Tag Archives: activism

An Interview with Fran Odette

An Interview with Professor Fran Odette, George Brown College

By Derek Newman-Stille

Q: To start off our interview, could you tell readers a bit about yourself?

Fran Odette: Wow, this is always a challenging question but here goes…I am a professor at George Brown College, in the Assaulted Women and Children’s Advocate Program as well as in the Social Service Worker Program. I identify as a queer, cis-gender female, settler and I have multiple disability experiences. I am a wheelchair user and am also hard of hearing, so I use hearing aids.

Q: Could you tell us a little bit about your relationship to disability?

Fran Odette: I was born with a genetic condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, Latin for ‘imperfect bone development’. It was hoped when I was young that surgery referred to as ‘rodding’ would allow me to be mobile and walk with braces and a walker…at the pace slower than a snail. This did not provide a good quality of life for me and so I opted for using a wheelchair for mobility and never looked back. It’s interesting that my relationship to disability started very early where my parents were told that when I was born that they should take me home because I did not have a long life expectancy – I think they told my parents maybe three months and now I am almost 58 years old. In many ways, that also affected bonding with my parents who were always worried about when the next ‘shoe’ would drop and something dramatic would happen to me. The influences of the medical model was alive as a young child as my life was always seen as somewhat precarious, in the eyes of others, whereas I saw my life very differently.

Q: How did you get involved in Disabled activism?

Fran Odette: I think much of my involvement around disability activism came from my own experiences of having to fight to be included and seen as someone who was capable as anyone else to do whatever; go to school, perform well on my job, be seen as someone who was a potential partner, a future parent, etc. When I was finishing my degree, I was dealing with an emotionally abusive partner who had followed me from one city to another. In my efforts to get out of the relationship, I met a wonderful counselor who supported me to see that in spite of my efforts to be the best that I could be, I was not going to be able to change my partner… that was up to him.

I came to realize that a lot of what I was experiencing was not only internalized sexism but also ableism. It was hard to tease out the complexities between the two, but I thought if I was struggling and was someone who was articulate, was able to advocate for myself, what about all the women with disabilities who were staying in abusive relationships because they did not have access to supports that could facilitate getting them out of the abuse and into safer spaces, such as shelters or other kinds of housing where they were not reliant on their abusive partners. It was my own experience in seeking supports, that I later became interested in wanting to learn more about other cis-gender women’s experiences who were dealing with violence in their lives. As a result, I later worked as a research assistant on the first official province-wide research for Office for the Status of Women (Ontario), looking at issues impacting women with disabilities in abusive relationships.

Q: Much of your work involves the exploration of the intersection of gender and disability with a particular focus on disabled women. What interests you about the exploration of disabled women’s lives?

Fran Odette: While I was completing my Masters, I was the only visibly disabled student in the program. Oftentimes, I would be asked by the faculty to comment on the experiences of disabled women. Perhaps it was unintentional, but I felt like I had somehow become the ‘spokesperson’ of disabled women… I began to wonder what were the experiences of other disabled women and so I took it upon myself to start reading anthologies by disabled women such as The Power of Each Breath, and began to see myself within the pages. I later ended up doing research on the DisAbled Women’s Network Canada, a grass-roots response to the failure of the mainstream women’s movement and also the disability rights movement to include disability and gender as part of their overall analysis leading to disabled women having to organize collectively to ensure that our issues were on the agenda.

Q: Some of your research explores institutional and personal abuses for Disabled people. Are you comfortable telling us a bit about what trends you have noticed?

Fran Odette: Yes, when I returned to Toronto I ended up working with the Disabled Women’s Network, Ontario where I shadowed mentors who had been the founding ‘mothers’ of DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN), Canada. Ms. Pat Israel, was/is a mentor and wonderful colleague/friend who I feel indebted to for the incredible learning I gained from my early days as a ‘baby’ activist. While I was with DAWN, I met other non-disabled allies who felt that the conversations needed to be expanded as it was not just disabled women experiencing violence, but rather disabled people were vulnerable and at a higher risk for abuse by family, caregivers and other professionals. I later went on to work for the Ontario Provincial government where I worked on addressing the creation of policies and practices so as to ensure safeguards against abuse for persons who were institutionalized.


Q: What inspired your interest in narratives of the abuse of disabled people?


