What do disability and the arts have in common? Both require living outside the box. Disability invites creativity.
Many around the globe don’t think of it this way. Disability, personal or collective, is often represented as a failing. The word itself comes from the Industrial Revolution when it signified factory workers injured on the job. The term is outworn, inexact, and an obstacle to people with physical differences like a bad curb cut. Enter the arts.
In her famous essay “On Being a Cripple” the late poet and memoirist Nancy Mairs (who had M.S.) wrote:
First, the matter of semantics. I am a cripple. I choose this word to name me. I choose from among several possibilities, the most common of which are “handicapped” and “disabled.” I made the choice a number of years ago, without thinking, unaware of my motives for doing so. Even now, I’m not sure what those motives are, but I recognize that they are complex and not entirely flattering. People–crippled or not–wince at the word “cripple,” as they do not at “handicapped” or “disabled.” Perhaps I want them to wince. I want them to see me as a tough customer, one to whom the fates /gods /viruses have not been kind, but who can face the brutal truth of her existence squarely. As a cripple, I swagger.
The disabled are central to every community and yes, they get to swagger in today’s world. Because I teach literature and disability studies I have the privilege to travel globally and work with young disabled people who want to reimagine their lives through poetry and the arts. Disability art is in fact a matter of confidence and cultural diplomacy.
Normalizing practices in speech tend toward the elimination of complexity and what is disability after all but convolution? Disablement is the ear inside the ear, folded, curly, wildly perceptive, and inapparent on the common street. That is how it is. That deaf woman, that wheelchair man, the blind walker—all are more cunning and imaginative than we may know, or better than normality will admit. Those of us in the disability studies arena talk about disabilities as ways of knowing precisely because as rhetorician Jay Dolmage notes, we understand “imperfect, extraordinary, non-normative bodies as the origin and epistemological homes of all meaning-making.”
In Guangzhou, I taught a workshop with disabled and non-disabled students. Inclusion is not a familiar idea in China but the prospect of working with a composer, two poets, and a choreographer from the United States broke down artificial barriers. I told students that as a blind poet I ride on the backs of dragons and my poems are the dragon smoke. (The idea came to me from the American poet Robert Bly.) “Let’s make dragon smoke,” I said and soon everyone was excitedly writing.
Imagination is never helpless. It’s incapable of dishonesty. It’s every discovery is just that: a pure finding. It’s easy to confuse social facts with social ideas. Disability, for instance, is a societal arrangement driven by medicine. When physically arrested humans can’t be cured they become an idea—one might say an idee fix. I’m asked all the time if there’s a better term for disability and my response is to say the disabled should be called “citizens” for this marks the confusion named above. All physical differences are merely notional. Turn this on its head so to speak and you discover the steepness of disability is no more probable than other notorious social ideas—childhood comes to mind—before the Enlightenment children were nonexistent.
I travel to places where disabled children are not customarily in the mainstream. They are kept apart which means they’ll have conditional citizenship. They’re branded as non-productive which is again the confusion of social fact with idea. One is forced to ask why there’s so little imagination going around—the idee fix is a big muscle of confusion. In much of the world, childhood is believed to be a matter of prospect. A child is a unit of probable production and so disability is presumed to be devoid of growth. It’s chilling when you see it.
What can we do about the broad confusion of disability and insignificance? This is a question for the imagination.
What is the disability dynamic of cultural diplomacy? In her book “The Diplomacy of Culture” Irena Kozmyka writes:
Nation-states are increasingly focused on historically marginalized people, and though this isn’t universal, as state oppression proves, disability is increasingly viewed as an important factor in interconnectedness. Milton C. Cummings describes ‘cultural diplomacy’ as: “the exchange of ideas, information, values, systems, traditions, beliefs, and other aspects of culture, with the intention of fostering mutual understanding.
As a teaching poet I’m after art and not the instant reductiveness of identity. I want poetry to come with accompanying astonishments before anything else. Recently, teaching disabled students in Kazakhstan everyone started out by dancing in a large public space; circling; bending; reaching; dipping; swaying; going low; wide; small; and very large. As the American poet Elizabeth Bishop knew, the imagination has cardinal points but far more than the average map indicates. We’re making new maps for our insides.
My teaching colleagues on the Kazakh trip included the superb choreographer and dancer Michelle Pearson, poet and nonfiction writer Christopher Merrill, novelist Cathleen Dicharry, and the world-class jazz composer and musician Damani Phillips. Our trip was sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa. Cultural diplomacy where disability is concerned means inclusive arts education. But that phrase can’t capture what happens. In one class a woman wrote a poem about living in a sustaining star. We’d been talking about how poetry lets us imagine places that can’t be seen or drawn with a pencil. We’d been talking about inner freedom. We talked about many things: W.H. Auden, Andrei Voznesenskii, Emily Dickinson, Whitman. We wrote together. And there was personal and collective discovery.
Poetry is play. Intellectual refreshment is a human right. In Kazakstan children with disabilities are homeschooled. I know what this means. Disability is inconvenient, shameful, a domestic trauma. I also know more than I care to about embodiment disgrace. Drinking strong coffee alone in my hotel I thought about how my life is so small.
All I can do is sing and hope to foster personal connections. Help the disabled with the little I know. I’m a blind poet with some razzle-dazzle. Earlier in the day, I surprised strangers by dancing with my white cane on the street.