Arts & Leisure

Vergennes artist advocates for more access

VERGENNES PAINTER KEILANI Lime, shown with some of her artwork, is an advocate for making art and art spaces more accessible to people with physical disabilities. She deals with physical limitations brought on by a case of Classical Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. Independent photo/Steve James

Accessibility to public spaces and everyday items and activities is a privilege many able-bodied people take for granted. For people who live with disabilities, everyday life is made harder not only due to their disability but the lack of inclusion and accessibility for them. 

For an artist, not having the same physical abilities as most others can be rather limiting. Certain disabilities can place physical limitations on the time an artist can spend on their craft as well as on the methods they use to create their art. 

More than that, people with disabilities sometimes find that they have difficulty getting into venues where art is made or presented.

Keilani Lime, an artist in Vergennes, knows all too well about physical hurdles to making and accessing art. She is an accomplished painter and also has long dealt with a case of Classical Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. EDS, as it is often known, is a connective tissue disorder characterized by skin hyperextensibility, abnormal wound healing, and joint hypermobility, according to the National Institutes of Health. 

“The type of EDS I have is Classical EDS,” Lime said. “I can’t hold a brush for a very long time. There are certain movements that are really hard.”

As a consumer of visual and performing arts, she is also very aware of the way art can be less accessible to people with disabilities, despite the fact that laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, encourage public venues to make themselves as open as possible to people with physical limitations.

In March, Lime gave a talk at Middlebury’s Ilsley Public Library about ableism in the arts, discussing the ways in which the lack of accessibility in the art world has made it difficult for her to pursue her passions while dealing with her EDS. 

“It was kind of an Ableism 101 focusing on what it looks like in the arts,” she said. “There aren’t tools made for people with disabilities … Many (places) are usually not ADA compliant at all.”

Lime said she used to frequent a comedy club as marketing director. Over the years she started to go to the club less and less due to her EDS progressing and making it painful for her to be as active as she once was. 

She has become an advocate, encouraging more accessibility in her community, not just for arts organization but for society in general. 

She is a part of several advocacy groups, including the Planned Parenthood of Northern New England Disability Community Advisory Board. She explained that the board works “to teach healthcare professionals about ableism and what it looks like in a clinic or healthcare office.”

Lime recounted how even health care professionals can seem insensitive to some aspects of the lives of people with disabilities. In her own experience, she said, many doctors have told her, “You’re too young to have all these problems.” 

Hearing these kinds of statements over and over again from healthcare professionals can become rather traumatic, she said. Her work on the Planned Parenthood board aims to increase empathy among healthcare professionals to provide more validating care to their patients. 

Lime also is a part of the Lake Champlain Chamber Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee; and most recently the Vermont Democratic Party Disability Caucus, a group that is still in the process of becoming formalized.

With the caucus, Lime has participated in many discussions pertaining to ADA standards and the accessibility of public spaces in Vermont. Earlier this month, she and the caucus met with State Rep. Elizabeth Burrows, D/P, Montpelier, who is a member of the House Discrimination Prevention Panel.

“She has brought a bunch of bills to the table,” Lime said. “One she thinks is going to go through is making our state parks more accessible.” 

Lime explained that if this bill is passed there will be planked ramps added to walking paths. 

“If we could have more places like that in our state it would just be amazing,” she said.

Lime pointed out that there are many buildings — including many art spaces — that were not built with accessibility in mind. 

“The lack of ADA accommodations in the arts venues (in Vermont) is astonishing,” she says.

She explains that adding such accessibility features to an existing building often is not in the budget when they are converted to be an arts venue. She said many disabled people are not affluent and are often left out of the conversation. 

Locally, the Vergennes Opera House is an arts space that is currently not the most accessible for all community members. The theater and stage are located on the second floor of the Main Street building, which not only hosts many performances sponsored by the volunteer-run Friends of the Vergennes Opera House (FVOH) but also many other public and private events.

In an effort to make the building and its arts space more accessible, the FVOH, which also keeps up the maintenance of the opera house, last year kicked off the “All Access Project.” 

The goal of this project is to make the opera house a more readily accessible space for everyone. Gerianne Smart, president of FVOH, says planning and promotion of the project started about a year ago and they “hope to break ground on the project next May.”

Though the All Access Project didn’t start until 2022, it has been a long time coming. Almost a decade in fact. Smart served as the board president from 1993-2001, took a break and returned in 2013. 

Independent photo/Steve James

“The news got out that I got back involved (in 2013),” Smart recalled. “Maggie Quinn called me and said, ‘This is great, but, Gerianne, please get an elevator. We’re getting older and we can’t even get in the building to see shows.’”

For some people in the community who frequent the Opera House, it can be difficult to walk up the stairs in front of the building just to get inside, whether that be due to old age or disability or something else entirely. 

“The Vergennes opera house has been used for town meetings and other important conversations,” Smart said. “There are so many people who can’t get in there. They are shut out of the conversation. And it’s criminal. Even with Zoom now, it’s still ableist. It’s not a permanent solution.”

She explained how the All Access Project came to be. 

“We had several strategic plan meetings and every year it stays on the list,” Smart said. “We decided that now is the time. We decided to take this on and go for it.”

But the thinking went beyond giving access to audiences, and to include access to the actors, dancers and musician presenting the shows.

“The initial idea was an elevator so the public could get in there,” Smart said. “And then I sat up in middle of night about a year and a half ago and thought, if we’re saying this is an all access project, what about the stage, what about the performers. There’s no way to get them into the green room, onto the stage. And if you’re a performer you need access to both.”

She brought this up in a meeting last August and she said everyone was in agreement: “We need to figure this out.”

Not long after, they brought on Suzanne Rood, a pianist with a disability, to take part in the project. “We need her on the team,” Smart said. “Who are we to make up decisions on this as opposed to someone who deals with this every day.”

Rood’s contributions and advice on the project has been “invaluable” to its development, according to Smart. To fund the project, the group has applied for various grants including from Congress, the Vermont Arts Council, and more. They are also hoping to match their grant money with local funding.

“To get federal and state dollars you need to match it with private dollars. This summer we’re working on a raising local support,” Smart said.

If all goes according to plan, the project should be finished in fall of 2024.

Smart and the rest of the community are excited for the completion of the All Access Project. 

“We can’t wait for the town meeting of 2025,” she said. “I hope it’s jam packed, people coming on in there and it’s a real community feel like a town meeting should be.”

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