Talent On Tap – Wingspan – Revolutionizing Diversity in the Arts

I used to believe that music brought people together. I remember receiving a set of bongos when I turned 9. My older brother was a Beach Boys fan and knew how to play Wipeout. Once I learned it my dad would make me play it whenever he had his friends over. If we went camping (which we did a lot) he would remind me to bring them. I became pretty good at playing Wipeout and it always drew a crowd. When I turned 12, my parents bought me a small set of drums. I would beat on those skins everyday and learn as many drum beat’s as my small set was capable. 


When I turned 18 I had outgrown my drums and financed a bigger set of Tama’s.  Dreams of being a drummer in a rock band filled my head. I continued to practice and eventually joined a band. I moved to another city to start a trade and the band broke up. I joined a new band and would play when I didn’t have to work out of town. One day while working out of town, I rolled my truck and became paralyzed. Fortunately I could still use my arms but thought my drumming days were behind me… until a friend invited me to his recording studio where he had electric drums. Long story short, I sold my Tama’s and bought an electric set.  That was 25 years ago and I’m still making music with them. I’m not dreaming about the rock star life because I’m dreaming about filmmaking and writing compelling stories. I now plug my drums into my midi and create my own sound designs for my films.  


I use a wheelchair but I am no prisoner and I can still create music that some call art. I believe art is all around us. The most amazing thing however, is that despite a disability, you can continue to create it too. Art has no boundaries, there are no rules and it is universal. It has the power to bring people together despite religion, sex, age, culture and disability. I don’t enjoy being recognized as disabled, I’d rather be recognized for my personality and my contributions to art. 


If you have a disability, your art becomes your megaphone. It represents your thoughts, your creativity and your heart. Rather than feeling ostracized, you can feel embraced by society. Your indifference and disability suddenly become invisible and your art is now center stage. You’ve made the connection and you’ve rounded the corner. The world is your oyster because you didn’t let your disability keep you in chains. 


I was recently made aware of an incredibly unique Art initiative called Wingspan that brings artists with disabilities into schools for an 8-week residency. The artists range from painters to singers to comedians and storytellers. At an age where we are most impressionable, the Wingspan Residency Program introduces inclusivity, diversity and inspiration through the Arts. This is the first year of its inception but the results have been enormous. Having spoken to the creator of the program, Dr. Leslie Roman, I feel honoured to be able to share what I’ve learned. I was very fortunate to also interview 2 of the artists from the Wingspan program and have included their remarkable testimony regarding how the experience has been an equal exchange of admiration and satisfaction.       


The first artist I spoke to was David Roche. He is 75 yr.’s old and was born with a facial difference. David is a writer, inspirational humorist and actor. An incredibly talented man that loves to share stories and inspire others with his tenacity and huge heart. 


“Where am I reaching you from today David?”

“I’m in the north side of Chicago. My wife and I are originally from Chicago. I have a daughter here and it’s one of my favourite places to be. We’ve been here for 5 days and will be leaving next Tuesday back to Vancouver.”


“Are you performing while you’re in Chicago?”

“No. To be honest I’m trying to slow things down. I have a couple of gigs coming up in the fall and I want to focus my energy on writing and I still have some work to do with the Wingspan project. I’m not applying the brakes but I am switching to low gear. I’ve been an activist of all sorts for 50 years and I feel like I’ve paid my dues. I did Wingspan because I believe in it and it’s worked out very well. I’m in a place where I can do the things I want and work with the people I want. It’s a huge satisfaction.”


“At what age did you discover your love for comedy?”

“I’ve always been funny and grew up with a great family that was funny and always thought of myself as a comedian but with my facial difference I never thought I could be on stage. I wanted to learn more about comedy so I started taking comedy classes. There was this guy teaching comedy classes that said to me, don’t tell jokes, just tell the truth because that’s what’s funny. I got my first gig two months later and started doing standup at age 44.”


“What was it about comedy that made you choose it as a career?”

“I discovered that it was easy to make people laugh and that’s all I wanted. If you laughed it was good, if you didn’t laugh, not good. I toured around as a one man show for a few years until I found out that if you call yourself a keynote speaker you can get paid 4 times as much as a comedian (laughter).”


“Can you describe what it felt like to perform on stage for the first time?”

“My first gig was in San Francisco. It was basically in the back of a store and you paid $15 dollars for a glass of Champagne and a comedy show. I had a 15-minute set and when I got on stage I looked at the crowd and everyone had already drank down their glass.  They weren’t drunk but they were in a good mood. They were all looking at me with a glow in their eyes and I knew this was going to be good. After that, I was booked for a show that had a 12-week run and I’d perform one night a week. I had the practice of performing and soon I was the closer for the show. Comedy comes easy and natural; I love it. It’s amazing how addicted you can get to an audience. You want their love and adoration.”


