How Artists Helped Propel Chicago’s Disability Rights Movement

Chicago has been at the forefront of disability rights activism, largely due to the resistance efforts of its creative community. An exhibition at Gallery 400 explores this overlooked history.

In 1978, the Illinois Capital Development Board published a guide to setting design standards so public buildings and spaces would be barrier-free for disabled persons. Accessibility Standards, Illustrated outlined requirements such as accessible entrances, curb ramps, minimal hallway widths, and other architectural codes that are ubiquitous today. Put into effect 12 years before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, the guide was an early testament to the disability rights movement stirring in Illinois.

A major driving force behind its publication was the Chicago architect Jack Catlin, who worked closely with government figures to develop these accessibility standards. Catlin, who uses a wheelchair, is currently a partner at LCM Architects, and he exemplifies the role artists have played in pushing for disability rights and access in Chicago over the last four decades.

This history has largely been overlooked. Seeking to remedy that is Chicago Disability Activism, Arts, and Design: 1970s to Today, an exhibition at University of Illinois at Chicago’s Gallery 400 that spotlights key figures in the disability arts movement. The material spans from records of Catlin’s early advocacy, including Accessibility Standards, Illustrated, to works by local contemporary artists like Dawoud Bey and Sky Cubacub who embrace an intersectional understanding of disability. The show also spotlights a wide variety of media, from abstract sculptures by Terrence Karpowicz, who uses a prosthetic leg, to a sound piece about navigating the CTA by Andy Slater, a blind artist.

“We want to make clear how short the history of disability culture is, because the ‘70s is not so long ago,” says Lorelei Stewart, the gallery’s director. “And that this work is not necessarily as widely recognized as it could be.” She adds that the exhibition represents an ongoing research project, as many narratives remain in the dark. “We feel the work is not complete,” she says. “What we are presenting is what we are able to do at this point. We are asking people to come with contributions for what is missing.”

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