Fran Odette: I think that hearing the stories from people who have the lived experiences around violence are so important… and oftentimes it is those of us who are the most marginalized whose voices are erased or taken up in specific ways that are created by non-disabled people. Similar to when we are talking about supporting ‘victims’ or what I prefer to say are ‘survivors’ of violence, we need to remember that as providers we are not the experts. We have not lived with the abuser nor do we know the ways that survivors have ‘survived’ til now and what we need to do is ensure always that the person is in control. Similarly, I think that when reading texts about ‘how to work’ with disabled people oftentimes there is a particular ‘spin’ on the narrative, which may contribute further to seeing disabled people as ‘victims’ whose lives are already ‘tragic’ because of living with a disability. For many of us, we have had few opportunities perhaps even before getting into the abusive relationship, where we have not had control over our lives because of the dominant narratives that exist around disability, gender and violence. I feel that it is critical if we are going to make change and if folks who are committed to working in allyship with disabled people, LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities, we need to listen and hear what people need and want because we are the experts of our experience and the role I think of service providers is to facilitate opportunities for folks to get the kind of supports that work best for them.

Q: Disabled people are frequently de-sexualized in our society, yet we are, of course, sexual beings. You have done work exploring sexuality and disability. What were some of the things that stood out to you as important?

Fran Odette: When I think about sexuality within a Western context, I would say that much of how we have come to think about sex and sexuality has been skewed by the media. The messages about what it means to be ‘sexy’ or ‘desirable’ are dominated by unrealistic expectations and images which are unattainable at the least and damaging for all of us. I think that in actuality we live in a world that is quite sex-phobic. When we think about “disability” and “sexy”, these two tend not to be in the same sentence. It’s hard to find good sex-positive information that speaks to the experiences of disability and what it means to be desired. In looking at this issue, I joined with Dr. Miriam Kaufman and Cory Silverberg to co-author a book called The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability. It really isn’t the ultimate guide, but it was meant to be a resource that spoke not just to disabled people. Throughout the book, the voices of disabled people were interwoven.

Q: Much of your work has focused on the importance of Disabled people’s narratives and of us speaking our own narratives instead of Abled people speaking over us. Can you tell us a bit about why sharing our stories is so important?

Fran Odette: I think that what is key is that disabled people have always been here; we have been part of community centuries before medicine, the church and government influenced the ways in which we have come to understand the concepts of disability and impairment. We also know that many of us have experienced a history that speaks to a long legacy that has not been kind to us, that has actively worked towards eliminating or excluding us from being part of community. I think that because of legislation and proactive policies and practices, we are seeing more disabled people being part of the community and there is a demand that we take our rightful place in society and that we are no longer willing to be hidden away because of our differences.

Q: You have a passion for teaching about disability. What are some of the important things that you want your students to learn about Disabled people?

Fran Odette: I love it when there are the ‘aha’ moments; when students come together and are seeing the connections between their own experiences of marginality and that of disabled people. To hear from students who have never heard our history and have wondered ‘why’ it is only in this course that I teach that this history is becoming known? Why is that? I also love it when students are able to make connections about their own experiences of disability and take up those connections in a space that felt safe to unpack their own assumptions and to start seeing disability as an ‘identity’ could be something that could be positive.

Q: Is there a way that readers can find out more about your research and social justice work?

Fran Odette: I would imagine, you might be able to do a google search with my name. Even I am amazed where I will find my name and the connections that exist.

Queering Disability and Disabling Queerness: A Panel on Access

As part of Peterborough’s Queer Pride Week, I organized a panel with Tessa Smith featuring Fiona Patton, Shannon Avery, Ronnie Ritchie, and myself, Derek Newman-Stille. Our panel was created to bring access to the way that our Queer community and Disabled community overlap while bringing attention to the fact Pride events in most locations tend to be inaccessible or only feature able-bodied people.

We wanted to explore not just the way that Queerness and Disability come together, but also the way that these identities can conflict. We explore the ableism in Queer “safe spaces” and the homophobia in Disabled “safe spaces”. We wanted a panel of diverse Queer people with disabilities and found people that occupy many different roles in our communities from writers to artists to students to activists.

We want to acknowledge the support of Peterborough Pride, the Rainbow Services Organization, and Traill College at Trent University for their support of this event.

This video was filmed at Bagnani Hall at Traill College, Trent University in Peterborough Ontario, Canada.

Please allow time for the video to appear

Queering Disability event

Interview with Nicolette Barischoff

Interview with Nicolette Barischoff

By Derek Newman-Stille

nicolette

I was able to work with the wonderful Nicolette Barischoff when we were both included in the collection Accessing the Future (edited by Kathryn Allan and Djibril al-Ayad) a few years ago and just recently had the pleasure of working with Nicolette again when she edited my personal narrative submission as part of Uncanny Magazine’s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. As always, Nicolette had a plethora of ideas and I realized I had to share some of her insights with readers here on Dis(Abled) Embodiment. I want to thank Nicolette for joining us here and taking the time to do an interview.

