“Disabled folks have been artists forever. The problem is, we are underrepresented," said Elizabeth McLain, instructor of musicology in the Virginia Tech College of Architecture, Arts, and Design, co-director of disability studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and postdoctoral associate with the Academy for Transdisciplinary Studies.

McLain is working with a team from Ground Works, a2ru’s award-winning online platform for outstanding arts-inclusive interdisciplinary research, to amplify the voices of disabled artists through a digital archive called Reco(r)ding CripTech.

Reco(r)ding CripTech documents the processes of five disabled artists in residence with the Leonardo CripTech Incubator, art-and-technology residencies supported by the not-for-profit think tank that focus on disability innovation and aesthetic access. The open access archive will include artifacts of the artists’ processes such as digitized notes, journals, and sketches as well as recorded reflections, social media posts, correspondence, meeting minutes, and grant applications.

“There is a significant technology component to the project, but there is also a political and ideological angle. The artists are working on things like disability justice, disability rights, and a political understanding of what disability is,” said McLain.

Documenting the creative process from start to finish has the potential to elevate the voices of disabled artists and also impact art education.

“Pedagogically, I need more material to share with my students. I teach the Disability Culture in the Arts course at Virginia Tech. Showing them the process, not just the product, is a chance for the artists to tell their stories,” said McLain. “On another side, we have a lot of artists who have disabilities, and our training is not set up for them, so this is going to provide a model for arts education.”

For McLain, this project is about more than academic interests. It’s personal. As an autistic person who has chronic health conditions and mobility disabilities, McLain said most of her lived experience centers around figuring out the logistics of getting from one point to another. However, she emphasizes that disability should not be viewed as something to overcome, an over-reaching theme of the CripTech project.

“Disability is not a tragedy, like people may think. We have our own culture, and we have a community waiting to pass on what they’ve learned. Most of the things that give me joy are tied up in this community, and this project has far-reaching potential just in terms of acknowledging that disability is a basic, fundamental experience that’s wonderful,” said McLain. “Centering disabled voices and letting them tell their stories resists disturbing narratives about overcoming disability that tend to permeate media.”

Reco(r)ding CripTech began in 2021. The project was awarded a Digital Justice Seed Grant in 2022, and in August 2023, the Ground Works team received a Digital Humanities Advancement Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities that will the team to complete the project.

McLain is collaborating with Veronica Stanich from a2r, Platform Developer and Co-Director Daragh Byrne from Carnegie Mellon University, Digital Accessibility Consultant Luke Kudryashov from the University of Minnesota, and Digital Library Consultant Rikk Mulligan from the University Libraries of Carnegie Mellon University.

The artists in the CripTech Incubator displayed their projects at the Beall Center for Art and Technology in Irvine, California, on Sept. 30. The digital archive should be complete by the end of next year.

Written by Lindsey Byars