“How do you go from doing comedy to getting involved with Wingspan?”

“A lot of what I did was storytelling. I really didn’t find my creativity until middle age and I love encouraging that in others. Storytelling is an art form that I love the most…  to do it and to hear it, especially when it’s deep from the soul. I did that for about 25 years and then Wingspan came along. It’s a residency with student’s aged 10, 11 and 12. I wanted to do it because I wish I had the same encouragement when I was that age. To have kids believe in themselves and to believe in their voice. It’s a difficult thing for them to get up in front of other people because they’re nervous but I’m committed to that. The fact that I’m facially different I’m considered to be disabled, which adds an extra charge; when I enter the room I immediately have their attention.”


“It’s quite a contrast between performing in front of a crowd and performing in front of kids. What would a typical class look like?”

“I had some experience working with high-risk kids at a high school in San Jose California. These are kids on the edge of being institutionalized. I came to find out that they’re not so interested in talking about their past life but more interested in talking about their life now, in the present. Having learned that, I apply the same principal. You let the kids know that this is a safe atmosphere and it’s encouraging. This is the best audience you will find. My first job is not to tell a story, my first job is to encourage others to tell their story. When someone gets up in front of you, you look at them with warm eyes and at the end of the story you give them appreciations. What did you like about Sophie’s story and what did you like about the way she told it? I’ll ask about her brother and then ask her to give him some dialogue. These are ways to make it physical. Show, don’t tell and pay attention to detail; it’s the same for any storyteller at any age.  Our first storyteller had seen a film I was in so I asked him to tell us a 45 second story. He had never talked in class before and told us that ‘he had autism, my parents told me I have autism, I don’t think I have autism, I think I’m allergic to ink, my parents think I’m allergic to ink… so he told that story and the class loved it. They told him he was a risk taker, that it was great that he allowed himself to be vulnerable and told the truth. After that, he wanted to tell stories all the time. That’s one example of what the Wingspan project is able to do. It’s important to give a voice to those with visible and invisible disabilities.”


“It must be incredibly gratifying to know that you are able to have a positive impact like that.”

“During the course of the residency, I actually began to doubt myself and question whether I was doing enough and what could I do differently? Criticism can be good but I felt I was over doing it. At the end of the last class, the teacher presented me with a book of letters that the kids had written to me to tell me what they had gotten out of me being there and how much they appreciated it. I started crying into the book before I was suddenly swarmed by 8 or 9 twelve year old girls yelling ‘group hug.’ It was a wonderful experience all the way and I felt really proud of myself and my talents.”


“How would you say your interaction has evolved with the students since starting the program?”

“I think it’s more about how they’ve evolved. They’ll come up to me to tell me that they have a great story they’d like to tell this week. Finding their voice and finding their creativity is what I’ve noticed has really changed.”


“How long was your residency and was it contained to one school?”

“It was suppose to be an 8 week commitment but mine stretched into 10 weeks because of when I had started.  There were 2 different classes at one school and 3 different classes at another school. I would get on the 6:20 am ferry and get to the school by 8:30. Once you get that coffee and see those kids, you get pretty jacked up.”


I could’ve talked to David Roche all day. He felt like an old friend whom I hadn’t spoken to in years. I found him to be incredibly inspiring, an artist with a huge heart and warm personality.


My next guest was Sarah Jickling. She is a singer/songwriter that lives with bipolar disorder, OCD, PTSD and anxiety disorder. Her courage and talents have allowed her to overcome many obstacles. Her songs and poetry have enabled barriers to collapse and inspire others to share their own invisible disabilities. 


“When did you first start playing an instrument?”

“I started learning piano when I was very young, around 5 yrs. old and started song writing when I was 15. I always wanted to be a poet throughout my childhood but my parents told me it wasn’t a job, so when I discovered song writing it was exciting to be putting my classical piano skills together with my love of poetry. Since then I’ve taken voice lessons and now it’s more about the singing and the lyrics and less piano. I’ve always been a very shy teenager and shy my entire life. I found that it was a great way to communicate and I didn’t feel self-conscious about releasing songs. I feel more comfortable on stage than off stage. From the age of 16 I’ve wanted to be a musician to have the opportunity to speak freely and share my ideas.”


“With your bipolar disorder, have you been able to turn it into a strength when it comes to your music?”

