Celebrating Human Abilities at Aquarium of the Pacific

By Christina Elston

special needs - festival of human abilities

Wheelchair artist Tommy Hollenstein will teach a popular workshop on wheelchair painting, often convincing reluctant participants to give it a try. PHOTO COURTESY AQUARIUM OF THE PACIFIC

What does a celebration of the artistic talents of people with disabilities have to do with taking care of the world’s oceans? Plenty, says Peter Martineau, marketing events manager at Aquarium of the Pacific, which will host its 14th annual Festival of Human Abilities this month.

“The aquarium has always wanted to include as many people from as many backgrounds as possible,” says Martineau, pointing out that the aquarium’s mission of inclusiveness features celebrations of cultures from around the world. “A lot of it is just getting people to connect with each other,” he says. “It’s going to take a world community to take care of the oceans.”

At this year’s Festival of Human Abilities, open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Jan. 28 and 29, there will be a host of exhibits, performances and workshops featuring the talents of people with disabilities of all sorts. Asked to name some highlights, Martineau jokes, “It’s hard to pick a favorite.” He does, however, offer a few highlights.

Among the festival’s musical performers will be Kodi Lee, a young man who has autism and is blind, but plays the keyboard and sings. “He’s got the voice of an angel,” Martineau says. “Everybody’s attracted to him because of his energy.”

special needs - festival of human abilities

Kodi Lee is blind and has autism, but he plays music and sings with “the voice of an angel,” and will showcase his talents at the festival. PHOTO COURTESY AQUARIUM OF THE PACIFIC

Also singing will be Auti Angel, a pioneer in wheelchair dance. And a sign-language choir and three wheelchair dance groups will perform.

Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center will be one of many groups with art on display, and their artists will demonstrate the mouth-painting technique used by some quadriplegic artists.

The festival also features arts workshops for people of all abilities – many of them led by people with disabilities. These include a decorative hat-painting workshop taught by Michael Seale, Jr., who has cerebral palsy, which Martineau says is one of the festival’s most popular.

And Tommy Hollenstein, who paints with his motorized wheelchair, will teach his popular painting workshops. “He gives this personalized attention and care,” says Martineau, adding Hollenstein often wins over reluctant participants who planned to “just watch.” “After half an hour I’ll see them coming out with a piece of artwork and a smile a mile wide,” he says.

special needs - festival of human abilities

Auti Angel, a pioneer in the field of wheelchair dance, will be one of many performers at the festival. PHOTO COURTESY AQUARIUM OF THE PACIFIC

There will also be service-animal demonstrations, wheelchair dance classes, and an American Sign Language class taught by the sign language choir.

The festival also features the awarding of the Glenn McIntyre Heritage Award – named after the late Glenn McIntyre, who founded the festival. This year it goes to Andrew Skinner, who suffered a spinal cord injury in 2004 and, as a recovering quadriplegic, launched the Triumph Foundation. He has dedicated himself to inspiring those with spinal cord injuries to keep moving forward, and the award honors his work in the disability community.

On any given day, the Aquarium of the Pacific is an inclusive place, with wheelchair access and free wheelchair rentals, touch-oriented audio tours for blind visitors, scripts of presentations for the deaf and free sign-language interpretation with advance request.

The festival ramps things up a bit with sign-language interpreters at all shows, an assistance-dog relief area and access to extra elevators. “Our staff is there on the lookout to do everything we can to make the festival as accessible as possible,” Martineau says.

One of the most powerful things that happens at the festival, though, is the mingling and meeting of people with and without disabilities. “It’s all about bridging that gap of understanding,” says Martineau. “And to be inspired by the artists and performers, of course.” The idea is that when we understand that we are, first and foremost, all human beings, we can come together to create a powerful force – one powerful enough to protect our oceans.

Learn more about the Festival of Human Abilities at www.aquariumofpacific.org.

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