disability

Imaged Bodies

It was great watching the Paralympics, so many sets of wheels and carbon fibre in various shapes it was feast of material multiplicities. If there was ever a time to watch a rich, complex version of the diversity of human physical performance, this was it. But I am bothered by the fact that the only time functionally diverse bodies become noticed and appreciated is every 4 years through sport. Which begs a question about body image. Is it more what images of bodies we see that helps certain bodies be seen as acceptable, or more ‘normal’? Our usual programming of common functioning sport with the narrow choices normally offered is disrupted momentarily – for the novelty of both the Olympics and Paralympics. Which is why I view the Paralympics with mixed feelings. Body image is more like body stories, it’s the words and meanings that describe and give value to who we are – how our body matter ‘matters’ or doesn’t.

I can appreciate the achievement and skill of Sophie Pascoe and Liam Malone, but I also notice how their bodies function at a level that is almost identical to common functioning. Their athletic achievements are phenomenal and the camera loves them both – they are both (in my opinion) extremely photogenic people, with muscular, athletic physiques that few people can ever achieve. So they are perfect representatives with the perfection of lean mean body machines.

The irony then is these bodies break stereotypes and maintain stereotypes. Their stories of success and triumph in sport offer alternative ideas about what people can or cannot do. But not everyone with a disability wants to participate in sport or even likes sport! It sets up the ‘they are so inspirational’ theme, that while on the surface seems harmless, it confines disability as a lens through which people can maintain their sense of privilege. If that sounds a bit weird, this is a good explanation. But where are their images of success of disabled/functionally unique people doing other stuff? Because it’s not just the image it’s the stories we need to hear and share with each other about our own bodies that matter as well.

I’m also interested in the aesthetic of movement, and I love seeing the ways the physical can merge with the technological in new combinations. A future Olympics that genuinely celebrated human performance of the body might include a range of ages and function, I can imagine the games broken up into elements like ‘wheels’ ‘water’ and the 5 continents each hosting an element simultaneously. I’d like to see arts, music and creative festivals follow to break down the separation of mind and body, the arts and sciences. Unfortunately that might mean pruning back the number of sports, but I think I’d rather see more diversity of people than sport. But if I had the choose, if it involves wheels – it should be in there. Well, maybe wheelbarrow racing might be be pushing it.

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Diversity debate-able

I found it curious that a panel debating about diversity at a writers festival would be so defensive when challenged about their representation of the topic. Actually – it was more of an observation that was offered by Philip Patston, which was met with a swift series of awkward justifications.

I wondered about this as the panel seemed to care deeply about it from a cultural perspective and even the odd reference to gender. I’m remembering a comment about being tired of talking about identity and the sorts of ‘same-washing’ language that has started to plague conversations about difference and diversity in general. These statements are often couched as a form of acceptance or inclusivity by not noticing diversity at all, ‘we are all the same on the inside’ or ‘I don’t see race I just see the person’ discourse that renders deep and complex conversations inert. It’s like a double shot decaf late with extra milk approach to coffee – there in name only, or trying to discuss religion and people just say ‘each to their own’.

That was my puzzlement. I don’t think this panel should have needed to be told to include these rich, layered aspects of diversity such as sexuality and disability, just acknowledge it and find ways to speak what you are not speaking to. It’s not about having a panel of 10 or more to represent all forms of diversity it is an ongoing awareness that it exist at all levels of communities, including ethnic ones, disability-unique functioning, sexuality exist yet seems unable to enter diversity conversations, this panel was symptomatic of the general normative diversity ideology sweeping through neo-liberal societies. Companies are happy to exploit diversity without engaging with it – but that is another conversation.

I like what Lana Wachowski says when it comes valuing difference, that people need to respect others not ‘in spite’ of their difference but because of it. Time to start a new conversation, rather than a debate.

Feeling BADD ass

My friend Philip blogged today about Blogging Against Disablism Day – BADD (well worth reading) and I started to wonder a bit about the proliferation of events that try and raise consciousness through a catchy acronym and a single day focus. I worry sometimes that our year is too short to include all of the special days, maybe it’s time to move to Saturn (29:1 earth year – over 10 000 days should be about right). The feel good vibe runs hot and people love to get in on the action, hit ‘like’, have their thoughts challenged but if it is just through reading then I’m unsure about the actual engagement with the ‘real’ world (for want of a better word). Do people actually DO anything different? I’m skeptical.

Blogs also tend to reach those already interested or thinking about the same things, so sometimes it’s a case of ‘preaching to the converted’ or seeing your own thoughts rehashed through another lens but kind of the same ideas. Maybe that is the point of it, like Philip mentions ‘law of attraction’ perhaps that is how momentum is started, by sharing something, with a wider network of people.

