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Daniella Mazzio Believes The Arts Should Be Accessible For Everyone

Written by on June 22, 2023

Daniella Mazzio is a writer, performer, advocate, and communications and accessibility consultant. Through working with institutions around the city, Mazzio hopes to make the arts more inclusive and accessible for everyone.

Growing up taking trips from her home in the west suburbs to see Chicago’s theatrical performances, Daniella Mazzio (she/they) always had a goal to end up in the Windy City. This came to fruition when she attended DePaul University for college, where she graduated with a BFA in theater arts and a minor in digital cinema. In the years since, Mazzio has explored various roles within the city’s arts communities, including around theater, film, comedy and producing a DIY variety show.

“I feel like I’ve worn many different hats, and they’ve all kind of circled the humanities and kind of cultural work.” Mazzio said. 

Daniella Mazzio hopes to bring more accessibility to Chicago’s arts scene. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

When Mazzio first became cognisant of the vast realm of arts accessibility, it broadened her understanding of the diverse range of disabilities and the need for accommodating different accessibility requirements. She became passionate about ensuring cultural events and artistic experiences are accessible to people with disabilities.

“When I started working [in] cultural accessibility, that really opened my eyes to a whole new form of experience and realizing how many artistic experiences are not very accessible if you have disabilities of any range,” she said. “And … learning a person with a disability isn’t strictly someone in a wheelchair, or someone who’s elderly.”

In all aspects of cultural innovation, Mazzio finds inspiration in the unconventional approaches often taken by Chicago individuals and communities, whether it’s DIY art, grassroots movements or the freedom to pursue creative endeavors outside traditional industry norms. Currently, Mazzio is actively seeking opportunities to work with nonprofits and mission-based organizations. One such collaboration is with Plant Chicago, an environmental group that not only addresses sustainability and decarbonization but also fosters connections with the Back of the Yards community.

For this segment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Daniella Mazzio discusses her work, her advocacy for inclusivity and accessibility in the arts and her insights on universal design. Additionally, she talks about the unique spirit and inventive nature of Chicago as a city that fosters growth and creativity.

Introduce yourself, and describe your work in a few words.

I’m Daniella Mazzio. I’m a writer, performer, advocate and communications and accessibility consultant. And this is what Chicago sounds like. 

Where are you from?

I’m originally from the west suburbs, but I always used to come into the city with my parents. We would go to theater, and I fell in love with it when I was a kid and always knew that I wanted to end up here. Out of all the cities, I was like, “Chicago is gonna be it.” I moved here about a decade ago for college, I went to DePaul University. And I’ve been here ever since. 

“Chicago is such a place for growth and such a place for invention,” Mazzio says. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

What do you do?

I feel like I’ve worn many different hats, and they’ve all kind of circled the humanities and kind of cultural work. I originally went to school for theater and a minor in film. I kind of came out of it deciding that I didn’t want to do strict theater, like just go the traditional pathway, try to get arts administration or directing jobs. I knew I loved performing, and towards the end of college, I actually started to do comedy, which I’d always loved growing up. My dad had me watch all the Carlin and the Richard Pryor and the Mitch Hedberg and [I] was doing stand-up and musical comedy for a while and ended up producing a variety show with a couple of friends from college. And that was great, I loved doing that variety show. It had a very DIY nature, we were in many different shapes and forms. And we would host the show in my apartment, in a couple of apartments that I was in. 

That was just an amazing way to kind of figure out, how do you bring people in? How do you still make it really feel like a show? Me and my co-producers, it was always really important to us for it to not feel like this hierarchy of, “You’re in the audience and that person’s on stage.” And, “You’re paying them to perform for you, but they also are a higher status than you,” whatever. And so, the cool thing when we have the house show is that we basically had an after party, where the performers were meeting the audience, and sometimes their friends were there, but sometimes not. Even though it was only a couple of years, I just feel like that’s really informed what I’ve wanted to do since. 

