Two Center-supported projects have been exploring the lived experiences of the disabilities community and the ways in which their stories are told. A Fierce Kind of Love: Connecting Communities through Story and Dialogue is a multi-part project presented by the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, which culminated with the premiere of a play written by Suli Holum and directed by David Bradley. The performance by a mixed-ability cast drew praise from the Philadelphia Daily News for its “power to open eyes, minds, and hearts to those who are invisible to many of us.”
For the Library Company of Philadelphia, visual artist and Pew Fellow Teresa Jaynes has created Common Touch: The Art of the Senses in the History of the Blind, a multisensory exhibition based on the Library’s extraordinary collection of pre-Braille texts for the visually impaired (on view now through October 21). The culmination of nearly five years of research by Jaynes, the exhibition incorporates historic objects alongside new artifacts, visual art, and literature that investigate the nature of perception.
Inspired by these two projects and our recently published conversation between A Fierce Kind of Love producer Lisa Sonneborn and White Column’s Matthew Higgs, we invited the participating artists and an organizational leader working to serve individuals with disabilities to discuss how art can offer new lenses through which to interpret people’s lived experiences. Excerpts from their responses follow.
In telling the stories of the disabilities community, how can artistic presentations offer new lenses through which to interpret people’s lived experiences?
Suli Holum, playwright, A Fierce Kind of Love:
“I was invited to use real people’s lived experiences to generate a work of art that would tell a history that is unfamiliar to many people outside of the intellectual disability community. This would be a celebration of a community for the community, but also an invitation to a wider audience to engage with the material and come away from the experience with a new perspective. In order to achieve this we had to experiment with ways of telling stories that would impact a very broad audience: mixed ability, those familiar with the history, those who lived the history, and those with no prior exposure. You have to find the universal in the particular—that is what draws an audience in. You have to embrace contradiction and complexity—that is what keeps an audience engaged. You have to invite an audience to find unexpected beauty in places that they had previously ignored or undervalued—that is what transforms an audience.”
Teresa Jaynes, Pew Fellow, Common Touch curator:
“Working my way through the books and archival materials of the Library Company of Philadelphia’s collection, I became interested in the tools, didactic objects, and methods that were developed to educate the blind. I chose to focus on them as modes of expression using the historical material as a springboard, rather than as a narrative to be incorporated. I focused on the experiences of four individuals, rather than their biographical narratives. Each of them made of their own world—a musician, a composer, a mathematician, and a land surveyor. In my world, I work with silkscreen, other materials, and even scientific technology. Through processing my materials, I find and locate the triggers for these individuals’ experiences. As a child, the blind composer Thomas Wiggins pinched his siblings (and himself!) to hear the sound of a squeal: how delightful that was to him and how little it related to the pinch itself. The idea that he lived so profoundly and fully in sound is what’s meaningful to me about his story. I understand the importance of his story as this moment tellingly revealed how he became his full self. It was less about agency and more about how one lives authentically.”
How do you balance artistic interpretation with authentic and accurate representation of artists who might not use conventional forms of communication?
“I’m committed to presenting information that you can only get through the senses. It references a way of learning that is the opposite of book learning—it’s the constant influx of information that we gain through sensory experience. My objects in Common Touch are not fully comprehensible unless handled. These moments of connection with the material experiences of these four people living in the 18th and 19th centuries suggest the ambition and inventiveness embedded in the narratives of these individuals. Common Touch is less about the history of education for the blind, or what it’s like to be visually impaired, and more about the nature of perception itself.”
What should artists and organizations consider to create an inclusive environment for audiences with disabilities?
John Orr, executive director, Art-Reach:
“At Art-Reach we have had great success with organizations and artists that embrace the social model of disability, which removes the “issue” of accessibility from people, and places it on the built environment and programmatic design. A person should never be an “issue;” the real barrier to be solved is a world that was built for people without disabilities. Someone in a wheelchair doesn’t find obstruction until they come upon an object that stops them: a set of stairs, or an uncut curb. By embracing the social model of disability, the cultural sector will realize that physical and programmatic design are things that we have agency over, and as such, those are things that we control. If we control them, we can change them, and together we can make the arts accessible to everyone. Smart, thoughtful design is key to making programs and sites accessible. Last year, Art-Reach created experiences for over 47,000 people, and we did so by engaging the disability community in the design process.”
How have your artistic presentations allowed you to connect with audiences and create a deeper understanding of your experiences? What do you want audiences to understand about the work of artists with disabilities?
Terry Galloway, writer and performer, You Are My Sunshine – A Kind of Love Story:
“Three of my solo shows examine aspects of my life growing up deaf, queer, and hallucinatory. Thousands of people have heard and possibly learned about my particular disability experience from those stories. But I have learned more about disability proper when I wasn’t the only disabled person on stage. For the last 30 years I’ve been writing, directing, and producing ensemble theater productions that have involved dozens of actors with disabilities—from simple performance workshops, to full-scale community theater productions, and , most recently, a UK touring production of my new musical with four equity actresses with disabilities (Liverpool’s The Ugly Girl). What I learned from all of these experiences was pretty simple. If you have any kind of an imagination, accommodating the differently abled body on stage is not only easy, it’s exhilarating. If you start by asking, ‘what, in fact, can this body do?,’ and you don’t shy away from the answer, you allow the particularities of the differently-abled body to become points of interest and exploration rather than points of embarrassment and shame. Exhilarating.”