Grants Celebrate Disability Culture
Poets & Writers Magazine|January - February 2021
In October, twenty disabled artists were announced as the first class of Disability Futures Fellows and received grants of $50,000 each, to be used in whatever way is most useful in supporting their work.
By M. Leona Godin

The new fellowships celebrate disability culture by honoring accomplished practitioners in a wide variety of fields, including writing, theater, dance, architecture, painting, and garment making. Developed by the Ford Foundation in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the initiative is administered by United States Artists, a national arts funding organization in Chicago.

The awards are part of ongoing research conducted by, for, and with disabled practitioners to understand what they want and need from such fellowships, from accessible applications to flexible funds disbursal, because for many disabled artists a monetary award can too easily turn into a punishment. “I will die without my benefits; I get my health insurance through Medicare,” says fellow Riva Lehrer, a painter and the author of Golem Girl (One World, 2020). Full-time employment that offers health benefits can be difficult to maintain for many disabled people for whom hospital stays are more frequent, and eligibility for federal health care benefits is often affected by fluctuations in income. “People need to understand that if getting an award means that you lose your basic benefits and especially your health care, then you’re in much worse shape than otherwise,” says Lehrer.

“That’s something that we had to learn,” says Margaret Morton, director of the Creativity and Free Expression team of the Ford Foundation. “In that research and that work with disabled practitioners, we were able to gain a sense from their perspective of how they wanted to engage.” Individualized attention to the needs of each fellow is key, especially in terms of funds disbursal—some recipients opted to take their award over the course of several years to avoid jeopardizing life-supporting federal funds. The structure of the award is still being revised, and Morton believes it will continue on a two-year basis rather than an annual one.

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