Tag Archives: accessibility

Being Told Accommodation is Not Possible… Until COVID

By Derek Newman-Stille

For many of us who are disabled, we have been told that accommodations for our disabilities would not be possible or feasible. We have been told that we couldn’t use technologies like Zoom, Skype, or Messenger to do our work remotely. We have been told that we couldn’t access conferences by remote technology. We have been told that we couldn’t attend workshops and creative community opportunities because the locations were not accessible and they would not be able to provide remote access.

So, imagine how we, as disabled people, feel now that all of these accommodations have been made in light of COVID-19. What is the difference between the impossibility of access before and the new “we want to make it visible that our company/workshop/conference/university/government job is accessible”? It’s a matter of which populations were affected. When it was only disabled people who were requesting access, these requests were denied. Now that the abled population is in need of accessibility too, not only are they immediately given access through remote technologies, businesses, universities, and governments are investing money into those technologies, providing workshops on how to use those technologies, and actively ADVERTISING that they are using these technologies to seem more cutting edge than other companies. Why is it that things that were “not possible” when disabled people asked for them are now not only abundantly possible, but also have money being thrown at them to make sure that they are the most accessible? The answer is ableism. When it is just disabled people, our needs are treated as an inconvenience. When abled people also need those points of access, they suddenly become a priority.

From personal experience, I have encountered this again and again with past jobs, with academic conferences (even some that highlight disability), and with writing conventions and workshops. I have been told that the accommodations I have requested would not be possible. I have been told that in-person presentations are essential to conferences… and those same conferences have now moved to an entirely online format. I have been told that no accommodations could be made at writing workshops and retreats (which are physically inaccessible)…. and those workshops and retreats are now online.

When I was being denied accommodations that were necessary for me to be able to participate, I knew that this was largely due to ableism. Early on, I tried to share technologies that would allow myself and other disabled people to participate and was told that these technologies would “complicate things”. I was aware that no one wanted to put the effort into making a space actually accessible. I was aware that they didn’t think it would be a loss to have disabled people unable to attend.

However, it still hurts to know that as soon as abled people are in need of accommodation — as soon as access is seen as not ‘just a disabled person issue’ — immediately companies, conferences, conventions, etc. invest resources into learning how to accommodate people and provide finances to achieve that accommodation. Moreover, the frustrating thing is that many of these accommodations had never actually involved cost on the part of these organizations. They were cost neutral and could be provided by free services like Skype.

This lack of accommodation is certainly not something new or unique, it is part of systemic ableism and part of a devaluing of disabled knowledge, experience, and personhood. Abled society tends to immediately think of disability and accommodation as an “inconvenience”. It is built into everyday rhetoric. We, as disabled people, have to constantly negotiate being viewed as inconvenient, frustrating, as impediments, and have our concerns viewed as frivolous.

Many of us are now asking what happens next. As many abled people are looking for a return to normal, many of us are seeing an opportunity for change, an opportunity for abled people to learn about the needs for accommodation and learn that workplaces should be flexible to provide for multiple needs and multiple forms of access.

Alice Wong talks about the fact that “the pandemic has brought about changes to accessibility for things that disabled people have been advocating for forever” in her Esquire article ‘Normal’ Was Actually Not Great for a Lot of People . She highlights writing opportunities that have been unavailable to her because she was told “you can’t do that. It’s too hard” and “there are too many issues” for her to access these spaces by Skype. Wong tells readers “My hope for coming out of this pandemic is that we don’t return to the status quo. Many people don’t realize that ‘normal’ was actually not great for a lot of people.”

Dorothy Palmer points out that as COVID-19 restrictions are being removed, so are many of our accessibility features and that disabled people are getting attacked for asking for a continuance of access when she states “Disabled writers in the US and CanLit are getting attacked for simply wanting to keep the same accessibility abled people had during the pandemic” in a tweet on June 12.

So how do we maintain access after COVID-19? How do we ensure that people can gain access to events and work places and accommodations in general when it goes back to being “just a disabled problem”? What can we do to make sure that things DON’T return to normal?

…Because normal was already exclusionary.

…Normal has ALWAYS been exclusionary.

Editorial by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

Spatializing Disability and Considering Belonging 

By Derek Newman-Stille

Access. Access is a central issue for disability since we live in a society that only creates space for able bodies. It assumes a singular bodily ontology and our physical spaces are moulded to conform to that single body. Those who don’t fit the mould are expected to make our bodies fit, to modify our bodies, movements, interactions to fit with a singular interpretation of space. 

In this construction, we are made exiles in our own homes, in our own cities, towns, and villages. We are expected to accept our position of non-belonging in our own spaces, assumed to be comfortable with all of the responsibilities of citizenship, but without the basics of belonging that citizenship claims to offer. We are imagined to be content on the fringes, margins, and edges, those few spaces that accommodate our bodies and provide us with access. 

