Disability Arts

Black icon of a movie camera
Cheryl Green, disability activist, artist, and co-host on my Disability.TV podcast about Glee, asked me to help spread the word about a new independent film called Becoming Bulletproof. It is a film in which disabled people participated at all levels of production, including playing most of the key acting roles. It has already won some film festival awards, and based on what I see in the trailer, it looks like a really, really good film. Click here to find out where you can see “Becoming Bulletproof."

It’s a bit of a departure for me to feel excited about a disability arts project. I’ve never been interested in disability arts. There are several reasons for this.

For one thing, I have an aversion to programs of any kind that are just for disabled people. Disability arts programs tend to look at first glance like segregated therapeutic programs that just happen to use art as their hook, rather than arts programs per se. It’s much more complicated than that, but I’m only just starting to realize it.

Also, I’m usually not fond of art that has some obvious external purpose. For instance, I don’t like highly politicized art. I am all for art that deals with political and social issues, but I prefer it to be subtle, natural, not driven into my head with a sledgehammer. When disability art isn’t explicitly therapeutic, it tends instead to attempt some very heavy ideological lifting.

Finally, I’ve always been skeptical of amateur and DIY art. I am sure there are great poets to be found at poetry readings, and I’ve seen a few performance artists who really impressed me, but I cringe at the thought of attending those kinds of events, because I guess I don’t have the patience to sit through something mediocre or ragged.

(By the way, I am painfully aware of the hypocrisy of an amateur blogger and podcaster disdaining amateur art).

This is where my internalized ableism comes in. I am ashamed to say that in the past at least, I have tended to equate “disability arts” with low-quality art … as if arts programs for disabled people necessarily produce bad art, uplifting for the artist perhaps, but not interesting to most audiences, including me. Put another way, I have assumed over the years that experiencing disability art is about doing some thing nice for the artists.

That’s why I am so excited by “Becoming Bulletproof.” Although it is integrated, with both disabled and non-disabled people involved, it does have a disability-related mission aside from art. Yet, it looks like everyone involved worked really hard to do everything really well, to entertain audiences, not just to satisfy themselves or have a meaningful experience. Whatever else the film accomplishes, it looks like it is a good, fun, well-made film … full stop. When I watch this film, it will be because I want to see it, not to support some kind of cause.

I can’t wait to see the whole movie, and I think it’s obviously long past time for me to explore disability arts with a more open mind.


“Inspiration” Without The “Porn"

Photo taken from behind a person filming a scene with a smart-phone.
There was quite a lot of discussion last week among disability bloggers and Facebookers about a viral video showing a restaurant employee “feeding” a physically disabled customer.

While newspapers and TV stations all over North America reported it as an unambiguous “good news” story, most of the comments from disabled people ranged from head-shaking to outrage. On one level, it was a simple reaction to standard “Inspiration Porn.” Inspiration Porn is that thing where someone writes a news story or posts an “inspiring” photo or video involving a disabled person, something clearly meant to make us go, “Awwww,” and appreciate bravery, persistence, or kindness, preferably without asking awkward questions about context.

On another level, this particular video raised very specific questions about privacy and objectification. Who is this disabled woman? What is her name? Did she know she was being filmed? If she had known, would she have been okay with the video being publicly posted and then going viral? Was she happy with how the employee was helping her, or did she have some other solution in mind? And, who is the customer filming the scene? Did he or she think for a moment about how the disabled woman might feel? Did they introduce themselves to her and ask her permission to film her and present this bit of her life in order to “inspire” millions of strangers? Is it possible a severely disabled person might have mixed feelings about being looked at in this way?

Of course, these questions provoked their own perplexed, angry responses from people who apparently felt cranky disability activists were raining on a parade they had been enjoying immensely. Why do people have to put a sinister spin on a rare “good news” story? Why are disabled people so angry about stuff like this? Aren’t they always asking retail staff to help them? The world is such a nasty place, and this is a nice story. Lighten up!

I have been thinking for awhile that we need to come up with a way to allow some cultural space for people who really love and crave “inspiration”, while keeping it from becoming “Inspiration Porn” that insults disabled people and sends ableist messages about disability.

Maybe we should make a checklist for would-be filmers, meme-makers, and reporters thinking about using disabled people as their subjects:

- Is the disabled person a willing participant in the story, video, or photo?

- Does the disabled person have a voice in the finished product … something relevant to say, in their own words?

- Is the disabled person credited by name? Does the piece include include any contact and background information about the disabled person, if they want it included?

- Does the finished product include enough accurate information on the situation and disability to put the scene or incident in context?

- Who is the “hero” of the scene? Are they doing something truly remarkable, or interesting only compared to very low, possibly insulting expectations?

- If you were the disabled person in the finished product, how would you feel about it?

- Consider how the disabled person might actually feel, not how you think they should feel.

If you look at this list and think, “Who’s going to be comfortable with all that?”, then that should tell you something about Inspiration Porn. If what you’re doing can’t pass these simple tests, then maybe the world doesn’t need your inspiring creation right now.

On the other hand, I think this list might be reasonable enough to allow a few disability-related photo memes, videos, and news stories of the “inspirational” variety to satisfy peoples’ apparent craving for such things. I think it’s worth noting, too, that some disabled people feel good about inspiring others, and actually spend time and creativity doing so through videos, photo memes, blog posts, and the like.