 

Q: To start our interview off, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?

 

Nicolette Barischoff: Well, I’m a speculative fiction writer. That’s probably the least visible and most important thing I do.  I’m also a chronically naked performance artist and art model. That’s a big part of my activism. It’s very important to me that we get people used to seeing many different types of bodies, and that we normalize the sight of visibly disabled bodies in particular. I have Spastic Cerebral Palsy and I use a wheelchair unless I feel like crawling (which I do, frequently).

 

Q: Could you tell us a bit about how you interact with disability in various ways?

 

Nicolette Barischoff: I resisted disability as a large part of my identity for a the greater part of my life. I’ve always identified as disabled (having a visible disability kind of forces you to be out and proud) but I fiercely resisted the idea of myself as Disabled Writer or a Disability Activist throughout my teens and early twenties. I think I thought of able-bodied peoples’ preoccupation with my disability as a distraction from the things I really wanted to say and write. To a certain degree, I still think that’s true. But as I grew into a proper adult, and as body and sex positivity became more and more important to me, I realized that I couldn’t be Body-Positive without being actively Disability-Positive. I have a very visibly disabled body. It’s the body I will always have. The two activisms are not separate spheres. They never can be.

 

Q: How have you interacted with ableism in the past?

 

Nicolette Barischoff: For me, ableism always seems to take the form of a struggle over personal autonomy. Many of the abled people in our lives really do want to empower us to make our own choices, but they often have trouble respecting those choices when they find them alarming or inconvenient or odd. They feel entitled, often compelled, to step in. Every disabled person I have ever met has at one time or another had their personal autonomy overridden for the comfort and convenience of the able-bodied, sometimes for the comfort and convenience of total strangers. Another off-shoot of this kind of ableism is when a disabled person is denied the assistance they need in the name of promoting their autonomy. I often encounter this at women’s clinics, where they don’t let my partner/assistant past the front desk in the name of protecting my privacy. Able people often fail to recognize a disabled person’s autonomy when it comes in the form of assisted living.

 

To be a true advocate for disabled rights (or human rights generally) is to empower autonomy, even when that autonomy is expressed in ways you do not fully understand or support.

 

Q: What does Disability Pride mean to you and what does it mean to be part of a disabled community?

 

Nicolette Barischoff:  To me, Disability Pride is Body Pride. It’s about coming to terms with the enormous variety of bodies there are in the universe, and celebrating them. There is no such thing as a “normal” body, or even a “fully-functioning” body. Every person on earth is just trying to get the most out of the body they’ve got. Disability Pride for me is about building worlds for the bodies we actually have, instead of trying to shove every body under the wheels of a great big Normalizing Machine.

 

Q: What potential is there is science fiction for thinking about disability in a different way?

 

Nicolette Barischoff: Science fiction is all about changing the shape of the world. It’s a genre that offers us the space (sometimes literally!) to imagine societies that fit our varied bodies. (Andi Buchanan would call these non-disabling worlds, worlds that don’t favor one type of body above all others.) Science fiction has all kinds of bodies and societies depicted in it. It’s kind of tailor-made for exploring relative concepts like disability.

 

Q: What are some pitfalls that literature gets into when portraying disability? What are some of the problematic tropes that arise?

 

Nicolette Barischoff:  We have had many talented essayists devote a great many words to answering this question over at Uncanny, so I won’t try to outdo them.  But I will say that one of the most common problems I see in disabled characters written by abled writers is a preoccupation with disability itself. Real disabled people have very bored and boring relationships to their bodies (because, you know, we live in them). When I wake up to my spine arching like the Brooklyn bridge, I don’t think “Oh, Gods, my disability! I hate this, this is so unfair!” I probably only have time to think, “Oh, fuck my back, today… Maybe a bath will help?”

 

Q: There is often pressure on those of us with disabilities to write about disability. How have you balanced this pressure to write disability with all of the other things you want to write about?

 

Nicolette Barischoff: Good question! And one I haven’t really found a good answer to, yet. I suppose the short answer would be that I’m very choosy about who I write about disability for. And my disabled characters don’t get to come out of my head until I have the right story for them.

 

Q: You wrote for the collection Accessing the Future. What was it like to write for an anthology that centred disability and didn’t seek to erase us from the future like so many tales of the future do?

 

Nicolette Barischoff: Wonderful! Accessing the Future means a great deal to me. It was the first science fiction story I ever wrote.