I worked at the Chicago Humanities Festival for about three years. I really cut my teeth on that. And while I was there, I got really into accessibility, making sure that your events or your cultural occasion is accessible to people with disabilities, which has led to a lot of other opportunities. I have dealt with mental illness for a good portion of my life, I have some chronic illness. When I started working cultural accessibility, that really opened my eyes to a whole new form of experience and realizing how many artistic experiences are not very accessible if you have disabilities of any range. And just learning a person with a disability isn’t strictly someone in a wheelchair, or someone who’s elderly. It’s just a whole range of things: visible, invisible, sometimes accessible accommodations are in conflict with each other. 

I’ve been learning about that and really immersing myself in that. I had a fellowship with Disability Lead, which was an excellent opportunity to really network with people and own a disability identity and get to meet other people with disabilities. A term that is used a lot in architecture is universal design, which is this idea, for instance, this happens in museums that are trying to be accessible. So when they’re curating their exhibit, they follow the practices of universal design, which is like, “Where is the height where anyone, if they’re in a wheelchair, if they’re a child, if they’re an adult, if they’re tall, what is the the height where everyone is going to be able to access this? Or how do you design this so that, at any entry point, whatever you need, you’re accommodated?” That concept has some debate in the disability community, but I like the principle of, in a truly accessible world, when we’re talking about disability access, what would happen is that it wouldn’t be that you need to disclose you have a disability and that you need to ask for accommodation. You would just be able to move through the world. 

This is so hard in the arts space, because it’s a question of budget. You know, arts organizations, nonprofits … that can sometimes be a challenge. In an ideal world, instead of thinking how to tailor to each specific disability or each accommodation, it’s really like, “What is going to be an access point for everyone?” My former colleague, who got me into cultural accessibility, always used to say, “It needs to be baked into everything.” It’s not something you add on top, you really need to build everything with accessibility in mind.

Originally from the western suburbs, Mazzio moved to the city for college nearly a decade ago. Now, Mazzio hopes to make a difference in the city’s arts and culture communities. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

You mentioned you’re a writer. What do you write?

I’ve always been really passionate about film, specifically with film and TV. I was really raised that way. When I went to college, my favorite classes were the really niche media studies classes. What I really loved about that is you’re not just reviewing the work or analyzing the work, but you’re analyzing it in context … with the people who are engaging with it, who are watching it. And that has really been the kind of way I like to write about film and TV. I am really interested in not eliminating an audience perspective. Sometimes you look at a movie, and you’re just exclusively thinking of the director or the writer’s intention. You’re looking at what they did cinematically, you’re looking at, the writing structure, what they’re trying to say, etc. 

Currently, I’m self-publishing. I’m just happy to write, I love writing and I love the challenge of writing and just trying to hold myself to a schedule. I’m really excited to be building out writing more and to be working with nonprofits and mission-based groups. One of them is Plant Chicago on the Southwest Side. They’re an amazing group of folks who are doing not just environmental work for sustainability, decarbonisation, addressing kind of the consequences of climate, but they’re also really connecting with their neighbors in Back Of The Yards. I love working with them and kind of bringing my expertise from other areas, whether planning fundraisers, or helping with their communications. 

What neighborhood do you live in?

I currently live in West Town, pretty close to Ukrainian Village. Been here, I think this is four years now, or starting the fourth year. I live here with my fiancé and our two cats. At first we were like, “It’s a nice neighborhood, it’s accessible to downtown, it’s accessible to some of the arterial buses.” Then we just started realizing that we have so many local spots that are starting to feel like our spots. I love Chicago so much, there’s a spirit to this city that just is really special. And there’s such a current of invention that folks who really don’t feel like they necessarily have to go by the book, they don’t feel like they have to wear one hat and just do what you’re supposed to do in whatever industry they’re interested in. 

They are really … it’s such a cliche, but they march to the beat of their own drum, whether it’s DIY art that’s happening, or it is the movement-building that happens in Chicago. And people who are passionate about people, and how much, whatever I end up doing, whether it’s going back to comedy and being in the different comedy venues. Or being a filmmaker and really establishing a practice in the city, outside of the Hollywood system or outside of New York production. Chicago is such a place for growth and such a place for invention.

“It’s not something you add on top, you really need to build everything with accessibility in mind,” Mazzio notes. Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio.

Keep up with Daniella Mazzio via Substack.

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia

Introduction written by Omi Salisbury and Morgan Ciocca

Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

Photography by Ari Mejia, edited by Omi Salisbury

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