A voice for the arts, disability and inclusion speaks at Rice

The remarkable resilience and creativity of artists with a disability was illuminated during an inspiring lecture by Rice alumna Catherine Branch Lewis ‘08 at Fondren Library Nov. 13. Lewis, a flutist who has cerebral palsy, is the founder of the Music of Difference project, a concert series with the goal of encouraging positive conversations about disability and diversity.

Catherine Branch Lewis ‘08

Catherine Branch Lewis ‘08

In her lecture, Lewis said there are different ways of approaching performance, visual and written art and disability, defined by some as “disability arts.” There is art by people with disability – for example, Stevie Wonder, who has been blind since birth, or violinist Itzhak Perlman, who contracted polio as a child. There are also issues of people with a disability’s access to the arts, and there is art based on the disability experience.

Lewis underscored her concern with a particular definition that appears to take an angry stance: “art that springs from the oppression of disabled people.” She said this definition is “a downer. It makes you feel like you’ve done something wrong and that this art is the result of an injustice.”

Lewis said she appreciates this definition: “Disability arts celebrates humanity. Impairments do not disqualify us from them (the arts). The human condition is multifaceted, and disability arts is a celebration of that difference.”

Lewis said sometimes anger is merited to make change happen; however, disability arts is “not its own thing off in a corner. Intersectionality is important,” she said. “We have to allow ourselves to let this conversation resonate with diversity – disability as diversity. Replace the term with ‘race,’ with ‘culture,’ with ‘religious affiliation’ … and think about that. We don’t want to put this conversation in the corner and segregate ourselves.”

Lewis pointed to solutions to overcoming self-segregation and fostering inclusion — for example, universal design, a design process that addresses the needs of people with disabilities. “We can make adjustments to make people feel included,” she said. “It takes some extra work, but it is possible. That’s universal design: thinking ahead, saying, ‘Who do we want to invite into this space, and how do we do it to the best of our ability?’”

Another solution involves thinking about access in artists’ tools, Lewis said. “Over the course of my life as a musician, I’ve discovered that instruments really truly can be adapted. People are building keyboards that are accommodating folks with different hands so they can play the music they want to play. Not so hard, right? It just takes a little creativity.”

A graduate of the Shepherd School of Music, Lewis currently serves as assistant director of the University of Rochester’s Center for Community Leadership and recently earned her Doctor of Music degree from the Eastman School of Music.

Upon graduating from Rice, Lewis was awarded a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to research the role of art in social activism around the world. While abroad in Australia for the fellowship in 2009, she founded the Music of Difference project, which had its premiere that year at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The Watson year was “absolutely transformative and epic in my life,” Lewis said. Two Music of Difference albums have been released and the project has been presented at venues such as Harvard University and the VSA International Disability Arts Convention in Washington, D.C.

Vice Provost and University Librarian Sara Lowman introduced Lewis at the event held in Fondren’s Kyle Morrow Room. It was a fitting homecoming for Lewis, who had been a student worker at Fondren’s circulation desk during her time at Rice. “We love to see our student workers do well and come back and visit,” Lowman said. “(Catherine) holds a unique perspective on the assets that disability imparts.”

The lecture was sponsored by the Fondren Library Accessibility Committee, chaired by government information librarian Linda Spiro and Rice’s Disability Support Services.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.