Jamie Bedard asks am I disabled, or am I an artist? / 15 July 2010
Am I disabled? Am I an artist? Most definitely the former, arguably and intermittently, the latter. As for being a ´disabled artist;’ a minefield of assumptions, perceptions and definitions underlie this seemingly straight-foward description. I have, in the past, just ´got on with it´, without taking the time or care to analyse my real position in this morass of identity politics. However, as I do believe all art has a political dimension, and am supposed to be an artist, I have neglected my duties in not examining my place in the wider context.
My identity starts at home, wallowing amongst the detritus of the places I occupy; the family I am blessed with; the friends I manage to retain; the interests I stubbornly follow; the outward appearances I conjure up; the thoughts I manage to construe and the dubious principles I live by.
Moment to moment my story has unfolded - often mundane, usually bizarre, occasionally exciting - and these moments have cumulated to create the person I now am. The pages are being filled in, and this incomplete ´special interest\' manuscript reveals my identity. \'This One\'s On Me\' (clever, eh?) is hopefully a little way off general release!
A million bizarre and random instances have combined to propel my story thus far, and the journey which I continue to travel; a set of fluid, complex and infinite unknowns and possibilities. The anticipation and discovery of what exists around the next corner, is to my mind, the most compelling reason for continuing on the journey.
However, there are a few constants, anchors which remain fixed no matter how life's rich tapestry unravels. For me, disability is one of these; whatever occurs I am, have been and will always be disabled. The Lourdes option never seemed relevant, appealing or feasible. I ain´t broke, so don´t need fixing. The concept that we require mending, is to varying degrees, ridiculous, offensive, and incredibly psychologically damaging.
The assumption that we need correcting, coupled with the predictable failure of attempts to do so, is a harmful double whammy for young disabled people trying to negotiate their rightful place in an often hostile world. Formative years can be spent desperately clinging onto traces of identity and self-worth, against a backdrop of negative interventions, assumptions and stereotypes.
Growing up many moons ago, I remember many of my non-disabled friends spouting mohicans and associated accoutrements in brash attempts to get noticed. I on the other hand, was being manhandled into callipers, and undergoing elocution lessons for ´the hard of speaking´ in order to prevent me from getting noticed. Needless to say, these interventions were in vain, as my unusual gait and voice patterns won out, and trumped my friends´ unsightly mops in the ´standing out´ stakes!
Cut to some thirty years later, and my formative years are distant memories as I am now besieged by middle age. The anger, self-denial, lack of confidence and confusion of growing up, are largely forgotten chapters. In the main, I care less what the world makes of me, safe in the knowledge, that my own battles, negotiations and interactions, have created an environment that suits me, an identity which fits me.
Obviously buttons still get pushed, injustices still depress, people still infuriate and barriers still exist. However, I am happy in my skin, comfortable in my body, and understand that my disability is part of my DNA, my biography and at the core of who I am. So, I have had little choice and even less inclination to deny or hide my disability, and this realisation has led to liberation and on occasion, celebration.
The experience of disability is consequently present in all my work. New stories, experiences and perspectives should be the lifeblood of the arts, and should consequently place disabled artists, so long ignored or marginalised, at the forefront of creative practice and innovation. Initiatives are being aimed at disabled people, in attempts to redress some of the traditional exclusions, inequalities and scarcity of opportunities. Our part of the deal should be, at the very least, to be upfront, confident and savvy as disabled people and artists.
Much debate has ensued on spreading the net and ensuring inclusion of disabled people in the widest sense, or put another way, finding disabled people who may not yet identify as ´disabled?’ We want to get people on board, whilst not causing offence. Controversy surrounds ´tick-boxing,’ or ´coming out` as disabled in order to benefit from these opportunities and initiatives.
My own view is that a more robust approach is required, with ´disability´ being far more than a convenient currency or accessory which can be produced or hidden when suits. I understand that people have different experiences and journeys, and just as I have chosen my own path, so others have every right to make their own choices, and create their own identities. However the denial of, or apology for disability, does unfortunately preserve the status quo, consolidate inequalities and create less interesting art.
My work does not normally explicitly reference disability, just as I do not normally get up every-day contemplating another morning with a disability. I contemplate the day ahead, from the fuzzy, strange and inconsistent perspective of ´Jamie´, the ingredients of which are many and varied. My experience of, and relationship to disability is essential to this mix, and any attempt at omission would leave me incomplete, and fail to tell the whole story.