Original article written by David Menzies, published by The Jersey Journal on 7/22/20. CLICK HERE to read the full article.
For artist Bojana Coklyat, the virtual JC ADA 30 Festival is both a culmination of years of encouraging local arts organizations to be in accordance with the accessibility accommodations put forth by the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) – along with what she hopes is a new beginning for wider accessibility and awareness of discrimination against the disabled throughout Jersey City.
Organized with the assistance of Kimberly Gardener, a McNair grad and senior at Howard University, all five events of the festival are free and accessible online. Go to https://www.eventbrite.com/e/113442216724e for a rundown and links.
The majority of the events are in conjunction with a local Jersey City arts organization.
In an interview Sunday, Coklyat talked about how the 30th anniversary of the passing of the ADA presented her with an opportunity.
“I’m a disability activist, and I had seen that there were things being planned in New York City and Philadelphia and surrounding areas,” Coklyat said. “I’ve grown up in Jersey City. I’ve been very involved in the art community here. When I started losing my vision about, now, 13, 14 years ago, increasingly I started to feel separate from the art community. I then began to try to advocate for more access in Jersey City.
“It’s been incredibly difficult. I’ve reached out to everyone you can possibly imagine, and I kind of had given up for a little while.”
The JC ADA 30 Festival could be a lightning rod event, Coklyat said of her thought process with it.
“People can really get behind the 30th anniversary of a really important civil rights bill. And maybe what I can do is to make it more of an arts-centered kind of festival, which oftentimes people don’t associate disability with a fun art-centered type of festival that includes theater, film-screenings and art discussions on disability justice and activism.”
Coklyat reached out to people she’s known for years in the arts community.
“Everybody was so immediately supportive – organizations like Art House Productions, Golden Door Film Festival, Jersey City Theater Center (JCTC),” Coklyat said. “I really decided to go super grassroots, and just focus on the artists and the people I knew and kind of try not to stress myself out with trying to reach out to local government.
“... There’s such a huge problem with quality of life in Jersey City that hasn’t been necessarily improved by anything that’s been going in the last five to 10 years.”
Quality of life issues disproportionately affect those who are disenfranchised from structural advantages, and Coklyat echoed the phrase “the invisible minority” when describing discrimination against the disabled.
According to a 2011 study from the Institute on Disability, “If people with disabilities were a formally recognized minority group, at 19% of the population, they would be the largest minority group in the United States.”
According to the CDC, just behind Native Americans (who make up less than two percent of the population), of whom three out of 10 adults have a disability, are Black Americans, at one out of four. It’s one out of five for white Americans, but the number of white Americans overall was roughly six times the number of Black Americans as counted in the last Census (2010).
“We constantly talk about the diversity in Jersey City and how vibrant the arts are, but to a certain degree, I feel like it’s on the surface,” Coklyat said. “I mean, obviously Jersey City is so diverse but I don’t see that reflected in the arts.
A common pop culture fixture, Coklyat said that the only way people generally think about disability in Jersey City is in inspirational tales of disabled people overcoming their disability. Coklyat is no stranger to this, and has sometimes wondered if past media stories about her being a blind artist have taken the angle of what she’s accomplished despite being blind – rather than as an artist in general.
“That’s the (general) story (in Jersey City) – that people have of disability,” Coklyat said. “They’re not necessarily looking at disability as a civil rights issue, the lack of access as a human rights issue. I have talked to Hudson County and Jersey City Cultural Affairs about this, and there hasn’t been any progress on it. And the thing is, you can talk to the various cultural leaders in Jersey City and the three things they have told is me are that: there isn’t enough money, disabled people don’t come to events, and they don’t know how to make things accessible.
“All of those things can be pretty valid, but when we start to really dig into them, I think, why? Well, here’s just such a lack of education leadership and such a lack of education. And why is that when we have Hudson County Cultural Affairs and they provide local arts programs (LAP) grants every year? I’ve been on the panel for four or five years, and there’s absolutely no oversight. None.”
Coklyat goes to city art events and finds herself in venues where she notes, “This one doesn’t have stairs, this one doesn’t have a ramp.”
“They’re not using the money from their LAP grant for sign language interpretation,” Coklyat said. “What are they using it for? And I bring this up to Cultural Affairs, and they’re like, ‘Maybe you can do something about that, Bojana.' And I’m like, ‘What? Am I getting paid? Do I have a job?' I’m one advocate in a city, and at the time I was getting my masters, and I went off to the Czech Republic and, holy smokes let me you, they don’t have the ADA, and they’re doing about as much as they’re doing in Jersey City to make things accessible.
Coklyat found herself wondering if the ADA matters at all if there’s no federal funding involved. Art institutional juggernauts like MOMA get federal funding and are therefore required to make sure their programs and spaces are accessible to those with disabilities, Coklyat said.
Organizations like MOMA also get a lot of money from private donors. Commercial facilities in general are still required to meet the accessibility guidelines as much is as “readily achievable,” with there seeming to be some taking into account the difficulty and expense for that organization. But “readily achievable” still necessitates some effort.
“Other spaces, others arts organizations in Jersey City – they don’t get federal funding,” Coklyat said. “So they say it’s an undue burden to have to make things accessible, which is really just a lazy answer.
“There’s nobody holding them accountable, and it should either be Hudson County Cultural Affairs (who are) doling out these grants that they give to these organizations or potentially Jersey City Cultural Affairs.”
Coklyat said she’s not joking when she says that ultimately she’s the only oversight. It’s only her “going to these arts organizations and going, ‘Wait a minute. You said you consulted St. Joseph’s School for the Blind. I work at St. Joseph’s School for the Blind. Who did you talk to?’ And I find out, people are not telling the truth on these grants. And you know, I have addressed this with the Hudson County Cultural Affairs, and then I went to the local ADA office to talk to them. They don’t do anything. They give you resources.”
Coklyat contacted Disability Rights NJ, an advocacy group for disabled people based in Trenton, and said it took three weeks to get in touch with someone, and when she did, they said they didn’t have the staff to help with this issue.
A message left requesting a comment Tuesday to Disability Rights NJ, who noted on their voice mail message that during the pandemic they’re working remotely Monday through Thursday, was not returned.
Two months ago, a local filmmaker expressed dismay with how challenging it would be get to get a therapist if she wasn’t in the state university she attends. “But if it wasn’t for that, I feel it’s really depressing to think that you have to be on a waiting list here in Jersey City – ‘cause with most of the hospitals or facilities it’s depending on your insurance situation – for a long time,” she said.
That may seem unrelated, but the lack of accessibility to help for those without insurance, if only in their own combination of relative wealth and physical ability, is similar.
The intention of the JC ADA 30 festival is to “reconfigure the future of the arts in Jersey City in a way that engages truly everyone,” and Boklyat is really excited about that prospect.
Today, July 22, through Zoom, anyone can attend the panel discussion “Deconstructing Disability " from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Eastern Time. Disabled artists will explore the concept of “Disability Art,” how disability informs an artist’s work, and damaging stereotypes. Zoom link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83527694151?pwd=UUZWVDE3ajE3NEFpVW9JcnlCWm52Zz09)t”?
Tomorrow, July 23, JCTC will present the panel discussion “Disability Justice: New Frameworks for Organizing Access in Jersey City” from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets link: www.jctcenter.org.
As noted in the “JC ADA 30 Festival” press release: “Events will include ASL, captioning, audio description and clear instructions on how to participate. Please contact Bojana at Bojanacoklyat@gmail.com for other accommodation requests or additional questions.”