human abilities

Straight Up Ability Dancers perform at a previous Festival of Human Abilities at the Aquarium of the Pacific.

In a time of social stress, the Aquarium of the Pacific is offering a joyful celebration. This Saturday, Jan. 30, the aquarium will host its 18th annual Festival of Human Abilities.

This free virtual event, which runs from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., features a variety of performances by talented artists with disabilities. All programming will have closed captioning for viewers and sign language interpretation for those who are deaf.

The show will have a few pre-recorded videos, but most of the festival will be filmed and streamed live from the aquarium. Using COVID-19 safety protocols, the artists will perform against a beautiful backdrop of swimming fish.

In the words of Peter Martineau, aquarium marketing events manager, this event is “a chance to be uplifted by the creative and innovative power of the human spirit to overcome great obstacles. At a time when it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by darkness, this festival is a beacon of light, a boost of inspiration and courage.”

Auti Angel, who pioneered the hip-hop wheelchair dance movement, says she is excited to make her 18th festival appearance. She described it as a one-of-a-kind event, emphasizing the empowerment of people from all walks of life, regardless of physical abilities.

“We are humans first,” Angel said. “We are also able to lift each other up as performers through differences and the gift that comes along with being a human who never gives up on our dreams as performers.”

“Life has challenges, but you can overcome them,” said Charles Whitehead, who plays keyboard from his wheelchair in the band Per Se. Whitehead said the aquarium’s festival proves that talent is not limited by conditions or illnesses.

Zendrea Mitchell, an American Sign Language (ASL) instructor and song signer, expressed similar sentiments. Mitchell said the festival allows individuals with disabilities to celebrate and showcase their abilities and offers an opportunity for children and families to “see other individuals like themselves.”

The Festival of Human Abilities is usually interactive, with a variety of activities and presentations for attendees to enjoy. Crowds usually flock to the aquarium’s tanks to watch adaptive diving demonstrations by Diveheart, an Illinois-based nonprofit that provides scuba and scuba therapy to individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities. Diveheart is an annual participant and a previous winner of the aquarium’s Heritage Award, but this year Diveheart’s presentation will be taped.

Robin Olive plans to inspire participation when she takes the stage. Olive, the director of Straight Up Abilities, and two of her long-time students, Marcia Landeros and John Tucker, will teach viewers a simple line dance, set to a current hip song. After the dance lesson, Zendrea Mitchell will join the group and guide viewers in an ASL signing of Louis Armstrong’s "What A Wonderful World." Olive said the festival is “a great time to celebrate what we CAN do.”

Martineau said he will miss the magic of gathering together in person this year, but he is excited to offer a virtual format that can be seen around the world.

“Our hope is that we will reach new audiences who have not had a chance to experience this very special event,” he said. “We celebrate the creativity of these talented artists, and at the same time we celebrate the ocean’s wonders. This brings awareness to the aquarium’s mission of taking care of the ocean and our vision of doing that through connections with people of all diverse backgrounds.”

The entire festival is free to watch. For more about the Aquarium’s Festival of Human Abilities, go to

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