Seven poets and writers are among the twenty recipients of this year’s Disability Futures Fellowship, which comes with a $50,000 grant for each fellow. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon and Ford foundations and administered by United States Artists, the initiative supports the work of disabled writers, filmmakers, and artists across the United States—the only national, multidisciplinary award for creative practitioners with disabilities.
The 2022 Disability Futures fellows include JJJJJerome Ellis, a poet and composer from Norfolk, Virginia; Tee Franklin, a screenwriter and artist from New Jersey; Kenny Fries, a writer from Kauneonga Lake, New York, and Berlin; Camisha L. Jones, a poet from Herndon, Virginia; Wendy Lu, a journalist in New York City; Naomi Ortiz, a poet, writer, and visual artist from Tucson; and poet and writer Khadijah Queen. Other fellows include a choreographer, a historian, and a music producer, as well as other artists and activists.
“Created out of conversation, collaboration, and care, Disability Futures offers a chance to honor and learn from generations of artists,” Emil J. Kang, the Mellon Foundation’s arts and culture program director, said in a press release. “It’s wonderful to announce that this community just grew larger.”
Launched in 2020 with an inaugural class of twenty fellows, the Disability Futures Fellowship aims to address the marginalization of disabled artists, who often face discrimination and struggle financially due to healthcare costs and other expenses that can limit access to cultural spaces. The fellowship was the culmination of a yearlong research project spearheaded by the Ford Foundation and conducted by United States Artists, which interviewed dozens of disabled makers about their experiences, needs, and professional goals.
Feedback from the first cohort of fellows has already led to some changes in the Disabilities Futures Fellowship program. Applications are no longer required, for example, a move meant to eliminate a barrier to entry. Potential fellows are nominated, with finalists selected by a panel and confirmed by an advisory council of disabled creative practitioners.
Fellows are free to use the $50,000 grants as they see fit, a benefit that uniquely empowers recipients: “[A] bit of financial freedom (money with no strings attached) goes a long way,” Christine Sun Kim, an artist and 2020 Disability Futures fellow, said in a press release.
In an article on the fellowship in the January/February 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine—“Grants Celebrate Disability Culture”—DeafBlind poet, essayist, and translator John Lee Clark praised the fellowships as a significant step toward fully embracing disabled writers and artists in the cultural sphere. Initially conceived as a two-year initiative, Disability Futures last summer announced an expanded commitment of five years.
“I think that the critical mass factor is key,” Clark told disabled writer M. Leona Godin. “Now we have twenty disabled artists as the recipients of what is the rough equivalent of winning a Guggenheim. That is quite a message.”