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As I began my work as the accessibility coordinator for the 2017 Folklife Festival, I noted that the concepts of acceptance, inclusivity, and possibility were deeply ingrained in the fabric of the featured programs, Circus Arts and On the Move: Migration Across Generations—concepts that align directly with the core tenets of accessibility.
True accessibility happens when it is part of structural and programmatic design from the beginning—rather than an add-on or afterthought. The process involves the “basics” of scheduling and supporting services such as American Sign Language interpretation, real-time captioning, and audio description. It requires working closely with the operations and technical teams to account for the wide range of abilities of visitors as they design and build our site. It entails educating staff and volunteers so they will know how to answer questions when they arise.
However, beyond the tangible elements, accessibility is about making sure everyone knows they are welcome and have belonging and “membership” within a community—in this case, the community of the Festival. Through this work, we strive to create a mindset that elevates the idea of accessibility to move past mere accommodation and into inclusion. This includes extending an invitation to the disability community through direct outreach and making sure that accessibility information is included in all public resources. The message of inclusion continues onsite through signage, staff and volunteer support, and program design that not only outlines available resources but sends a clear message that everyone is part of our community.
Even as we support a vision of total inclusion, we recognize that special programming can extend a welcome to those who might initially hesitate to attend the Festival. Specialized experiences can potentially provide a safe space for individuals and families to engage, and perhaps even a transition into the main Festival programming. Two special programs for this year’s Festival included “Circus of the Senses” and “Morning at the Mall.”
“Circus of the Senses” is a program created by the Big Apple Circus, providing a multidimensional experience for those who are blind/low-vision, D/deaf or hard-of hearing, or have cognitive/developmental disabilities. Under the Festival’s Big Top, they worked with Circus Juventas for their Wonderland performance to feature ASL interpretation and live audio description; Big Apple founders Paul Binder and Michael Christensen’s description not only provided a visual play-by-play of the show but also explained elements of circus performance. Afterward, Juventas performers and Festival staff welcomed visitors into the ring for a “touch tour”: experiencing costumes and props through tactile exploration.
Hosted annually in partnership with the Smithsonian Accessibility Program, “Morning at the Mall” presents a sensory-friendly experience for individuals with autism, sensory sensitivities, or other cognitive disabilities who may benefit from a more relaxed environment and pre-visit materials. This year, we welcomed thirty-eight families to see performances and try out crafts and circus skills such as juggling.
At the core of this event is an invitation for individuals to simply be—no matter if they need extra time or space, a different way to engage, or the freedom to respond verbally or physically in their own way. Families expressed gratitude for this supportive atmosphere, and many Festival participants said it allowed them to connect more deeply with visitors and find a common ground of exploration and celebration.
Both specialized programs and the provision of accessibility services can create entry points for those who might not traditionally attend certain cultural events—assuming “that’s not for me” or “that’s not my community.” As I researched this year’s Festival participants, I found that many expressed how their art had helped them find their own sense of belonging within a community—a community that welcomed them for their authentic self, while valuing and validating their individual voice.
These sentiments parallel our ongoing commitment to accessibility and inclusion within the Festival, ultimately making sure that the invitation to join the story we create is extended to all.
Diane Nutting is the accessibility coordinator for the 2017 Folklife Festival. Her work at the intersections of disability, arts, and education includes nearly twenty-five years of collaboration with a wide range of cultural arts organizations to develop and support accessibility and creative empowerment for students, patrons, staff, and artists of all abilities.
Lorenzo Dow Turner took this image while doing research in the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia between 1931 and 1933.
Seated across from the medium, eyes closed, my hands in hers, I listen as she prays for a healing white light to fill me, for the spirits and guardian angels always surrounding me to share their guidance.
I am anxious and skeptical about this encounter. Will my reading consist of sweeping generalities applicable to anyone? Is this for real? The medium releases my hands and sits back in her chair. When she begins to describe the swirl taking place in my brain, I am amazed.