The key difference is that those are messages from disabled people, in which disabled people are active participants with human voices and points of view, not nameless objects on which others project their feelings.



Photo of an old-style movie camera
Scott Jordan Harris, Slate.com - January 20, 2014

I look for three things in TV and film depictions of disability:

1. Authenticity about the details of the disability.
2. Fully developed disabled characters.
3. Insight into real-life disability issues.

Number 3 is optional. Authenticity and fully developed disabled characters are quite often enough for a satisfying disability depiction. Tackling disability issues is a nice extra, when done naturally and not in a “You see Timmy …” moment.

To me, the issue of “Cripface” ... non-disabled actors playing disabled characters ... isn’t whether it is inherently wrong or offensive, so much as whether or not it meets these criteria, resulting in good depictions of disability.

It’s probably important to note here that “good” and "satisfying" often means different things to disabled and non-disabled viewers. The typical moviegoer or TV-watcher seems to have different criteria for disability stories and disabled characters:

1. They want to feel happy when the thing is over.
2. They like feeling lots of feels … sadness, pity, admiration, inspiration.
3. They want to think they have learned about certain disabled people, but they aren’t so interested in learning about disability itself or disability-based injustice.
4. They love “stunt” acting, where an actor convincingly portrays a character that is completely unlike themselves.

I think number 4 is where the Oscar-bait thing comes in. When a non-disabled actor seems to do a good job of playing disabled, most viewers latch onto it as a clear example of raw acting ability. Since a lot of acting talent is subtle and hard for non-critics to identify, there may even be some excitement about being able to easily pinpoint when an actor has done something really difficult … like an able-bodied actor playing a well-known disabled person. Eddie Redmayne looks a lot like Stephen Hawking, so right away, there's an assumed element of "Wow!"

One reason I like this Slate review is that it does give some specific evidence that maybe Eddie Redmayne and the writers didn’t, in fact, do such a great job of portraying Stephen Hawking. I haven't seen 'The Theory Of Everything", so I can't judge for myself. What Mr. Harris describes, however, is not encouraging.

As I indicated, I think it can be done well. I still greatly admire “My Left Foot”, in which the non-disabled actor Daniel Day-Lewis played Christy Brown, an Irish poet who had Cerebral Palsy. I think one reason I still like that film is that the writers made sure to give us a pretty full picture of the man, and avoided most of the usual disability cliches, like dreaming of being “normal” and being super-sweet, that make so many disability depictions seem fake and predictable. It also introduced and fully explored some truths about disability that aren't as familiar to mainstream audiences ... such as the complex nature of disability sexuality, and the problematic ways that "do gooders" often relate to disabled people. Finally, I got stuff out of "My Left Foot", as a disabled person, that I'll bet most viewers missed. It sounds to me like there's nothing challenging or original in "The Theory Of Everything" ... nothing that will rock any disabled viewer's world.

It does seem like “My Left Foot” is the exception that proves the rule. “Cripface” is bad because it’s inherently offensive, but what’s even worse is that most of the time it produces bad art. Put another way, non-disabled actors are apt to make mistakes, and allow mistakes to be made, that disabled actors just wouldn't.


Don't Look Away

American Horror Story: Freak Show poster
In a little over a week, I will post an episode of the Disability.TV Podcast in which I will discuss American Horror Story: Freak Show with Jane Hash, of the Hash It Out With Jane Podcast.

Sneak preview:

If you are disabled and you care about disability issues, social stigma, ableism and the like, you should at the very least watch the first episode, “Monsters Among Us”. I’m not going to say whether the show is good or bad, offensive or heroic, sensational or thoughtful. Just don’t ignore it because it seems on the surface like it must be nasty and exploitative, by definition. There is more there than meets the eye, and more there, too, than the writers probably know.

About Photos

Color photo of an antique camera
Arabelle Sicardi, BuzzFeed - January 11, 2015

Karolyn Gehrig’s #hospitalglam photo collection

I haven’t posted interesting disability-themed photos in quite awhile. Partly it’s because my initial enthusiasm for them has faded a bit. Related to that, I’ve started to realize that cool photos of disabled people usually don’t say as much as they seem to when you start paying attention to them. Once you get used to the idea that disabled people look hip and badass, it becomes sort of obvious and thus less remarkable. This is a good thing.

I am sharing links to Karyln Gehrig’s #hospitalglam collection because the photos are so beautiful and interesting, both in the context of disability and chronic illness, and in general as creative photography. Do click through and enjoy!


Disability In Comics

Kathleen Hawkins, BBC - June 24, 2014

I am fascinated by pop culture, but I have never been a comic book person, so I really appreciate this BBC article about the history of disabled characters in comics. It seems to be inspired by the recent addition of Harper in the Archie series, but it looks back at some successful and short-lived disabled characters and superheroes, including Daredevil and Oracle, (a.k.a. before her injury, Barbara Gordon or “Batgirl”).

I can’t tell from this article, or my superficial exposure to comics traditions, whether disabled characters in comic simply follow the same disability tropes seen in other media, or if the comic book medium fosters either much more sophisticated depictions, or much less. It does seem like the X-Men series may be richer in disability themes than any other of the explicitly disabled characters in comics and superhero universes. It also seems like there is still plenty of room for at least a few more nuanced, developed disabled comic book characters.