disability in workforce diversity in the United States. In past years, Tufts Student Accessibility Services (SAS) has organized programming around this national campaign, such as inviting speakers to campus and hosting movie screenings to raise awareness about disability on campus, according to Lindsay Costa, an academic resource advisor at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) and Kirsten Behling, the director of SAS at Tufts.

This year, SAS is partnering with the SMFA in the creation of an art show that is designed to show how disability serves as an important aspect of diversity. Titled “Disability as Diversity, ‘What does disability mean to you?'”, the art show will be on display in Tisch Library from Oct. 21 to Nov. 10, featuring the artwork of Tufts and SMFA students who identify as having a disability. 

The theme “Disability as Diversity” was chosen as a way to emphasize that a person’s disability is only one aspect of who they are, Costa and Behling, two of the primary organizers for the art show, told the Daily in a jointly-drafted email.

Behling underscored the idea that disability is something that should be celebrated, especially as the definition of disability continues to become more comprehensive and as more people identify with having one.

They both said that Tufts views the presence of students with disabilities as something that enriches the school as a whole, seeing as these students bring important new perspectives to campus.

Leah Gadd, an associate dean for undergraduate advising for Bachelor of Fine Arts students at the SMFA, has been helping to coordinate the art show as well. Gadd is a practicing sculptor and installation artist. 

“Because I have a background as an artist, I’ve been looking at the space, getting students to submit to the show, that kind of stuff,” she said. “I may also help with installation when we’re ready to get the show up in Tisch.”

Gadd said that the decision to host the event in Tisch was made based on both logistical and symbolic reasons. 

“Our exposition space here at the [SMFA] is limited, and I think it’s a nice opportunity to start connecting the campuses, to bring [to Tufts] a visual presence of the work going on over here,” she said. “We’re used to [having] shows over here and regularly showing our work, but as much as we can be physically present on [the Tufts] campus, that will help us with that transition of merging the schools.”

She added that the specific spot where the art show will take place, the long hallway that begins near the printers upstairs in Tisch, was chosen because of its central location.

“As an artist, you want as high-traffic of an area as possible when showing your work, so I think it’s a nice opportunity,” Gadd said.

Behling said the organizers of the programming intentionally chose to feature students’ artwork this year rather than bring a speaker to campus because they see value in hearing directly from Tufts and SMFA students.

“It helps to personalize the topic, and leaves a longer lasting impression,” she said.

Costa and Behling hope that the show will become an annual event, while also starting a conversation among Tufts staff, faculty and students that they would like to see continue beyond the duration of this year’s exhibit. They also maintained the importance of dispelling the notion that disabilities are flaws. 

“For too long, disability has been seen as a characteristic or part of someone that needs to be fixed. This goes back to the medical model of disability studies which suggest that if you have a disability you are somehow broken or not ‘normal,’” Behling said. “If you have a disability, it is inherently part of what makes you, you. It’s not something that needs to be corrected.”

According to Costa and Behling, the idea of using the arts to raise awareness and improve understanding about disabilities came from previous successes at different institutions. Like Gadd, they added that it highlights the recent addition of the SMFA to Tufts this past summer.

Costa believes that there are few opportunities for expressing diversity through art and that this medium can provide new points of conversation.

“Students often create pieces that highlight identity and the intersecting aspects of identity that others may experience,” she said. “This show is a great opportunity for students to showcase their artistic talent, as well as [to] show their commitment to engaging in conversations surrounding diversity and identity.”

According to Costa and Behling, the art show encourages representation from students with any form of disability. They added that SAS has seen an increase in the number of Tufts students on campus who are diagnosed with mental health and chronic health disabilities. They have also seen an increase in the number of students experiencing the after-effects of concussions, a seldom-addressed issue at the intersection of sports and mental health. They hope that some of these students who are also artists might be able to share their experiences through art.

Costa and Behling also emphasized how the show can exemplify different forms and nuances of disability itself and the different ways that students experience them, including both visible and invisible or less visible disabilities. They added that all students — from the Medford campus and the SMFA campus — are welcome to submit to the show; they are accepting two-dimensional and some small three-dimensional works until Oct. 17. 

As of Sept. 30, Costa, Behling and Gadd had already received one entry, sent in only a couple hours after having sent out the call for submissions, according to Gadd.

Costa and Behling emphasized that all students, faculty members, staff and guests are welcome to attend the show’s opening on Oct. 21 at 5:30 p.m. in Tisch Library to see the show and to take part in refreshments and conversations about disability as diversity with the Tufts community.

“[Our main goals are] an increased awareness of disability as diversity, an increased acceptance of disability as something that should be embraced … and finally and most importantly, a recognition for the amazing work that our Tufts students have done to push this initiative forward,” Behling said.

Any students who are interested in submitting a piece of art for the show can contact Lindsay Costa of the SMFA at Tufts at