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Disability Studies scholar at Virginia Tech is empowering disabled artists to tell their own stories

A woman wearing glasses and a purple blazer gazes into the camera.
Julian Grey
Elizabeth McLain is an Instructor of Musicology and the interim co-director of the Disability Studies minor at Virginia Tech.

The work of disabled artists and musicians doesn’t always get a spotlight. A music and creativity scholar at Virginia Tech, who is disabled herself, is hoping to change that.

Elizabeth McLain grew up in Alleghany County, on the Western edge of Virginia. She has autism and mobility issues, but when she was a student at Virginia Tech, she didn’t always feel comfortable identifying as a person with a disability.

“I didn’t even want to register with the disability office for stuff that I should have,” McLain said “Professors had to talk to me over and over again to get me to do it. And when I eventually did I didn’t want to use my accommodations.”

Now, McLain co-directs Virginia Tech’s disability studies minor, and teaches a number of courses about creativity, music, and the intersection between arts and technology. She’s on a team working on a project called CripTech, to showcase the art of disabled artists.

She didn’t come up with the name, but says “crip” is a reference to a slur, “crippled”.

Some people within the disability community now use the word “crip” as an act of reclaiming their identity.

“Within disability studies it has become this shorthand for I don’t just have a disability, but I identify as disabled,” McLain said.

CripTech was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to select a team of six disabled artists.

One of them is Andy Slater, a sound designer and composer who lives outside Chicago and is blind.

He creates soundscapes and recordings for virtual reality experiences and video games, and he’s performed all over the world.

He said most virtual reality experiences are focused on visual, rather than sound. The work he does is different.

“Especially being created by a blind person, you know that’s kind of unique,” Slater said. “And I want more and more experiences like this for my community.”

The work he made for the CripTech project is called “Unseen sound.” It’s a physical exhibit up now in Irvine, California, and eventually it will also be online for public access.

In it, you navigate through a world made of sound.

“You just experience the sounds, and navigate from one spot to the next,” Slater said. “Or just get totally immersed in a particular scene where all these sounds move.”

Slater used synthesizers to compose many of these sounds. He also recorded real noises, like these HVAC systems. In one section you can hear the sounds of someone using sandpaper on wood. In another, are the clicking beats from an echolocation device.

On a screen, people can also see captions that describe the sounds. Slater said as an artist, he tries to be whimsical and creative with captions.

For example, in the section with the sandpaper, he says “A splintering wooden railing needs attention. But even three layers of sandpaper won’t make it smooth.”

In the part with the HVAC systems, he writes “each using more power than the next. Time here is slower. Inside each vent hides a copper-made copperhead.” He said captions can be playful, and kids often are the best at writing them.

“You know, with my art people might find it fun, whether they can see, or hear, or not,” Slater said.

In part of the piece, you hear, and see, the words “Access Buffering/ Access Denied.”

Slater knows what it’s like to be shut out, because of his disability. When he was in the third grade, he arrived at school excited for a fieldtrip to the planetarium. But moments before they left, his teachers pulled him aside and told him he wasn’t allowed to attend, because they didn’t have a guide to help him. This was the 80s, before laws were passed that gave disabled students more rights to an equal education.

Even with better laws, artists today still have extra obstacles getting their work out there, says McLain.

“A lot of time stages aren’t accessible even when the seating is for the audience,” McLain said.

She said galleries or music venues sometimes have misconceptions about hiring disabled artists, often because it feels like too much work to accommodate them.

“We’re hoping this contributes to folks doing work to bust all of those myths,” McLain said. “To break it open. To show that not only is this art worth it, and these artists are worth supporting, but there’s something about it that is different than a non-disabled perspective.”

The CripTech installation is on display in California through January. By the end of 2024, it will also be online to view and hear. The CripTech archive will also include interviews with the artists, to teach people about their creative processes.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.