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Visually impaired Utah students push for accessibility in the arts

Laura Seitz, KSL

Visually impaired Utah students push for accessibility in the arts

By Lauren Bennett, KSL | Posted - Feb. 17, 2019 at 9:08 p.m.


9 photos

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SALT LAKE CITY — Mykol Clark, a high school student from St. George, loves to attend the theater and watch plays. But she is visually impaired, something that makes enjoying plays difficult if theaters don't offer accommodations.

Mykol and 14 other visually impaired students are learning how to address setbacks like this at Accessible Arts Academy, a program for visually impaired students statewide offered through Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind.

"It's helped me learn how to advocate for not just me, but the visually impaired community and the blind," she said. "It's helped me learn how much us blind people really need accessibility with the arts and how important it really is to us."

Mykol sent emails to a local theater in St. George about using audio description, a technology used to help the visually impaired better enjoy visual shows, and hoped to hear back soon.

"How can you participate in it as a person with a vision impairment, and if you can't or you find barriers because of accessibility, well then how can we provide solutions instead of just identifying problems?" asked Robbin Clark, expanded core curriculum coordinator for the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind.

"We want to teach students to find solutions because problems don't create change, solutions create change."

The three-week educational program is aimed at teaching visually impaired students about the arts and how to work with communities they live in to make arts more accessible to everyone.

"This isn't an extracurricular activity, this is part of the education needs of students with vision impairments," Clark said.

Saturday, the final day of the program, students attended the only "Wicked" performance offering audio description at the Eccles Theater in downtown Salt Lake City.

From dancing to painting, the group's had a lot of chances to explore the arts and find what interests them.

Hannah Hart, a student at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, creates a musical piece at Spy Hop in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 15, 2019. (Photo: Laura Seitz, KSL)
Hannah Hart, a student at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, creates a musical piece at Spy Hop in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 15, 2019. (Photo: Laura Seitz, KSL)

On Thursday, students were at Spy Hop, a Salt Lake nonprofit youth media arts education center and one of the school's community partners, for the pilot program.

"I'd love to see a bunch of these kids become audio engineers and become beat makers," said Adam Sherlock, community program director for Spy Hop. "I think that it's great."

Staff taught students how to use Ableton Push, a beat making software.

"There's something really tactile about this where you can utilize that surface without ever having to actually read anything on the screen," Sherlock said.

The push boards light up when a button is pushed so the user can track progress. For those with low vision, this isn't helpful, so Spy Hop's audio instructor came up with the idea to use a grid inspired by the Battleship board game to help the students navigate the board.

"All of a sudden it became really, really accessible for these kids to make this stuff, which is really what we want to see at the end of the day," he said.

Using terms like "turn on B-3" was a good way to get the students familiar with the board, he said. Braille stickers were also placed on the buttons for students to create their own personalized shortcuts, according to Sherlock.

Students created their own original pieces with the push boards.


It's helped me learn how to advocate for not just me, but the visually impaired community and the blind.

–Mykol Clark


"It's been fantastic," he said. "These kids, they're all so creative."

One reason the school partners with organizations, according to Clark, is to expose people to the visually impaired community.

"People get to see the ability before the disability," she said.

Hannah Hart, a visually impaired student from Gunnison, said she enjoyed learning about tools that help visually impaired people better enjoy the arts.

"Because we can do anything — a bunch of sighted people think we can't — but we can do anything," she said. "There's more technology coming out in the world for visually impaired people to do stuff too."

As part of the program, students were able to video chat with Blessing Offor, a musician who is blind and a former contestant on Season 7 of NBC's "The Voice," for a mentoring session — something Casey Reyes, from Murray, said inspired him to pursue his dream of a career in music.

"He's helped me want to actually try and do it," Casey said. "Because this thought of music in the back of my mind was just that — in the back of my mind. But it's helped me really want to go and strive toward it."

Casey is a senior in high school and plans to study music in college. Having the chance to hear from a visually impaired musician inspired him.

"And it's just great to hear the insight and perspective of a visually impaired person, what I want to be essentially," he said.

Since being on the show, Offor, now based out of Nashville, is a career musician and has released two albums. He said he loves being able to give time to kids in any way he can.

"Because when I was a kid, I decided on music pretty early and I was obnoxious about just hounding anybody I could to, you know, teach me something," he said. "For me, it's really about paying it forward."

Eli Sackett, a student at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, plays guitar in a studio at Spy Hop in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 15, 2019. Sackett is visually impaired and wears two cochlear implants to help him hear. (Photo: Laura Seitz, KSL)
Eli Sackett, a student at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, plays guitar in a studio at Spy Hop in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 15, 2019. Sackett is visually impaired and wears two cochlear implants to help him hear. (Photo: Laura Seitz, KSL)

Casey said Offor recommended starting small and playing gigs anywhere available, something he said he will do to launch his career in music.

"I didn't know about trying to establish myself in my local community," he said. "But Blessing kind of opened my eyes, so to speak, to doing that and just a bunch of other great advice."

Offor said he's happy the mentoring session made a difference to Casey.

"I love hearing that," he said. "If that helped him and is going to continue helping him, then awesome and that's all we want."

Being a blind musician isn't all that different from being a sighted musician, Offor noted.

"More than anything, what I think I always hope to do is to communicate that what makes them similar to the next guy who's out playing music who isn't blind, there's more similarity than difference," he said. "My worries and my concerns are 94 percent the same as the next guy."

He also emphasized the importance of focusing on the music.

"More than thinking of themselves as a blind musician, just be a great musician and your skill set will take you further than anything else," he said.

For the students, they had a message for anyone who doubts their abilities: "It's not about what we can see it's about what we do."

Photos

Lauren Bennett

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