BLOG: Disability is Diversity


When I think about last year the word that comes to mind is exhausting.

I am the Executive Director of a nonprofit, Backbones, serving people with disabilities; I was putting together a disability film festival; and, I was trying to do some art stuff – you know, working and living! On top of that, with the new administration, there were constant threats to everything I am and defending my very existence became a daily occurence.

Women have no value – grab them by the pussy!

Mexicans are monsters – they’re rapists and murderers!

Disabled people are less than human – mock them and institutionalize them!

And then proposed cuts for National Endowment For The Arts and Medicare and Social Security and it finally hit me — was I even worth anything as a person to the people who govern the country I live in?

Early in the year when I was accepted to SFAI for an art residency for equal justice I thought “Yes! Equal justice and art! This is right up my alley!” but when the time came around for me to go in October 2017, I was exhausted. And just weeks before, I had almost come to dread “equal justice” for the first time. I was tired of defending my existence, fighting for the rights of myself and others, and feeling hopeless about a new injustice every day. I was tired of ignorance and having to educate. I honestly wasn’t very excited to talk about problems and changing the world — I just wanted a break, to wear my pajamas for a month and paint pretty things.

As a person with a spinal cord injury and wheelchair user since the age of 13, I have learned that the world was not built for people like me and navigating it isn’t always easy. I don’t often have the luxury of spontaneity because just one step can stop me in my tracks and make my end point unattainable. I plan and I think twenty steps ahead. My life is a strategy game. I call ahead when I go to restaurants to ask if they have any steps, I find out if the theater or concert venues have wheelchair seating, I travel to cities with good accessible public transportation and a fleet of wheelchair taxis that are usually unreliable, I devise back up plans if the rest rooms to anywhere I am going are not accessible. Usually, when I call to get answers to these questions the person on the other end is not a person with a disability and is very casual about the definition of access. I never fully trust their answers and always expect for something to go wrong.

That’s how I felt about SFAI – skeptical – not because of our interactions but because of my own experience. I had been accepted as a Creative Access resident, funded by the Craig Neilsen Foundation (CNF) specifically for people with spinal cord injury. Having the CNF approval was a plus but I still had my doubts that the staff was providing accurate information. Even though I asked the questions and requested photographs, I felt it was like the hotel photos making it look better than it actually was.

I was mistaken. When I got to SFAI the staff was friendly, my room was accessible, the bathroom was spacious and my studio had enough turning space and a table that was the right size and height (and adjustable). When I requested to raise my bed a bit higher for me transfer in and out safely I expected to wait a few days for that to happen. I was pleasantly surprised to have staff in my room working on it in less than an hour.

As I began to interact with other artists in residence our conversations were centered around art and not, What happened to you?  Or How come you’re in a wheelchair?  It was refreshing to see artists work around the clock when inspired but also take time for self-care.

Normally, I have trouble sleeping over an unsent email or unfinished grant application. The lack of sleep results in less productivity the next day. At SFAI I couldn’t sleep many nights but it was because my mind was racing thinking about art and ideas I wanted to explore. I was happy to be awake in the darkness. I allowed my body to sleep as much as it needed and when I opened my eyes it was exciting to leave my bed and give my body and mind over to the work. Art was home.

I realized how isolated and alone I had been feeling prior to coming to SFAI. That slowly began to dissipate, knowing that others were working towards a cause and using their art to do it. I was truly honored and lucky to be able to work alongside them. I felt understood. I felt relieved. I did not feel like an outcast. My thoughts were not a burden. Instead of leaving them behind, I gave them new life and gifted myself the time to learn from others, understand their work and support their journeys. I hope that my presence there was also of value to the other residents.

Because SFAI was set up and prepared to make my experience accessible, it made a huge difference — not only in how much I enjoyed the experience, but most importantly the ability for me to focus and do my work. If I had needed to use up a percentage of my time dealing with access issues and waiting for them to be resolved, my mind would then have been consumed on those details and not creating. I appreciated freeing up that brain space, usually occupied by stress and frustration, for some art and reflection.

People with disabilities do not have many opportunities as members of society – inadequate housing, high unemployment rates, access to education, etc. Many programs pride themselves on being diverse and inclusive; however, they often forget that disability is diversity and that inclusivity means including people of all abilities. Too often accessibility and inclusion are an afterthought and this can discourage people with disabilities from even applying to programs and residencies. SFAI, along with other Creative Access sites, are doing it right — but this should be common practice at art residencies and programs worldwide. It is a shame that the world loses out on brilliant minds with creative ideas simply because of two or three steps to get in the door. We are artists and our creative minds can come up with infinite ways to include all our fellow humans.

 

Reveca Torres was a 2017 SFAI Creative Access Fellow. She was injured and paralyzed in a car accident at the age of 13. After completing degrees in Fashion Design and Theatre Arts, Reveca worked as a costume designer and simultaneously worked with various organizations doing disability work in the realms of health & fitness, transitioning, recreation, education and peer support. She started a nonprofit called Backbones in 2009 after realizing that years of interaction and friendship with others living with spinal injuries (SCI) had made a significant impact in her self-image, confidence and drive to succeed.  Reveca wanted to ensure that others, especially those newly injured, had access to resources, information, and the same type of peer support she has had. She is the director of ReelAbilities Film Festival Chicago and has curated touring photography and art exhibitions that showcase the work of people with disabilities and bring awareness to disability rights. Reveca uses painting, illustration, photography, film, movement and other media as a form of expression and a tool for advocacy and social justice.

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