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← The art of seeing: how to look at disability | Margaret Keller | TEDxBerkshires

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Showing Revision 12 created 02/05/2020 by Theresa Ranft.

  1. A memory from my childhood
    in the 1970s:
  2. being at the grocery store
    with my older sister
  3. and seeing someone in a wheelchair,
    whose head was bent to the side.
  4. Now, as a kid, I tended
    to sort people into categories:
  5. adult or child, boy or girl.
  6. And this was someone
    I had trouble sorting.
  7. I couldn't tell how old they were,
  8. I couldn't tell
    if they were looking at me,
  9. I couldn't really tell if they could see.
  10. And I remember tugging on
    my sister's sleeve to ask her a question
  11. and her nudging me with her elbow
    and whispering, "Don't stare!"
  12. "Don't stare."
  13. To the extent that I thought
    about disability as a child,
  14. the message I took away was "Don't look."
  15. And in the 1970s,
  16. "look away" might have been
    the dominant ethos of our culture
  17. when it came to disability.
  18. This was an era before the passage
    of historic legislation,
  19. ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act,
  20. before integrated classrooms
    and the rise of mainstreaming,
  21. a period when it wasn't uncommon
    for people with developmental disabilities
  22. to be sent to live
    away from their families
  23. in institutional settings.
  24. Our culture at this point
  25. worked pretty hard
    to make disability invisible.
  26. One exception
    was the Jerry Lewis Telethon.
  27. And you probably remember Jerry's kids.
  28. The telethon explicitly asked us to look.
  29. In 1976, the Muscular Dystrophy
    Association Telethon
  30. was broadcast on 213 stations
    for 21.5 hours,
  31. with musical skits and performances
  32. punctuated by Lewis' impassioned pleas
    on behalf of his kids -
  33. often not kids at all,
    but adults with disabilities
  34. who were relegated
    to the land of eternal childhood.
  35. If we're considering the place
    of disability in American culture
  36. during my formative years,
  37. we might say we have a bit of a paradox
  38. centered on how to look.
  39. On the one hand, our culture
    is telling us, "Don't look!"
  40. Disability is cast as an illness
  41. that we, the television viewers,
    the onlookers, are meant to cure.
  42. Fast-forward till now, 30-odd years later.
  43. So much has changed.
  44. We've seen athletes with disabilities
    compete in the Paralympics,
  45. the Olympics, the Special Olympics.
  46. The disability rights movement
    has made enormous strides.
  47. There's a growing number of actors
    with disabilities on stage and screen.
  48. Our children go to integrated schools.
  49. Integration is widely accepted,
  50. if not as the norm then as a desired goal.
  51. But if we're being honest with ourselves,
  52. we have to acknowledge
    that we still have a long way to go,
  53. particularly when it comes
    to developmental disabilities, perhaps.
  54. We still live in a culture where people
    use the R-word as a casual epithet,
  55. where there's an online movement
  56. dedicated to helping us
    spread the word to end the word.
  57. For many of us, if we're being honest,
  58. there's still a degree
    of discomfort about disability.
  59. Maybe we're not sure
    how to read someone with a disability.
  60. Maybe we're not sure what to say,
  61. and we're afraid
    we'll say the wrong thing.
  62. Maybe we're not sure how to communicate
    with someone who might be nonverbal,
  63. or whose speech might be different,
  64. or who we perceive
    in some way as different.
  65. To a large extent,
  66. we've inherited this paradox
    of how to look at disability.
  67. So how do we find our way out of this box?
  68. How do we create new ways of seeing,
  69. ways that allow us to break out
    of the culture of invisibility,
  70. ways that allow us
    to see the whole person
  71. not as an object of sympathy or a child
  72. but as a multi-faceted human being?
  73. Implicit in this question
  74. is an acknowledgment
    of the limits of sympathy.
  75. Sympathy has a kind of built-in disparity.
  76. It presupposes an unequal equation,
  77. where one person empowered,
    seemingly whole,
  78. bestows something on another
    less empowered, less whole.