 

Q: In your story “Pirate Songs” as part of Accessing the Future, you create a wheelchair user, Margo, who is thrust into an alien environment. What was the inspiration for Margo, and in what ways was “Pirate Songs” ultimately about all of us disabled people feeling as though we have been thrust into an environment that is alien to our bodies?

 

Nicolette Barischoff: “Pirate Songs” is really a story about the fluid and flexible nature of privilege: the idea that a person can be extraordinarily privileged in some respects and utterly marginalized in others, that a person can be marvelously privileged in one environment, and horribly disadvantaged in another. The character of Margo came about as a result of a fun, funny thought experiment. Say you plucked someone from a very sleek, progressive, Roddenberry-esque “Federation of Planets” kind of society (away from all the 127 holodecks and the food replicators and the androids that play the violin) and you plunked them down in a backwater, somewhere at the very far edges of that society. What would they find? All societies look different at the margins, no matter how advanced they consider themselves to be, and if a person is disabled, that difference is all the more keenly felt. Disability is treated very differently in societies and subcultures that lack the resources to create non-disabling environments. Fear or hatred of disability often comes about when a society is too resource-poor to accommodate it.

 

Q: In what ways can our art (writing, visual arts, theatre, music) be an act of resistance to an ableist world? How can we evoke change through our art?

 

Nicolette Barischoff: I think change happens naturally as a result of the kinds of art and stories we produce. There’s a reason why book burnings and book bannings are a cornerstone of any burgeoning fascist regime. It’s because stories are natural vehicles for making us think new and uncomfortable thoughts by ancient and comfortable methods. We don’t need to TRY to make change with art. Art, by its nature, changes. All we need to do is write good stories full of wise and sensitive and beautiful human things.

 

Q: What are some things we can be doing to increase the profile of marginalized stories? So often, one of the biggest challenges is getting the sort of attention for marginalized stories that are already in place for able-bodied, straight, white, cis-gendered men’s narratives. How do we challenge this privilege in publishing?

 

Nicolette Barischoff: Good question. I don’t know that I’m entirely qualified to answer it. I think one thing we can do is invent new and unconventional ways of promoting stories. New platforms for doing so are popping up faster than publishing houses can make use of them. This is good. This subverts the gatekeepers.

 

Q: You are currently editing the personal narratives section of the Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction collection from Uncanny Magazine. What are some of the most rewarding parts of reading and sharing these personal narratives?

 

Nicolette Barischoff: It was always a fun surprise to me what each essayist chose to write about. Discovering which characters and stories are important to people and why. Oftentimes, two essayists would express totally opposite opinions on the disability rep in the same work of fiction, and they’d both make absolutely fabulous essays. That’s the sort of stuff that makes editing fun!

 

Q: What thoughts, perspectives, and ideas have these personal narratives evoked for you? How have the stories of other people opened up new viewpoints for you?

 

Nicolette Barischoff: One head-smacking moment occurred for me while reading Elise Mattheson’s essay “The Only Thing Faster Than Tonight: Mr Darkness.” She spoke on the idea that disabled people are often thought to be remarkable for simply existing (we’ve all been called “amazing” by dim and kindly strangers before, right? )  She points out that the mere fact that disabled people are alive and occupying the same space seems remarkable to able-bodied people, because there is an unspoken and unconscious belief that disabled people aren’t supposed to survive. That they aren’t supposed to live long enough to do perfectly ordinary things. That thought was a sharp tack to suddenly sit on! I couldn’t believe that I’d never thought about that aspect of it before. Anyway, there were a lot of little moments like that.

 

Q: What other current projects are you working on and how can readers find out more about your projects?

 

Nicolette Barischoff: The novel. Always the novel!  (The details of which are still misty and mysterious and very top-secret). I also have some pretty epic body-positive performance art planned for the coming year, so look out for that. You can find me on Twitter @nbarischoff or you can look up my dusty little blog, Turtles Have the Best Dreams.

 

——

 

Bio:

Nicolette Barischoff was born with spastic cerebral palsy, which has only made her more awesome. Her fiction has appeared in Long HiddenAccessing the FutureThe Journal of Unlikely AcademiaPodcastle, and Angels of the Meanwhile. She regularly writes about disability, feminism, sex- and body-positivity, and how all these fit together. Her personal essays on these topics get read way more than her fiction does, which is only a little annoying. She regularly collaborates with visual and performance artists to promote normalization of visibly disabled bodies. She’s been on the front page of CBS New York, where they called her activism public pornography and suggested her face was a Public Order Crime.