Eight years ago, Rachel Dawson, now 29, could only sing two notes. Now, her vocal range spans two octaves.
She was one of the original members of Ynklude, an art troupe run by the Yukon Association for Community Living. The group brings together various artists – Dawson paints and takes photos as well as sings – who have intellectual and physical disabilities. Some members don’t have disabilities at all, said Julie Robinson, community inclusion co-ordinator for the association.
“People said, ‘Rachel can’t sing,” Robinson remembers. Dawson has an intellectual disability. She speaks in sounds, and has difficulty forming words. She sometimes uses sign language, or communicates by writing notes. But Robinson was sure Dawson could find her voice. “I said, ‘I bet she can sing.’”
She was right.
“Rachel will be rehearsing, and then like some of the best performers in the world, once she gets up on stage, she just ups her game,” said Robinson.
Ynklude, pronounced “include,” exists to help people tell their stories about having an intellectual or physical disability, or living with someone who does. There’s often not a lot of attention given to helping include people with intellectual disabilities in the “fun” parts of life, said Robinson, who has worked with the Yukon Association for Community Living for 13 years.
“People with intellectual disabilities get to watch the arts. They get the odd free ticket – because they can’t afford to go to anything – they get the free ticket and get to go and watch. They are not the people on the stage, the people watching,” said Robinson.” So, we wanted to change that. We wanted them to be on the stage, we wanted them to be informing art.”
And that’s what the troupe does – producing books, short films and holding art shows for the better part of a decade. Members have gained more confidence, said Robinson. “You watch the story unfold,” she said of the slow changes she’s seen.
The group has grown each year, and so has its audience. This year’s show on Saturday at the Old Fire Hall will premiere three short films it produced this past year. One, a music video featuring Dawson and another singer, Cheri Wilson, recently received an excellence award from the Canadian International Film Festival.
“That’s an indication for me anyway that our art stands on its own,” said Robinson. “That it’s not, ‘Oh, there’s some people with intellectual disabilities doing some art. Isn’t that cute or pretty?’ That our art is speaking to the people in rich and fabulous ways that they weren’t spoken to before.”
Shot at the Takhini Hot Springs last March, the video shows Dawson and Wilson dancing in the water in the early morning darkness. The song, “What will happen when I die?” was written by a group of mothers whose children have disabilities. “What will happen when I die/When angels take me home on high?” Wilson sings while Dawson moves freely in the water, spreading her arms out. Her smiling face contrasts with the song’s sombre message.
As the music fades, Dawson leads Wilson, who is blind, out of the pool, the steam rising around them.
It took a full day to shoot the film, said Robinson, who picked Dawson up at around 4 a.m. to drive out to the location. And while the crew shivered under their heavy coats, Dawson worked in a swimsuit.
It was just another testament to what a hard-working performer Dawson is, said Robinson.
But this weekend’s performance could be her last with Ynklude.
The program has lost its federal government funding.
The program is partly funded through the Community Inclusion Initiative. The program, administered by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, began in 1997. It is a partnership between the federal government, the Canadian Association of Community Living and People First of Canada. It supports programs that help include people with intellectual disabilities in all areas of society.
But it’s being phased out. Each year, Yukon receives $52,000 a year from the fund. This helps pay for programs like Ynklude and part of Robinson’s salary. But beginning April 1, the office will only receive 65 per cent of this. Next year, it will receive the final 35 per cent. In 2015, it won’t get any money from this fund.
The money from the Community Inclusion Initiative is being added to another pot of federal funds. This money had previously been set aside for national organizations that solely focus on disabilities. But now, any not-for-profit, including hospitals and universities, can apply for these funds to help them with projects to better accommodate people with disabilities.
This means the Yukon’s office, with its two staff members, will be competing with large organizations and their “stable full of people who do proposal writing and press releases,” said Robinson.
“We’re not going to be able to compete with those large organizations. It’s not going to happen,” she said.
Fundraising has become more like marketing now, like selling used cars, said Robinson. The government hosted a teleconference to help teach organizations new fundraising strategies.
“It’s sort of going back to the days that we had to have the cup out on the corner with the disabled child standing there looking forlorn with big eyes,” said Robinson, whose 23-year-old son has autism.
The group had secured funding for three years from the Yukon government, but that ends this year as well, said Robinson.
She doesn’t want Saturday’s show to be the group’s “swan song,” she said. She’s already started work to create an independent not-for-profit that focuses more specifically on the arts. That way, it can apply for government grants for arts initiatives. It will take some work, but “artistically, we’re ready for it,” said Robinson.
In the meantime though, the final preparations for Saturday’s show need to be made. As of Monday, Dawson still had to make one major decision for the show – what dress she’ll wear on stage.
This year’s Ynklude show will take place March 23 at the Old Fire Hall. It starts at 7 p.m. The show is free, but there will be a silent auction. Refreshments will be provided.
Contact Meagan Gillmore at