Getting stories and voices ‘out there’ is not enough for change, and while consciousness might be raised for a moment the next click of the screen could be something that convinces you that there are more important things to worry about. That has been one of my frustrations recently – seeing the ‘transgender-bathroom’ debate be hijacked and minimised in the name of promoting bigger issues.

So my contribution to BADD day is this – you have a body – it has and always will be in a state of becoming differently functional ‘fluxtional’ is my new word. ‘Disability’ does not exist – complexity of functioning does. Therefore every day I am against the normative idea of ableism (again see Philips blog) because it denies the very real richness of diversity that infiltrates every level of connection we have to each other. Please let us see MORE body-function diversity in media, all forms. For a start can we please get someone signing the news? Because quite frankly I have one sign to give NZ television networks with their representation of diversity and it only needs one digit.

 

Diversity is not in the equation

I’m not sure why I feel shaken. While the media will likely focus on the quake in Christchurch today, with good reason, my morning started with a different kind of movement. The jolt came from reading about another residency being declined on the basis of disability or more accurately the ‘costs’ attached to the care that might be needed for a family member. This time it is a maths professor being turned down because his step son has autism.

Not feeling the love today, maybe our government is taking this 100% pure campaign to the next level. But with my general distain for Valentines day mixing with a pervasive sense of deja vu, I had to stop myself being torn apart with a visceral sense we have reached the point of dispassionate valuing of people based on the capitalist model of production.

What is really clever about neo liberal, advanced capitalism is just how absolutely mesmerising and hypnotic the ideology that manipulates deep fears to promote individual responsibility, freedom of choice, competition and productivity in the name of ‘best interests of everyone’. People hate the idea they aren’t thinking for themselves. It pushes values that appear on the surface to be good such as competition while quietly ensuring people remain just a bit on edge with a sense of vulnerability. It invites people to reduce life and worth into modes of being that play along with normative structures. When you are born into this global community you are plugged into this value system based on production and consumption. Forget all that stuff about diversity – unless it suits your advertising campaign. Perhaps as Bronwyn Davies suggests, the ultimate power of neo liberalism is it is founded on the assumption that there is no alternative – therefore making it impervious to critique.

It is the ultimate version of The Matrix people are so attached to the system that they will fight to protect it. The logic is sound – if someone is a drain on the health system (that is ‘your hard earned tax dollars are going to be poured down the drain) people will back the system that looks after them every time and agree ‘that’s fair’. New Zealand your ‘pure’ brand is starting to feel like a past regime without the overt propaganda just a quiet take-over of our fear of difference. I’m no maths professor but this really doesn’t add up to any form of humane and just society.

In the words of Elizabeth Grosz, ‘we need to disturb difference rather than be disturbed by difference’. Wake up New Zealand – the neo liberal matrix has you and it makes us look ugly and really shaky on human rights. Watch out for silver spoons.

Polly Put The Kettle On

Sometimes I’m just not sure how to read other peoples writing, especially when radio DJ’s have opinion pieces in the NZ Herald. I suspect the tongue in cheek style is meant to provoke a range of responses and more than likely, Polly Gillespie struck a chord with her piece yesterday.

It is a mixed rant about accessibility, or more to the point people playing on the ‘privilege’ of having a mobility card. But it doesn’t stop there she was shouted at for using a wheel chair accessible toilet my some irate guy in a chair when she was desperate to relieve herself (and was overly generous in her description).

So I reckon I might invite Polly for a cup of tea, but I might need to pop out and get some milk. I have the luxury of choosing how I get to the shops. More than likely I’ll walk or bike, coz I hate parking. If I was having tea at my friend Philips place (well, that’s highly unlikely but play along) we might go in his van to buy milk. So because I am in the van, does that disqualify him as a wheel chair user to park up in a mobility space while I nip in? Or should I wait in the van and play by Polly’s rules and make my mate prove his worth by dropping the ramp and winching his chair down? Then to realise the dairy is outa milk? Na I don’t think so.

My simple point is this. When people are in a position of privilege they sometimes grow a sense of entitlement to hold others to particular standards of playing by the rules. I do have sympathy over her toilet incident. When you’ve got that sense that no amount of sphincter squeezing is going to stop this thing breaking free, you just don’t care what toilet you’re in. But again I invite others like me who are functioning in common ways to consider this – calling out ‘I’ll only be a minute’ makes no sense. One minute for me is a long time in the toilet (sorry if that is TMI) however for those with diverse mobility – time is mediated by the need to co-ordinate a whole bunch of other steps in between getting in the door and doing the business. So it’s kind of like time dilation – think Interstellar only not quite as extreme (you wont come out and find the world has changed…sadly). So replay that statement for us common functioning folk to ‘I’ll only be 10 minutes’ and you get my point.

There will always be assholes and people pushing the limits. One of my favourites is the pram parking at shopping centres, I suspect at times there are a few people going ‘shit I’ve got the pram in the back, wonder if my 5 year old qualifies me’.

