Friday, November 4, 2011

Looking at looking at the disabled

When I got to the theater, the man who was to speak wasn’t there. But he did speak. He was on a large screen, and not only did he speak live, he could see those of us who were there in the theater at Scripps College here in Claremont.

It is amazing what technology can do, and that was the point that Tobin Siebers, the V.L Parrington Collegiate Professor and Professor of English Language and Literature and Art & Design at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, started off with in his lecture, pointing out that it makes things easier or possible to do for people with disabilities. In this case, as he said, technology made it possible for him to be with us, so to speak, without having to travel. I am assuming that Siebers is disabled, although I couldn’t tell by looking at him, at least on the screen.

This was ironic - eerily so - since he was talking about how we judge whether someone is disabled or not by how they look. In his talk, entitled “The Mad Woman Project: Disability and the Aesthetics of Human Disqualification,” Siebers discussed the fact that disabled people have been dismissed, pitied, seen as in need of curing or repair, segregated, even eliminated primarily because they are unattractive, ugly, grotesque. Siebers posited that, even with recent civil rights laws and other gains, people with disabilities are the only minority that it is “okay” to do this to (for example, trying to cure them, the implication being that they are “not okay.”) I would add that some may argue that this is also the case with queer people, but I would also say that this is really getting to be less okay.

The talk, part of a series called “The Body Politic” put on this semester by the Humanities Institute at Scripps College, was full of facts and insights - many more than I can convey here - but focused on a collection of photographs called “The Mad Woman Project” by a Korean artist. The photographs, shown on the screen along with Siebers, featured women who were mentally disabled/retarded, looking unkempt, disoriented and disheveled and sometimes behaving inappropriately, and were clearly meant to make us uncomfortable. Siebers later revealed that the women in the series aren’t disabled and talked about how the artist is also commenting on the powerful role of beauty or the lack thereof plays in how women are judged (i.e: an ugly woman is or can be more easily called “mad” or, more often, a “bitch”). He went on to briefly contrast this artist’s (I regret that I don’t recall the name) intentions with that of American artist Cindy Sherman, whose photographs are more simply about theatricality and shock.

I want to mention that Siebers took time to point out that the academic field of Disability Studies is not about understanding the disabled and how to help or cure them. Rather, it is about looking at disability as a social concept and how society, in how it does or does not accommodate, makes those with limitations inferior, left out and, indeed, “disabled.”

Aside from the photo project, none of this was new to me. In fact, much of my artistic work has been about how people judge me by how I look as a severely disabled person, and I have also written here about this and what I call the “disabling society.” It was just nice to see it all laid out plainly and matter-of-factly, if not simply, for a general audience (too bad the audience was small), including in the very way it was presented.

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