“You go over every word in your mind before you put it down,” says the medium, the Rev. Arlene Sikora, 70. “You just want it just so, and you want your people to feel what you’re feeling, and you want them to see what you’re seeing.”
I’ve come to see Sikora and write about Cassadaga on assignment from Orlando, where I live an hour’s drive away. For many, this Central Florida hamlet represents not a destination but a guidepost. Cassadaga is considered the oldest active religious community in the Southeast, its few dozen century-old cottages home to some 200 mediums and Spiritualists who share a Christian belief in eternal life but who also believe they can communicate with the spirits through readings and séances. Visitors come here because they are curious. They hope to reconnect with deceased loved ones or seek physical or emotional healing.
Spiritualism has only 500,000 followers in the United States today, but when Cassadaga was established in the 1890s the faith was common. In Cleveland, Ohio, for instance, most congregations were Spiritualist, says Phillip Lucas, a professor of religious studies at Stetson University in nearby DeLand specializing in new and minority religions. It was an era when to some, science seemed out to undermine faith, and Spiritualism sought to provide scientific evidence of eternal life through the contact mediums made during readings and séances.
During one séance in Iowa in the 1870s, a man named George Colby was told he would establish a Spiritualist community in the South. A spirit guide named Seneca led him to Cassadaga’s current lakeside location where underground rock alignments generate magnetics and harmonics that benefit the mind and body, says the Rev. Ben Cox, pastor of Colby Memorial Temple, a Spiritualist congregation that can draw 150 people on Sundays, half of them visitors. A few years later a group of wealthy women from New York’s Lily Dale Spiritualist community, which sits on the brim of Lake Cassadaga, approached Colby about creating a wintertime Spiritualist community in the South.
Image by Travel Division Images / Alamy. The few dozen century-old cottages in Cassadaga are home to some 200 mediums and Spiritualists. (original image)
Image by AP Images. Rev. Arlene Sikora, now 70, has been a medium since she was 28. (original image)
Image by Bill Bachmann / Alamy. Today, Cassadaga is the nation's only year-round Spiritualist community. (original image)
Today, Cassadaga is the nation's only year-round Spiritualist community. Through the years the town endured friction with local Baptist churches but experienced a renaissance during the 1960s with the popularity of New Age influences. Cassadaga still looks much as it did a century ago, its cottages mingled among moss-draped trees. Colby Memorial Temple dates to 1923 and Cassadaga Hotel to 1927.
Locals talk of the spirits as though they were neighbors. Visitors attend Sunday services and sign up for readings and healings at the town's bookstore, where message services are led by mediums and student mediums who connect with the spirits and deliver their messages to congregants. Mediums also still perform séances.
Regina Sprague, 32, arrived in Cassadaga from Palm Coast an hour away hoping to reconnect with her dad, who died suddenly. During a message service a spirit advises her through a medium that she should get ready for a journey. Afterward Sprague is emotional. She believes the spirit is a grandmother whom she never knew, but for whom she is named and always has considered a guardian angel. She feels shaken but reassured, she says.
Cassadaga is still a “very significant spiritual center in the American South, where alternative religions are not as accepted and respected as they are in other parts of the country,” says Lucas, co-author of Cassadaga: The South’s Oldest Spiritualist Community. So it's sort of a metaphysical mecca in Central Florida. People who are not satisfied with conventional Christianity are very much drawn to a place like Cassadaga."
Sikora has been a medium since she was 28. As a child she saw her deceased grandmother at the foot of her bed every night, she tells me after my reading. Her parents told her she was dreaming, and she tried to put it out of her mind until she discovered Spiritualism as an adult through a friend. Medium work is draining, she says. It can be exhausting knowing everyone's business, and she makes a point of forgetting everything after each reading. She gathers her information from an individual’s spirits and her own spirit guides, as well as from an individual's aura and the earth vibrations he or she exudes.
During my reading Sikora describes my interests and family with surprising detail, and I leave wondering whether she really did connect with my deceased grandmothers. She is no fortune-teller, though. Mostly she discusses who I am, not who I will become. Was it for real? I don't know. But sometimes this is all the direction one needs.