Polly, put the kettle on – I don’t have milk in it anyway.

Inside Out and Upside Down

Although I retired from the classroom years ago, I still dabble in teaching the occasional health class. It is an honour and a privilege to have conversations with 16-17 year olds about sexuality and there are new resources to go with more language to describe the wide spectrum of identity. One of the newest is Inside Out and if anything people’s vocabulary will broaden when it comes to diversity. For any health teacher needing a solid start in coming to grips with some of more hidden aspects of sex, gender and sexuality – intersex and transgender in particular it would be good to take a look at. For those who feel more settled or stuck in a rut it might just freshen things up.

My hesitation is not with resource so much. I agree with the intention of the need to create more awareness or acceptance of ‘difference’. My narrative counselling lens is finely tuned so I’m a little sensitive to language, power and discourse. As such, I’m a bit irritating to those who hold more traditional humanistic ideas about ‘self’. This is pretty much the underpinning philosophy of all education. So back to my nagging uncertainty, it’s about the ability of teachers to facilitate conversations, questions and hold an open ethical space for ideas to be shared. I do not doubt the depth of knowledge and skill some teachers have, but I’ve heard enough students comment about their shock and disbelief, confusion and unease. One recent example was a class who were asked to stand and to sit down if they had talked to one gay person that day (or week?), and gradually it was the last person standing. I’m not sure how accurate this is to what actually happened, but if it is even partially true it is disconcerting. Sort of wondering if you get extra points for gay people of different cultures, ages, disabilities (yes people with disabilities experience sexuality!)…

I’d ask one thing of teachers using this resource – do not disclose your sexuality (particularly if you identify as heterosexual) if asked and especially if you are a cisgendered male. These resources will have the greatest influence if teachers are aware of the privilege/power of heteronormativity and how every interaction, utterance, expression, hesitation, avoidance or inability to comfortably facilitate complex notions of identity will determine what young people ‘learn’.

Schools simply need more PD on LGBTQIA….and not just rainbow scrabble.

 

 

(don’t) Build It And They (won’t) Come

In Field Of Dreams, Kevin Costner is haunted by the ghosts of Baseball players who urge him, via a rather persistent whispering of ‘if you build it, he will come’ to create a baseball diamond in his corn field. Far from being locked up for having schizophrenia or some other mental illness, Costner’s character trusts the voices and builds the diamond and is rewarded with the sound of white ash on cork and leather. I’m not sure about the afterlife but it appears ball players just want to keep playing and why not! It’s a great example of creating accessibility through simple modifications to space.

Accessibility is generally associated with disability but I think we’ve constructed a bit of an apparition of sorts by assuming the individual who is not functioning in a bipedal manner defines the ‘problem’. I mean steps ruined the plans of the Daleks from Dr Who originally when they were restricted to the mechanics of wheels. For a time travelling, disembodied, biomechanical species they didn’t need sympathy or charity or empathy they needed better technology. And unfortunately for the human race they got it. Science fiction aside, technology has the potential to level the playing field and redraw the boundaries of understanding around functional diversity, which I feel is long overdue.

This was highlighted to me recently when I was part of a conversation that included a somewhat nervous observation from a colleague about the number of ramps being built. If it’s possible to sprain the occipito-frontalis muscles that raise your eyebrows then mine were definitely in that category. I have no doubt there was no intention to be functionphobic but as I searched for a response it dawned on me the complex meanings and ideas we hold about disabilities and response-ability particularly in education. My question was simple ‘what do you mean by that’? And then there was a very awkward pause. So I asked with genuine curiosity ‘are you concerned that ramps could mean more needs and resources?’ I wanted to shift the reference away from a personal lack or deficit so I nonchalantly threw in ‘I think of it as simply accommodating a different form of transport and this doesn’t necessarily mean they will require extra support in class’. I also had to state that students had a right to attend their local school which might seem logical but the hidden reality for many years in New Zealand has been a form a legitimate exclusion based on the inability to access buildings (even though it is illegal to do so), or as I call it – ‘the Dalek effect’.

But why the panic around more wheel chairs at school? Unseriously then, yes more young people in chairs could create all sorts of wild crazy ideas amongst commonly functioning youth. They might all want to come to school in chairs, we would need a rule about that then, or skaters and other students will want to ride around school, we would need a rule about that, or outbreaks of chair racing might endanger other students, we would need a speed limit on that, and what about not standing when the principal walks onto the stage! Well I’m not sure about you but I can see the conundrum so it probably makes sense to not build ramps so they won’t come.

We have come a long way and some travel that path on wheels and might suggest that even though their road is less travelled the destination is equally important. It really is time we ramped things up around notions of accessibility and got over our collective general anxiety around functional diversity. Kiwis ought to remember part of our national identity is sporting success and how often do we do well in wheel based sports or ones where we sit down.

Yes for me it is not Field Of Dreams but dreams of wheels.