My name is Cheryl Green. I am a filmmaker, audio producer, close captioner and audio describer. I did a presentation today called De-Universalizing Disability. Disabled-made Accessible art.
The first thing I would say about changing the way we view Deaf and disabled people is to start with the fact that Deaf and disabled people are my audience. A lot of times when we ask about changing representations we are still assuming that it’s hearing and non-disabled audience we are targeting for and they are the ones we need to change the representations for. I really center, especially disabled community, as my audience.
So I do want to change representations but not just for the benefit of non-disabled people, because I value disabled audiences and Deaf audiences.
The presentation I did today had two main pieces. 1) We do a disservice to disabled community, disabled people, Deaf people when we say “We’re just like everyone body else.” That is the first thing I tackled in my presentation: Who is this everybody else? Who?; 2) I see media about disability and the people who made it will say, “it’s just about the human condition after all”, and I will say “no it’s not, it’s about disability.” So those are the two pieces I wanted to approach because they both sound positive on the surface. “Oh, were just like everybody else.”
But we’re not all in the same condition. We’re not. Not everyone is white, cis-gender, and a legally document resident or citizen of a place with good finances and education. It’s unfair to say that we are all just part of the same human condition when that human condition, especially, is defined by straight cis non-disabled white people.
I talked about those two things and then I showed a film of mine that puts that theory into practice. It is a disabled-made film. It is not pro-inclusion because it only has disabled people in it. It’s about the fear of institutionalization. That, again, is not part of the human condition. That is not a fear for all people. That is specific to disabled people, people of colour, Indigenous people, people living in poverty, people who are houseless. So I want to keep the specific specific and not universalize things because that shuts down and marginalizes voices.
So I’m hoping that my film being disabled-made, featuring only disabled people and their entire bodies and their wheelchairs, their voices and their movements. It also has captions, it has audio descriptions, for this conference I added French captions. So there were two sets of captions up on the screen.
How do we challenge these discriminatory attitudes? by constantly challenging them. I don’t mean to make a rhetorical argument but We can’t sit by idly waiting for people to change their minds, or sit by idly while the non-disabled saviors make films about us. I reject them!
I think disabled-made art is more likely to honor and amplify the disabled experience more than non-disabled made. I see non-disabled films where there is a wheelchair user and the film starts and you only see them from the chest up and then it’s a surprise later, ‘oh they were in wheelchair the whole time’ No, fuck that. What is this surprise reveal thing? This is this person’s life and why is their body a slow reveal or a plot twist. It’s not, it’s their body. So, in my films you see their entire bodies, you see how they are moving. I have a film that I worked on that’s premiering in a couple of weeks and it’s made by a woman who is non-speaking and she uses a speech generating device, she uses some sign language and points to letters on an alphabet board and I have that all on camera. I have seen films about non-speaking people and they hired a voice actor to voice the inner thoughts of the supposed star of the film. That film was made by a non-disabled person, you could tell anyway but I happen to know it.
So the other film coming out in a few weeks, you hear the speech generating device voice in the film, the same as you hear when you are conversing with her. I don’t try to hide her sign language, I don’t try to hide the way her body moves. In the film, she is specifically talking about how her body moves.
To me inaccessibility and accessibility are more about power more than anything else. Accessibility checklists only go so far; they are not actually inclusive and fuck inclusion. I talked about this in my talk too, inclusion always seems to be the dominant group saying, “We’ll modify stuff for you, not you but definitely you and then you can come join our space that was inaccessible until you complained and we decided to be charitable and let you in.” That’s not all of inclusion but that’s where it comes from. It comes from the dominant group saying “I will let you in”. That sounds boring and offensive.
I think a lot of accessibility efforts, again, are trying to modify inaccessible space to make them more inclusive and accessible. So, I am more of a fan of universal design. No, you cannot accommodate all people in all situations. Your needs change depending on where you are, who you are with, what you’re doing, did you eat that day, did you sleep, did you get hurt. But universal design is a much better principle than accessibility, because we are starting from “How do I build this thing to make it accessible and enjoyable to the largest amount of people” at the start. Not the people with the most money. Even universal design is not going to do anything with the shitty ableist, white-supremacist attitudes that we carry. I think tackling white supremacy and ableism and the way they are dependent on each other—those two are interdependent—to me, that is what could lead to more of a long term and sustainable way to build accessibility. Just working down checklists and going for legislation hasn’t worked. Oh my gosh! Yes, improvements, of course, but an accessible future means burn it down and put different people in power. There. Just erase everything else I said. Burn it down and put different people in power! (laughs)
As a media artist, I take my work very seriously. You can tell I am a very silly person. But I take my responsibility and my accountability very seriously. I am always hoping that somebody will at some point come up and say, “I don’t like what you made and here is why. I don’t think you represented this correctly. I think you made a mistake. I think this isn’t fair.” I did get it the other day recently. I did an audio description of someone. He said, “A term that you used for how I look could be interpreted as an insult. Would you please use this other term to describe me?” Oh my gosh! What a gift from the heavens.
I want to be accountable. I want people to tell me how to make work that is better representation and that accomplishes more. So I take the responsibility of being a media maker very seriously, and I also hope that I make funny stuff. And I never, no matter how many jokes I am making or no matter how silly my content is, I never want accountability to take a back seat.
Cheryl Green, MFA, MS is a multi-media digital artist, captioner, audio describer, and 2017 AIR New Voices Scholar. She brings her own lived experience with multiple invisible cognitive and physical disabilities to creating media that explores stories and politics from disability communities. She has been especially involved in issues of brain trauma and cognitive impairment. Cheryl is an audio producer for the Disability Visibility Podcast and a Member-Owner at New Day Films. Her audio and written blog, transcribed podcast, and documentary films are at whoamitostopit.com.