So what does this mean for our notions of home? How do we disabled bodies fit in to a nation state that has geographic boundaries but makes these geographies inaccessible to us? How do we gain access?

Perhaps the disabled body provides us with a space for re-thinking belonging, for critically questioning how we can occupy and take up space. 

Our bodies are perceived as awkwardly occupying space. We notice this through the states we evoke, the way that we are both hypervisible (stared at) in public spaces and simultaneously invisible (particularly when we need help or when city planners develop architecture). Yet, maybe this positions us as bodies that are able to CHALLENGE ideas of belonging that exclude, maybe this positions is as radical bodies in a space that seeks to pacify through the rhetoric of normalcy (that is constructed only to make bodies and identities not belong). 

Maybe we need to consider belonging and citizenship trough the lens of access. Maybe we need to think about exclusion and barriers to belonging when we think about how we occupy or are made unable to occupy our spaces.

Dis Arts

By Derek Newman-Stille

Dis Art work by Derek Newman-Stille

Frequently, when people see the words “disability” and “art” in the same sentence, they assume that this means “art therapy”. This is partially because of the way we frame “disability” as something that always means “working toward being fixed” or “working toward a cure”. This idea is fundamentally ableist and assumes that disabled people only live in the context of medicalized lenses and that disabled people are only interested in being “fixed” – i.e. made into able-bodied people.

Art Therapy can be a worthwhile venture for people who are interested in therapeutic qualities of art and expression, but it is important to recognize that Dis Arts (art work by people with disabilities) is not the same as art therapy. Dis Arts is an expressive art form that may or may not stem from bodily experience. It is an art that expresses a disabled world view. It does not always have to be art that is specifically and noticeably about disability, but, rather, can be the expressions of a disabled person about other aspects of their lives, wider political commentaries, or expressions of beauty (art for art’s sake). 

I used to separate my disabled identity from my artistic identity, believing that I was creating fantasy art that had nothing to do with my disabled identity until people started to refer to me as a disabled artist. I had to pause and reconsider how my art reflects disability. I noticed that my art did show an interest in representing the body, and an interest in representing alterity (Otherness). As I was thinking about disability and art, I started to think about early diagnoses that I got from doctors about my learning disabilities. I was told early on that I would not be able to do art work because I have a fine motor disability. In fact, my early art work was described as consisting of “just scribbles” and early assessments told me that my “fine motor control is still quite immature”. These statements were repeated in later assessments even though I felt a compulsion to create art, to give context to the ideas in my imagination. In that way, art became a mechanism for me to resist hegemonic descriptions of my body. I refused to let my body be limited by the narratives that were imposed on it, so I devoted time to my art work. 

As I reflected on the idea of my art work being a resistance to narratives imposed on it, I realized that the act of making art itself was linked to my disability. It became something that stemmed from a resistant Crip empowered perspective. Even when I wasn’t creating art that specifically referenced my disability, my art was still a Dis Art, a work of counter-narrative to the medicalization of my body. 

After encountering the work of other Dis Arts performers and creators, I decided to venture into my own Dis Art and created several pieces that stemmed from my body itself, using the canvas as an extension of ideas about my body. I quickly found that the best medium for these art pieces was mixed media since mixed media, like my own body, is a conglomeration of objects, texts, and styles of art. It fit with my ideas of my own body as a composite of multiple different views and texts. I combined objects that seemed to resonate with my body into new images, focussing on my spine (for my spinal disability), my brain (for my learning disabilities), and ideas of the viewer, because people often stare at the disabled body. I assembled a series of mixed media works of art into a show titled Identity Masquerade: The Queer Crip Art of Derek Newman-Stille that I displayed as part of the Queer Coll(i/u)sions Conference, allowing the work to speak to people without my providing context for these pieces. I wanted people to reflect on the way that they saw these works of art, and to think about the way that the act of staring at art could reflect the way that people stare at the non-normate body. I emphasised this focus on staring by including mirrors in images that forced the watcher to stare at themselves as they tried to stare at the work of art. I included images of spines mixed with images of nude bodies to represent ideas of our bodied being rendered nude before the Gaze. 

Coming to Dis Arts was an act of self-discovery for me, an act of empowerment, and an act of vocalizing things that extended beyond words. 

Dis Arts are complicated because our disabled identities are complicated and are never fixed as one thing. Disabled bodies are fluid, and they intersect with our other identities as well as connecting to a community of artists who identify as disabled. There is a different kind of viewing in Dis Arts works, and it is one that involves the body, that implicates the body, and that invites the body into the art work being produced. Dis Arts can be an intensely political art – one that speaks to inaccessibility, a history of being Othered, the power of community, and the possibility of change.