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Disability Access in the CR: More than Meets the Eye by Bojana Coklyat

Bojana Coklyat arrived in the Czech Republic in August 2019 as a Fulbright researcher focusing on access and visibility in the arts for people with disabilities. Coming from New York University, Bojana transitioned to the Faculty of Social Studies at Masaryk University in Brno with the ambition to examine the social and cultural life of people with disabilities in contemporary society. During her 6-month stay, Bojana visited numerous cities and towns within the country, as well as abroad.

At my NYU Department of Global Studies info session on Fulbright, I asked, “What accommodations are available for disabled people through Fulbright?”. They weren’t sure if there would be any once I got to my host country and that they hadn’t much experience with disabled grantees. One bit of information that helped me feel hopeful was that the Czech Republic Fulbright Commission had a reputation for being very involved with their grantees. Once I arrived in Brno, I found that this reputation was indeed correct. A blind woman interested in the arts surprises people in the United States and more so in the Czech Republic. I had to learn to navigate different socio-cultural approaches to disability and approach them with cultural relativism. Along the way, I learned that access is what you make of it, it’s really rooted in the relationships between people, not necessarily in a law. As I was learning this, so were the professors, artists, activists, Fulbright administrators around me. This prepared me to come back to the U.S and begin grassroots organizing centering mutual collaboration and teaching. Not every disabled person who goes through the Fulbright program will experience it similarly, but during my time, I was able to build a new network of disability allies. My presence as a grantee challenged what the typical grantee is and what resources are needed. In this way, we are opening up new ways of thinking and knowledge making.

Bojana Coklyat presents about access to art for people with disabilities. A silhouette of a women in front of the projected presentation pointing out to the drawing that says: Don´t ask me how blind I am.

One of the first museums I visited as part of my research was the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno. I was very lucky to have a PhD student studying history as my sighted guide. In the United States, many larger scale museums have sighted guides who will facilitate a verbal description of three or four items on display. Usually, this takes about an hour and it can sometimes feel like a teacher/student experience. In my case, my guide spent about two hours with me, and it felt more like a conversation with a friend. We talked about the historical context of the belongings in the museum and how it related to current events. He helped me take pictures of certain areas so that I could magnify them later. At first, my American-centric approach to museum access questioned the lack of standardized training my guide had and the other guides I would come across. In this situation and in several others, I thought to myself, “If only there was a law like the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), the museums would have standardized accommodations.” This was early on in my experience. Being back now in the U.S. and working on access in my home city, Jersey City, I realized something. No one in Jersey City has gone through standardized verbal description training and art venues don’t volunteer to have a staff person guide a blind person around an exhibit. It has started a paradigm shift leading me towards more grassroots organizing.

I was trained to independence or Western individualism as the evergreen goal in life. Interdependence was weakness or a signal that our government had failed somehow. This is a fallacy. Everyone, whether you are disabled or not, you depend on others to live your life. In my host city, Brno, I was constantly given a lot of unsolicited help. At first, I saw this all as a type of infantilization but a new acquaintance explained it differently. The social attitudes of interdependence and independence are different in a post-socialist country. People offer help much more in the Czech Republic because individualism is less valued, interdependence is more normalized. This helped me learn to connect in different ways while on my Fulbright. There wasn’t one specific social justice group working on disability and the arts in the Czech Republic. Instead, “Inclusion” was being discussed at punk venues, feminist art galleries and within gender studies classes. I was seeking out a centralized organization that would have answers for me, but instead, many different groups were incorporating it into their practices. It dawned on me that I had been organizing disability art activism incorrectly. Reaching out to government service-oriented organizations back home was getting me nowhere. I needed to redirect my outreach. So far, this has amounted to an incredible amount of momentum.

Bojana Coklyat in the arts museum in Amsterdam where she participated at a diversity conference. A head of a young woman on the left with earphones watching an art peace in the museum, the painting shows a woman powering a drink and preparing food in the medieval costume.

One extended experience with my Fulbright, which deeply impacted me, was the trust and leadership I was given regarding teaching about access and inclusion. Many of the Fulbright grantees hadn’t interacted with a blind or low vision person before. The same goes for the administrative staff. Everything and everyone were new to me and I was learning how to navigate feeling like an equal participant in all of the scheduled Fulbright activities. At first, I did not trust that my fellow grantees would absorb my advocacy for access and inclusion. The Czech Fulbright Commission and I worked together to garner more understanding around disability. We were all starting in very new territory, but by the end of our limited Fulbright experience, I knew that almost everyone was leaving with a greater understanding of disability, access and inclusion.

Beyond my Fulbright cohort, the same was true for all the people I had met. I made dear disabled friends who felt validated by my work and support of their own disability activism. Every single person I had an extended conversation with in the Czech Republic either thought about disability differently afterwards or were able to augment what they already knew. This isn’t very different from my life back home. If you are not in New York, Chicago, Los Angles or another big city, access in the arts is minimal. The laws are there, but it takes the people within the community to make access possible. Recently, I circled back around to one of my favorite disability artists, Carmen Papalia. He has been writing about “open access”, and it specifically talks about access as “rooted in relationships and trust” and that it is an ongoing process. I find it remarkable, that I experienced this kind of access for the first time in the Czech Republic. Everything wasn’t’ perfect, there very difficult times indeed, but as I went along, I felt “open access” proves happening.

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