  79. Sympathy may have its place,
  80. but it's no basis
    for a long-term relationship.
  81. It's a one-way arrow,
    not a two-way street.
  82. How do we move beyond
    the limits of sympathy?
  83. How do we see differently?
  84. Here's one powerful answer:
  85. art.
  86. I want to ask you right now
  87. to think about a powerful experience
    that you've had in the arts,
  88. a moment where something moved you -
  89. a painting, a play,
    a piece of music, a work of dance.
  90. I want you to try to remember that moment,
  91. to hold it in your mind
    and unpack what was happening inside you.
  92. So a recent moment for me,
    just a couple of weeks ago, in fact,
  93. was a trip to the new Whitney Museum
  94. in New York.
  95. I was walking through the galleries
  96. and stumbled upon "The Seasons" -
  97. a painting by Lee Krasner
  98. made after the death
    of her husband, Jackson Pollock.
  99. It's a massive work
    covering a really large wall,
  100. full of sweeping brushstrokes
  101. with bright pinky reds
    and deep vegetal greens.
  102. You can just imagine the artist's arms
    reaching high and wide
  103. to circle the canvas
    and create these round, ripe shapes.
  104. After Pollock's death, Krasner wondered
    whether she'd ever paint again,
  105. and this painting was her answer.
  106. I found myself transfixed.
  107. I don't know if you've had that experience
  108. where you're walking through a museum,
  109. you're pondering, nodding,
    making your museum face,
  110. and then something
    out of the blue just floors you.
  111. That was my experience.
  112. The painting just stopped me in my tracks.
  113. I wanted to linger, to take it in,
  114. to have a few moments to commune with it
  115. and respond to what it was offering.
  116. So, in a way, the painting
    provoked a kind of revelation.
  117. There are two senses
    to that word "revelation,"
  118. and I mean them both here:
  119. the sense that something
    is being revealed to us
  120. and also that in that revealing,
  121. something is awakened within us.
  122. We're alive and we're energized
    in that awakening.
  123. So how does all of this
    relate to disability and seeing?
  124. Five years ago,
  125. I had my first experience
    as an audience member
  126. at a performance showcasing
    artists with disabilities.
  127. The dancers, actors, jugglers,
    singers I saw on stage
  128. all had developmental disabilities.
  129. I remember watching a group of dancers
    in Dawn Lane's Moving Company
  130. in a piece called "Resilience."
  131. It was an elegant, moving performance
  132. where the dancers
  133. creatively riffed on the idea
    of children playing on a playground.
  134. The overall theme of the show
    was "Sticks and Stones."
  135. And in their movements,
    the dancers acted out playground taunts.
  136. At the end of the piece,
  137. a dancer with Down syndrome
    began swinging on a simple wooden swing
  138. that had been installed
    as part of the set.
  139. Her movements were graceful,
  140. and they were beautiful.
  141. But there was also something
    almost defiant
  142. in the way that she soared overhead.
  143. It was like watching a dare,
  144. and it was riveting.
  145. I sat in the audience, suddenly joyful.
  146. And I wasn't the only one.
  147. I could see and feel others
    right there with me.
  148. It was a little like
    a floodgate had burst.
  149. There was almost
    a sense of relief in the air.
  150. The show was funny, and it was moving,
  151. and it was clever,
  152. but why was it so profoundly joyous?
  153. What was this wave that we,
    the audience, were all riding?
  154. Before that night, I hadn't thought
    that much about disability.
  155. And although I'd spent my career
    in the nonprofit arts and humanities,
  156. I hadn't thought that much
  157. about the relationship
    between art and disability.
  158. All I knew, sitting there,
  159. was that I wanted to bring
    my children back the next day
  160. so they could have this experience.
  161. I knew somehow that this single event,
  162. this night that I had watched,
  163. encapsulated so much of what
    I wanted to teach them about life,
  164. the deep and important stuff
    that we don't always know how to convey
  165. but that we want so much
    to pass on to our kids,
  166. about following our passions
  167. and bearing witness
    to what's deep inside us,
  168. about humanity even,
  169. what connects us, what binds us together.