“I came to realize that it wasn’t realistic to not be treated for my bipolar disorder but because I had a band from the age of 16-24 it had ended because I really couldn’t function anymore. I went to my doctor and he warned me that once people begin treatment their creativity goes away. I remember saying to my doctor that I didn’t care if I ever write another song again. Amazingly enough the new album that I’ve been working on, I’ve wrote most of the songs while receiving treatment. It’s been so great for me because I thought I’d have to live a real chaotic and unpredictable life in order to write songs or have to be on medication just to stay alive and not be creative. I realized that I’d been writing poetry since I was a young kid and wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar disorder till I was 19 so I know it wasn’t the disorder that was responsible for my creativity.” 


“Can you tell me about your experience with Wingspan?”

“I’ve been involved in the Wingspan program for the last 6 months. I’ve been going to the same high school, Delview Secondary and that’s where I’ve been teaching songwriting.”


“Do you believe you could be inspiring new songwriters of the future?”

“My main goal was to teach songwriting as a coping skill but I’ve seen some really great stuff coming out of the students. My focus was to teach them to write real stories even if they didn’t share them with anyone. They’re writing them down and understanding who they are and what their story is. I would sometimes work with a visual artist, Kelsie Grazier, who has a hearing disability. It was an incredible experience to work with the disability community because I usually work with the mental health community. It’s interesting to be classified with a disability because a lot of people with mental illness wouldn’t want to be recognized with a disability and it’s very similar with the deaf world as well. Now I embrace it because of the supportive community.”


“Would you say that all disabilities have a common thread?”

“I learned a lot about different disabilities working with Wingspan especially in terms of changes we need to make. Meeting other artists with disabilities like Kelsie Grazier and Richard Harlow (blind visual artist) I realize how much we have in common; the grappling that we all do when determining our limitations especially within the mental health and deaf communities. I felt that we had similar stories in recognizing the disability and treating it. We had a lot more in common that I thought we would.”


“How did you initially get involved with Wingspan?”

“I was working with the Bipolar Research Center at UBC, which actress, Victoria Maxwell was a part of. We performed with other artists with mental illness and I did a few more shows with her over the past few years as a performer and artist. The creator of the Residency Wingspan program, Leslie Roman found me through Victoria and wanted to work with me.”


“How would you say that music has impacted your life and disability?”

“Music has definitely been a way to process. In terms of coping mechanisms, there are a lot of really good ones. I do a lot of dancing and aerial arts (pole dancing) as a coping/way to escape internal issues. Music really helps when I’m dealing with a larger issue that is harder to escape and I’ll use music to get me through the other end. This album I’m working on is about my family history of mental illness and things I couldn’t talk about that were very upsetting and gloomy. The album is called the Family Curse. Having mental illness in the family can be perceived as a curse but writing the songs about it and my childhood without telling anyone has been extremely helpful. It’s been very healing, so yes… the things that I really need to deal with, I do through my music. It’s difficult but effective.” 


“Is there a message you want to share with people through your music?”

“My biggest message that I share with the students is to take care of yourself and put yourself first… accepting yourself even if you fail. I really try to push that message because it’s what I needed to hear in high school. You can practice piano for hours and get straight A’s and scholarships but if you are too sick to go to university then none of that matters. I was a really good student but by the time I was ready for university I couldn’t even get out of bed. I always say you need to be eating, sleeping and breathing.”


 “Have other people living with mental health issues ever thanked you for your transparency?”

“Yes, it’s been amazing. I’ve had many people message me to say thank you, especially when I release a new song. The most recent song was about living with a parent with mental illness. When I was in the high school I’d even have shy girls come up to me to say thank you and that they were feeling the same way. I care about those people that are struggling with more issues than I am and that they are seen.”


“If you could describe your music in 3 words, what would they be?”

“Hmm… it’s a little difficult but I think you could say honest, melodic and pop.”


My third and final guest was the incredible and mega intelligent humanitarian, Dr. Leslie Roman. She really gave life to the much needed program and has truly shown the impact it has had. She has spearheaded the initiation of its creation and has teamed up with a cluster of other smart people at UBC that also see the potential for inspiring the youth. It has at times been an uphill battle but she has carried the torch to the top of the mountain for all to see. 


“Can you tell me how the Wingspan Program was conceived?”

