Disability as a Force for Cultural Innovation
3 minute read
September 9, 2020
There has been a seismic societal shift in the first half of 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic and the uprisings for racial justice in the United States. The pandemic has revealed our country’s deeply embedded economic and social inequities in which groups such as Black, brown, indigenous, older, and disabled people are considered disposable.
As people everywhere demand systemic changes and institutional accountability, disabled people have been involved in every movement as activists, artists, storytellers, and cultural workers. With a large number of people working from home, suddenly accessibility became a priority as more events and activities went online. #BlackLivesMatter protests against police brutality and racism brought attention to the role of white supremacy in the disproportionate death, suffering, and incarceration of Black people, many of whom are also disabled.
Culture change is inextricably linked to political and social change. When we imagine the just and pluralist future we want to collectively create, disabled people—who make up more than a billion people in the world and cross gender, racial, and economic lines—must be one of the central forces in visioning and crafting that change. We are at the forefront of evolving, re-engineering, and imagining social, cultural, and political systems to make accessibility for all not just a promise but a reality. Break The Story Vol. IV: Disability Visibility is a snapshot of current disability culture. Throughout this issue, disability is framed as a generative cultural force, a source of innovation, transformation, creativity, and joy. Each piece is either written by or features a BIPOC disabled or d/Deaf leader and covers some of the most exciting and groundbreaking work by disabled people in fashion, art, performance, entertainment, and activism.
Writer, performance artist, producer Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes being a performer and audience member at I wanna be with you everywhere (IWBWYE), a three-day event that took place in 2019 that was organized by disabled artists steeped in disability culture and access. Leah details how disabled wisdom shaped the creative process and structure of live performance and how these lessons can, and should be, applied to live performances for all audiences. “Disability justice art is a freedom portal, a temporary zone of disabled joy and cripworld pleasure and possibility. As disabled artists push the envelope of cripping art, we are making the next world that’s possible.”
Cultural producer, performer, and inclusion expert Claudia Alick outlines what grantmakers, grantees, and artists need to do to advance innovation in philanthropy in pop culture and performing arts.
Deaf journalist, writer, and activist Sara Nović hosts a conversation with two d/Deaf activists and creatives, Storm Smith and Rikki Poynter, on technology, accessibility, and the future of captions. Both Storm and Rikki share how being d/Deaf made them better creatives and storytellers.
I interview Andraéa LaVant, impact producer of the Netflix documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, from President Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions. LaVant shares insights on her experiences creating an entirely online impact campaign for the film with the late Stacey Park Milbern and how their lived expertise as disabled people proved to be an asset to their success. I also conducted an interview with Jen White-Johnson, a Black disabled artist, photographer, educator, and designer who created a series of portraits and signs with the hashtag #BlackDisabledLivesMatter about her art and social justice activism.
Be sure to check out our Fashion section featuring Stephanie Thomas, a Disability Fashion Styling Expert and Founder and CEO of Cur8able, a business dedicated to the art and science of dressing with disabilities.
There’s also a list of documentaries and books for further reading and exploration.
Change can be slow, building on the work of others, but it is happening everywhere—behind the scenes and in public. As every field is facing an overdue reckoning in systems and policies, this is an opportunity for cultural practitioners to take action, learn, and grow. In centering this issue on the expertise of disabled and d/Deaf people, our goal is for you to meet us where we are and recognize our ongoing contributions to, and innovations in, popular culture.
Alice Wong is the Guest Editor of Break The Story: Disability Visibility and Founder of the Disability Visibility Project. She is also the editor of a new anthology available now, Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century. (@SFdirewolf)