  170. And I realized that what I was watching
    perfectly captured the power of the arts.
  171. Not because the performers
    were all experts or professional artists.
  172. They weren't.
  173. They were learning,
  174. carrying us along with them.
  175. But still the experience of watching them
  176. revealed for me, reminded me
  177. what art at its core does for us.
  178. Art brings us out of ourselves.
  179. When we're moved or engaged
    or even provoked
  180. by a novel or a play or a painting
  181. or a work of dance or music,
  182. we are led into an encounter
    with another perspective.
  183. So art, in this sense,
    is always about a kind of epiphany.
  184. It's a moment of revelation
  185. that opens up a new landscape
    and a new set of ideas.
  186. Art that's connected to disability, then,
  187. can be explosively powerful
  188. for those of us whose lives
    have been spent outside that world.
  189. It suddenly gives us
    a point of connection,
  190. access to a whole new way of seeing.
  191. And this experience can break through
    the paradox of looking
  192. that I was describing earlier.
  193. Many of us in the audience that night
  194. had inherited the legacy
    of one-way seeing,
  195. whether we knew it or not.
  196. Watching art created by people
    with developmental disabilities
  197. shattered this history.
  198. The joy that I could feel in the audience
    was a kind of release,
  199. like the sound of a glass cage breaking.
  200. Watching the performance,
  201. we saw the talents
    and the abilities of the performers.
  202. We had a glimpse of their perspective.
  203. We swung on the swing
    with the dancer with Down syndrome
  204. and felt the breeze in our face.
  205. The arrow was now two ways.
  206. Someone was looking back.
  207. My experience in the theater that night
  208. led me a few years later to my new career
  209. as executive director
    of the same organization,
  210. Community Access to the Arts,
  211. a nonprofit that nurtures and celebrates
    the creativity of people with disabilities
  212. through the arts, visual and performing.
  213. Founded 23 years ago
    by dance therapist Sandy Newman,
  214. CATA has been at the cutting edge
    of a growing movement
  215. in what is sometimes called
    "disability art."
  216. I'm still new to this field
  217. and new, too, to the ways
    of seeing that I've described.
  218. But you don't have to be propelled
    into a career change
  219. to have an experience like that
  220. change you.
  221. Art pushes us to move
    beyond charity, beyond sympathy
  222. to something bigger,
  223. something reciprocal.
  224. As an audience member,
    you and the performers you watch
  225. are mutually enlarged
    by your participation in that moment.
  226. And this works just as well
    in the visual arts.
  227. These are self-portraits
    from a CATA workshop
  228. led by faculty artist Janice Shields.
  229. They reflect many different
    ability levels,
  230. from mark-making to a talent
    for mixing watercolor
  231. to detailed portraiture.
  232. But they all capture what happens
    when we look through art.
  233. On one half of the page,
    we see a photograph of a CATA artist.
  234. On the other, we see
    that artist's self-portrait.
  235. I love that we literally need
    the artist's perspective
  236. to create a complete image,
  237. a whole face.
  238. And that completed image
    challenges us as viewers
  239. to synthesize these two parts:
  240. what we see initially
  241. and what the artist
    offers us of him or herself.
  242. We are asked by these works
  243. to stitch together
    the physical exterior of the artist
  244. with the imagination that lies within.
  245. The artists present us here with a gift,
  246. an opportunity to see in a way
  247. that is authentic, whole,
    and grounded in connection.
  248. This new way of seeing
    lets us see ourselves in a new light too.
  249. For if the old dynamic
    of an "us" and a "them"
  250. was based on a limited sense of "them,"
  251. it was also based
    on a limited sense of "us."
  252. When we let the power of art move us,
  253. we make space for revelation, for wonder.
  254. And the force of that revelation can upend
  255. even the most deeply held prejudices,
  256. even those we didn't know we harbored.
  257. We discard our old lenses
  258. and see with fresh eyes.
  259. We see that we are all "us."
  260. These works of art were made by artists
    with disabilities in our community.
  261. Go and stare!