“I applied for a grant with a collaborative cluster of faculty members at UBC and I’ve been the primary visionary behind the project in terms of realizing that NGO’s and disability arts are speaking to the margins when they’ve already converted. I really wanted to make a difference and bridge the gap between the work done in communities and the work done in mainstream institutions, such as schools where kids spend 6-8 hours per day. I’m an educator but I like to believe education is going on non-formally and outside of schools as well. I gathered this cluster together; they are all distinguished scholars in their own rights. I wrote the grant and we all collaborated to make this happen. I’ve been building toward this for 3 years with smaller grants. We went from ‘The Unruly Salon’ in 2005 with just myself and Geoff Mc Murchy, who’s in a wheelchair from a diving accident and became one of the founders of the disability arts’ movement in Canada. Sadly, Geoff passed away but he leaves a large legacy. He also started the Society for Disability Arts and Culture, now called Kickstart. I had put on a disability art series at UBC that involved the community at Green College and involves scholars. Wingspan is named after his dance that he did after becoming quadriplegic. That’s where I learned that head and heart together makes a big difference. You can legislate till you’re blue in the face but until they’ve had a heart winning experience as to why, you just end up fighting those battles legislatively and through the human rights commission and not necessarily getting people where they live. That’s what really got me into thinking about forming this cluster. It was very competitive and there were 84 applications. Out of that there were 27 successful applications. We were the only ones in the arts with artistic vision. The applications went to the Vice President of Research and Innovation. Our cluster sought out Carla Qualtrough to question, ‘what does accessibility and inclusion mean to you? Honorable Carla Qualtrough is both a Delta MP and our Federal Minister of Public Services Procurement and Accessibility. Her office has been very supportive.”


“Has she seen the Wingspan program at work?”

“Yes and we’re trying to grow it.  I made a 1 hour presentation for her last Thursday and she was very impressed.”


“Has Bill C-81 passed yet?”

“It did pass and it’s now law. It’s now called the Accessible Canada Act: An Act to Ensure a Barrier-free Canada. Carla Qualtrough led the National Accessibility Consultation.  I went to her consultation and was very inspired by her rapport with people in Vancouver. I was very moved by the respectful way she treated people and felt like she was the real deal. She had gotten youth involved with disabilities and they went off doing youth leadership. I was generally impressed so I wrote the original cluster grant. I then got the idea to put artists in residency in 4 schools, which quickly became 6 schools and later 7 schools with assemblies. We impacted approx. 3000 students and it’s been a very effective approach to grounding ideas of inclusion and accessibility. You’ve got to win over people that want to prevent barriers; not tear them down after they’ve been established. It also gives education a different way of thinking outside the box.”


“Why did you choose the Arts rather than other conventional occupations?       

“Because Arts are a provocateur of conscience and imagination. People think outside the box with the arts, they win over peoples’ conscience, they prefigure another way of doing things and before you know it we’re not talking about walls that separate people but commonalities that bring them together. Once you see that someone is challenging the stereotypes through the arts then you realize the bigger scale and potential of other artists getting involved, such as a blind photographer or a deaf contemporary artist, etc. The arts move people.”   


“I know that the goal is to establish this program nationwide. How is the progress?”

“We’re at the stage where we got to pitch it to various national groups. We have partners onboard and at this point it’s about getting more grants to put it forward. Because education is run provincially and the jurisdiction for doing things is provincial and education, federal funding does not go directly to the schools, rather the province is the jurisdiction that control funding. It’s been left to municipalities and provinces to decide. Ours is a true battle between heart and mind but we’ve had very successful good experiences with getting the message across to high-level cabinet members, so we’ll see what happens.”


Dr. Leslie Roman also told me that they’ve funded/produced some amazing short films that showcase some of the disabled artists involved in Wingspan. I’ve already looked at a couple of them and they are very impactful. I highly suggest the sensational short film Metamorphosis about Deaf mime performer Max Fomitchev. It’s incredible and is directed by S. Miko Burns.  Here is the link. https://wingspan.educ.ubc.ca/gallery/


“I see that you have made some mini-documentaries.”

“Yes, we have.”


“How did you finance the films?”

“With the cluster funds received from the grants.  We’d love to make a film on one of our registered artists Richard Harlow who’s a blind painter in our Artists in Residency at Ladner Elementary School. It’s a very poignant story to tell. At 20 years of age Richard was on route to become an animation artist at Emily Carr when he began to lose his central field of vision. They misdiagnosed him and thought it was MS. It took them several months later to realize that it was an extremely rare hereditary eye disease and he had 6-9 months of vision left. The father of a German friend/student purchased Richard airline tickets to travel to Germany and Paris to see as much art as possible before losing his vision. It inspired him to keep painting and keep creating art. He started using textured paint to create universally accessible art. He has a bit of vision left and has really rebuilt his career to become a well-known artist. He paints in ways that are accessible with the point of view that honors universal design.”   


Richard Harlow, Artist-in-Residence is pictured above while working with students at Ladner Elementary School. 


Wingspan is an incredible program with the power to impact our youth for a more inclusive and diverse future. This story reminds me of the movie Field of Dreams. Dr. Leslie Roman has built it, with the help of other UBC faculty members and now the artists are coming to a school near you. The potential is global and the outcome is magical. It is my hope that Wingspan becomes a permanent curriculum in schools everywhere so that we can all appreciate the arts and the connections they make.  

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