Graduate students’ brain-bender challenges perceptions of disability and ability

Danielle Peers and Lindsay Eales Graduate students Lindsay Eales and Danielle Peers (MA 2009) will present at the 'Materiality and Independence' conference on May 4

A material culture conference looking at aspects of disability and ability in the built environment is drawing some of the world’s most fascinating speakers on the subject. Among them will be graduate students Lindsay Eales, award-winning director of IDance, an integrated dance group comprising a wide range of dancers, some of whom experience disability, and Danielle Peers, Vanier and Trudeau scholarship winner, and a high performance wheelchair basketball athlete who’s played at the national level both as an able-bodied athlete and as one who experiences disability.

The result is a kaleidoscopic presentation/performance melding movement, spoken word, and the theory of ‘assemblages’ – creating new and provocative ways to see and use the ‘tools’ of disability.

The talk, “Moving Materiality: re-imagining flesh-wheelchair subjectivity,” explores Peers’ use of tools for what she describes as “my chosen mobility – wheelchair, crutches, oxygen, because they are perceived in very particular kinds of ways. It also explores ways that this tool use is similar to, and different from, Eales’ daily use of tools that are not always easily-recognizeable as tools of disability.”

Peers, who completed her MA in 2009 elaborates: “You use a pen, but it doesn’t change the way I see you, it doesn’t define you in any way and yet my wheelchair does. It defines who I am to those around me. So I’m interested in seeing not only how tools are designed – they’re designed for physical mobility - but in the way they give or take away from social mobility and political mobilization. I move with my different tools – I walk, I crutch, I wheel; I use different wheelchairs; I have different capacities to physically move but I have a very different sense of social mobility.”

That ‘sense of social mobility’ springs from how people react to the ‘tools’ associated with disability. “When I show up walking people talk to me and interact normally,” says Peers. “If I show up in a wheelchair, people either stare or look away. There’s a real discomfort. The only thing people can think of asking me about is my disability. So there’s a way in which it really immobilizes you socially and it’s more difficult to make social connections. People are afraid of the chair, afraid of disability.”

She points out how architectural designs hamper mobility as well, such as finding herself unable to vote at her polling station in the last election because it wasn’t accessible, or being confronted with stairs to get to a dance studio.

“In IDance,” says Eales, ”we try to create a space of multiple mobilities; they (dancers) may find physical mobility by dancing with tools like wheelchairs, walkers, canes, and we also design the space and the community in such a way that there’s a capacity to maximize the possibilities to mobilize socially and politically.”
The talk, bringing together their interests in integrated dance and sport is based, says Peers, “on a creative writing piece of mine about deciding every morning what to use and the choices that are actually embedded in them.”

“Our presentation looks at the relationship between people and things,” says Eales, noting they draw on three different ways in which people use technology. “One in which people see technology as separate from themselves; the second where people and things may exist together in context but are still independent of each other, and the third in which people and things are interconnected.”

An example might be a cell phone, says Peers. “We’re human and we just use the phone. It’s a utility. But we don’t think of wheelchairs in the same way, we say to sit ‘on’ a chair, but ‘in’ a wheelchair or ‘confined’ to a wheelchair. You are defined or confined by tools of disability whereas a pen or a cell phone might not be. A wheelchair defines you.

“But if we accept the idea that we are integrated – we are our technologies –it would allow us to understand and accept that the cell phone is as much as part of the hand as the hand is a part of the arm. There isn’t really a separation between us and the technology. It’s prosthetic; we’re all cyborgs – glasses, contact lenses, decorations, artificial limbs – these are social and cultural technologies. There is a way of seeing these tools as more integrated and not apart from each other.”

Thinking about the messages they want to convey, Eales says, “If we can re-imagine the relationships between people, maybe we can re-imagine design and relationships to disabilities, to tools, to communities of diversity.”

“Curiosity,” says Peers. “It’s the one thing that makes people doubt the way they see their world. Curiosity can open up massive amounts of change. If people can see or experience disability moving differently, they can understand that tools might not just be about physical mobility. If you ask yourself, ‘what do we do to exclude. to create bodies that are disabled? Or ‘what are we doing all the time that physically excludes people? If you question even one thing you’ve taken for granted, we’ll be ecstatic.”

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Excerpt from one of Danielle and Lindsay’s creative writing-movement pieces within the presentation:

“What disability do you have?” they ask. As though disability lives in and derives from the materiality of my body. As though disability equates to diagnosis. As though disability is betrayed by my tools.  “What disability do you have?” they ask. As though disability is something I have, like a wheelchair. Or that I can hold, like a pill bottle.

To have and to hold or to hold and then have? Like a thing… disability in its materiality: we hold x-rays, medical charts, tests, doctor’s signatures, measurable proof in order to have access to services.

We have unequal opportunities to hold a job, a degree, a home, a sense of dignity. The materialities of disability. To have and to hold. Till death do us part?”