The Program on Disability Art, Culture, and Humanities at UIC’s Department of Disability and Human Development

In 2009, Associate Professor Carrie Sandahl founded the Program on Disability Art, Culture, and Humanities (PDACH) at UIC’s Department of Disability and Human Development (DHD). PDACH is a creative research lab for faculty and students to study, support, and create art and culture that explores the disability experience.

Image of Associate Professor Carrie Sandahl

Among her other classes, Dr. Sandahl teaches a large, undergraduate course, “Disability in American Film” that surveys how mainstream cinema both reflects and creates popular understanding of what it means to be disabled in the United States. She contrasts mainstream representations with the disability community’s self-representations that create a very different, complex portrait from the inside out. Dr. Sandahl and her graduate students have taught thousands of students about disability through the arts.

Related to this course is the recently completed feature-length documentary film Code of the Freaks (2020) currently touring the independent film festival circuit and represented by the distributor Kino Lorber. This film was made in collaboration with Chicago novelist Susan Nussbaum, feminist documentary filmmaker Salome Chasnoff, and disability studies scholar and DHD Assistant Professor, Dr. Alyson Patsavas, with PDACH students participating as research assistants. The finished film is the culmination of an ongoing educational endeavor that has engaged with thousands of people at UIC, nationally, and internationally through works-in-project screenings, artist talks, and exhibitions. The research and development period of this project included community salons in which audiences discussed disability film montages organized around themes in diverse Chicago locations, including churches, arts organizations, disability service organizations, theaters.

PDACH also serves as the administrative home of Chicago’s Bodies of Work (BOW), a Chicago area organization that supports the development of disability arts and culture, through festivals, advocacy, and an artist residency program. Dr. Sandahl directs BOW and, along with her students, collaborates with community partners to produce up to thirty events per year. Students learn about creating accessible events for both audiences and artists. Included in mix are several annual events produced in collaboration with, among others, Access Living, Chicago’s Center for Independent Living: Counterbalance, a dance concert that includes people with and without disabilities; Outtakes, a disability culture cabaret; and Dance to the Music, an inclusive music concert/party. The Bodies of Work team is currently planning a city-wide, international disability art and culture festival for the summer of 2021.

UIC students, primarily from DHD and Museum and Exhibition Studies participate in Bodies of Work as arts administrators, artists, and scholars. A central activity is the 3Arts Residency Fellowship at UIC, which is a project funded since 2015 by the non-profit grant-making organization 3Arts. Each year, up to four disabled Chicago artists work with Dr. Sandahl and her students on customized residencies that surround the artists with support in their professional development. The artists serve as guests in the graduate seminar “Disability and Culture,” receive mentoring from Dr. Sandahl, and engage with students and the general public through artist talks or workshops. Projects developed in this program have been presented by prestigious arts organizations such as Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, and The Poetry Foundation.

Dr. Sandahl continues to publish research in academic journals and speaks nationally and internationally on disability identity in live performance and film.

Muscular, middle-aged, bald, white man in bright red, long-sleeve shirt and black shorts in profile in a black box theatre. He is in his wheelchair, seated backwards, with his hands on the backrest of his wheelchair. He is gazing up.
Kris Lenzo performing Journeyman, choreographed
by Sarah Cullen-Fuller for the 3Arts Residency Fellowship at UIC
Photo credit: Lisa Green
Storyteller, Michael Herzovi sitting in his wheelchair looking at students in a lecture hall. The students are not visible. He is middle-aged, white hair and beard. Professor Carrie Sandahl, a middle-aged white woman, sits in the background, in a chair at the lecture podium, with her hand on her chin smiling at Michael’s performance. A white male American Sign Language Interpreter sits near Michael.
Storyteller Michael Herzovi performing an excerpt of his one-man show for UIC students. Student engagement for the 3Arts Residency Fellowship at UIC.
Photo credit: Maggie Bridger
A recreation of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s1939 painting “Las dos Fridas.” Two women of color, Reveca Torres and Mariam Pare, are seated in their power wheelchairs side by side. The women are holding hands. Their faces are made up to resemble Frida Kahlo, including her iconic dark eyebrows. The woman on the left is wearing a white Tehuana dress and the woman on the right is wearing a blue and red dress contemporary to the time. Both women’s hearts are visible, and connected to one another by an artery. The woman on the left’s heart is torn open, and she is holding surgical pincers to staunch the blood dripping on her dress.
A recreation of Frida Kahlo’s “Las dos Fridas.” A collaboration between Reveca Torres, Mariam Pare, and Tara Ahern. One of a series of mixed-media images for Torres’ for 3Arts Residency Fellowship at UIC.

Dr. Sandahl’s Projects:

Samples of Current Student work:

Disability Cultural Center at UIC:
Dr. Sandahl spearheaded the campus committee that put together the mission, vision, and values of the center, and co-chaired the hiring committee for the new Director. The Disability Cultural Center is one of a handful of like organizations on US campuses devoted to disability culture apart from services. Our Disability Resource Center provides services related to access and accommodation requests. This separation of mission and functions allows us to promote the social model of disability and incubate disability arts and culture, including activism, advocacy, support, and a sense of belonging