I’ve been really interested in disability aesthetics and how disability experience influences both content – so both what a work of art is about and the form it takes – and also the process of making art. I run a program at the University of Illinois Chicago called Disability Art, Culture, and Humanities, and we were interested in what you can learn about disability experience through work made by people with disabilities. It’s also [about] creating art to express the disability experience, so it’s kind of a 2-way thing. So I occupy myself with these questions in my teaching and in my writing and my own artistic practice.
We are in a Canadian context, so your laws and policies are different than what I’m used to in the USA. We’ve had almost 30 years of the Americans with Disability Act, the civil rights legislation that protects disabled people from discrimination and also supposedly gives us access to public life. While the laws are wonderful and provide a lot of opportunities, they have significant limitations and a lot of the limitations have to do with caveats that run through all the titles of the law. So, inclusion doesn’t need to be accommodated: 1) if it causes undue burden; 2) if it’s unreasonable, or; 3) if it fundamentally changes the nature of a program. So those three caveats, especially in the arts, are invoked all the time as ways to keep us out. My way of thinking is that, the ways in which our impairments and disability experiences burden society, the ways in which our requests are unreasonable and the way we change programs is what we have to offer!
So, if we only think about disability inclusion as being accommodated to the mainstream, the mainstream doesn’t really change. Instead I want to shift focus to the ways we can change things [such that] we experience time differently, we go through different development stages with our bodies, we take up space differently, we experience space differently, our life stories are different. How are these things that are not accommodate-able, how can they offer insight into new aesthetics but also then offer something generative back to the mainstream. So, when we think about how to transform society, we are not starting with ability but starting with disability. That’s what we have to offer. I don’t want to disparage all the gains we made with disability rights but there are limitations that are built right into legislation that keeps the very things we have to offer suppressed.
I’m always looking out for the way artists are transforming how we think about relationships and space and time and all of the elements of art making. My background is theatre and performance so I am particularly drawn to performance or even the visual arts. Art making processes are very performative and very theatrical, in a way, so that interests me.
I feel like sometimes it’s about discrimination, but it’s also about recognizing difference. A lot of times people recognize our humanity as long as it’s the same as theirs: ‘Oh you are just like me!’ but there are ways that the arts can say, ‘No, we are actually very different and that’s interesting.’ So I guess expanding for the range of human variation. We tend to think in such narrow terms. That’s why I was saying that the rights framework can be very limiting. It’s all: ‘You can come into this space as long as it’s not too expensive to bring you here. You can come here as long as it doesn’t change the historical architecture. You can come here as long as our program is basically the same.’ That’s a really liberal tolerant attitude, but when you stop thinking: ‘You have rights, you can be here because you are like us to’ to ‘You’re really different and that’s interesting, and by us being together things have to change.’ So, it’s like a switch-a-roo in conceptualization.
We’ve had a lot of progress in making the arts accessible to audiences. You will have some spaces for wheelchairs, you’ll have assisted listening devices, you will have interpreters—if you are lucky you will have any of this, but let’s just use it as an example. There is this idea that disabled people belong as audience members, but the theatres, the stages aren’t accessible, the dressing rooms, the bathrooms backstage, the lighting booth, the sound booth, the scene shop, the lighting grid. People with disabilities are always seen as consumers and not as producers. If we start to think about disabled people everywhere, then how can we even participate in making change if we cannot be on the production side. There is always this idea that we don’t have anything to offer. But if we are not allowed to participate in making things, then we are always getting the scraps. If we want to have lot of participation, even in the audience— I do a lot of events in Chicago and I do a lot of producing—so if we want to have a disability dance company and we are bringing them into a well-known theatre company, they might have enough wheelchair spaces for six wheelchairs, but what happens when you bring 10, 15, 20—and even if you have six, the six seats that are there, if you have all of them, if they have a non-disabled companion they cannot sit with them. So, then there’s this: ‘You can be there as long as there are only a few of you and as long as you don’t really change the space and as long as you don’t really want to be with the person you came with.’ I’d really like for us to think more expansively about what it means to be included. We’ve done things like take our rows of seats.
I always say that theatre is the place where it can happen because we have a scene shop, we have carpenters, we have designers. Other places have to hire out. In theatre, we make new worlds for every show! If we can build stages that revolve and scenery that flies up and down and transformative costumes and everything, why can’t we built a ramp? Why can’t we make the bathroom accessible? There’s just no other places that you can even go into your own shop and have your own drafters and architects. So, I feel that there is a lot of hope for theatre to be a way to rehearse possibilities for the way the world can be because we can do it.
It’s a lack of applying one’s imagination to how things can be different. So, removing that is really important to me. I’m really happy to be here and I’ve had the chance to meet up with colleagues that I don’t get to see as often and that’s wonderful. I love seeing this work germinating in all these different spaces and different countries and meeting new artists. I think things are proliferating in so many ways. I’m so glad this is happening and to be part of it.
Dr. Carrie Sandahl is head of the Program on Disability Art, Culture, and Humanities, which is devoted to research on and creation of disability art. This program also serves as the administrative home for Chicago’s Bodies of Work, an organization that supports the development of disability arts and culture. She is the author and editor of groundbreaking work in disability and performance including Bodies in Commotion: Disability and Performance, edited with Philip Auslander. Sandahl is frequently invited to present her research and creative work on disability art and culture at universities across the United States. Sandahl also regularly presents her research at the Society for Disability Studies and the Association for Theater in Higher Education, both professional organizations in which she has been an active member for more than fifteen years.