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Friday, November 20, 2009

Visual Activism is Not Enough

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson is one of the leading figures in disability studies. I respect her scholarship yet find her passivity frustrating in the extreme. She has a new book, Staring: How We Look, that I am using as a required text for my class on disability and anthropology. Staring is thought provoking and by far Garland-Thomson most accessible work to date. Garland-Thomson explores a little discussed subject: why humans stare. In Staring she carefully crafts theoretical arguments with imagery in a way that prompts one to think in a different way. I particularly admire her use of visual images that are directly linked to memoirs, art, popular culture, media representations of disability, and why we stare at certain bodies and body parts. Garland-Thomson six part text ends with a short section entitled "Visual Activism", a great idea as far as it goes. In short, Garland-Thomson praises people such as Matuschka, a flamboyant model who had breast cancer and changed the way we think about the implications of the disease by exposing her scars thereby commanding others not to look away. Garland-Thomson also points to Harriett McBryde Johnson, a disability activist who debated Peter SInger and found herself on the cover of the New York Times Magazine section. Positioning one's self in the public eye can be part of claiming an identity that is linked to disability and empowerment. This is fine in theory but does not nearly go far enough to force effective social change, change that will truly lead to equality for all people with a disability. Visual activism is too passive an approach for me. Being out there is not enough because people do not want to change their views with regard to disability. Most people have little or no experience with disability and the little they do know is often wrong. I cannot blame people too much--the media does a horrific job representing people with a disability and the most well known person with a disability in recent years, Christopher Reeve, did nothing to foster the development of disability rights. Indeed, Reeve accepted a medical model of disability, sought out a single goal, cure, and reinforced many dated beliefs about disability.

So what do I suggest in place of visual activism? I think we people with a disability must not only get out in the public, be in the public eye, but be confrontational in a polite but assertive way. When we confront a lack of access we must assert ourselves in way that demonstrates that the issue is not singularly unusual but involves a violation of our civil rights. This is not just wrong but illegal and we cannot be bought off with a $100 voucher from an airline or a free hotel room for the night. This confrontational style can take many forms and dawned on me this summer on a trip to Seattle. Let me provide two example: First, when I was in Seattle I stayed at the Marriott. I booked an accessible room and it had the worst designed bathroom I have ever encountered. The shower had a bench seat that was so far from the shower head the water could not reach any person that sat on the bench. I was able to move to a room that had a functional bathroom but I have not let the issue go. Since the summer I have been in continuous contact with the Marriott and am trying to force them to make the bathroom accessible. I have turned down multiple perks since I complained because I do not want them. What I want is to see is change as in making the the bathroom accessible as advertised. The manager and the Marriott does not understand the point. I am not dropping the issue and cannot be paid off. My complaint is about equality and I hope they will eventually understand this. Second, when in Seattle my son and I spent much time eating and shopping our way through the Pike Street Market. I truly love the seafood for sale and funky nature of the Pike Street Market. I do not like the crowds and grew frustrated when people would often comment "watch out for the wheelchair". After hearing this inane comment too many times I became more than frustrated. So on our way back to out hotel when I heard "watch out for the wheelchair" a light bulb went off in my head and I turned to my son and repeated the phrase with one modification. The person that stated "watch out for the wheelchair" was a woman wearing black shirt. I mimicked her phrase and voice and told my son "watch out for the woman in the black shirt". The look of utter confusion on her face was priceless. My son was not only highly amused but we repeated this again and again with consistently interesting results. Since my experiences this summer at Pike Street Market if someone ever states "watch out for the wheelchair" I instantly repeat and modify this phrase.

The point I am trying to emphasize is that direct action is required for being present is simply not enough. Garland-Thomson was on the right track but too passive. We people with a disability must shatter old stereotypes and force people to change. We can do this via direct confrontation that has an edge but is still polite. There is much change that needs to take place and in some ways what I am suggesting reminds me of skiing on busy weekends. When looking down the slope and I see many people below me my brother in law half joked it was a "target rich environment". When I go out the door and interact with the ignorant bipedal masses of people that surround me I always feel like I am in a "target rich environment". Being present is fine but being subversive is even better.

2 comments:

Terri said...

I agree with you--a multi-focal and assertive approach is necessary. People need lots of visuals and the public eye is important. But you are absolutely right, people interpret the situations and people they see based on their own experience unless someone provides an alternative. Visibility is a start, but it is too easy to consider what you are seeing as an exception or explain it away in some other way.

Along with firm, unignorable (and polite, I agree)assertiveness, I would encourage emotional engagement. Things like humor, surprise, etc seals the new information into a relationship with the learner and can change people.

william Peace said...

Terri, I tend to be polite to a fault. In my experience anger is often misunderstood when it comes to disability. At issue is not the lack of access or violation of the law but placating the person who is angry. Thus I have always tried to keep my anger in check and get my point across. Hence rather than respond in a negative way to "watch out for the wheelchair" I try to turn the situation around. Here I am building on the work of Goffman and what he called the primal scene of sociology. Social interaction is already skewed so why not try and skew it in your favor. Being passive is not an option for me.