“Why is disability still a mark of stain, not mark of existence, of wonderfulness, or of diverse perspectives?”
Task of the day: Record how many disability signs you see.
Wheelchair icon: Dorm entrance
Washington Square Park entrance
Above priority seating on the subway
Elevator at Gallatin building
Outside bathroom in library
Ignore the Marks
Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum is a 2013 novel about the social dynamic inside a residential facility for adolescents with disabilities. When Joanne, a disabled woman, and Ricky, an able-bodied man are eating in a restaurant, the waitress looks at and addresses only Ricky. “I have the power to become invisible in some restaurants,” Joanne says.1 Joanne disappears from the waitress the way disabled people often disappear in public life, assumed to be less than. No matter how many disability symbols abound, indicating the existence of disability, our preexisting notions of disabled as lesser than abled bodies seem to overpower these symbols and erase disabled community from the abled-bodied dominated world. By sarcastically calling the able-bodied’s tendency to dismiss her as a “power to be invisible,” Joanne hints at the contradiction between the visibility of disabilities and their invisibility: Being visibly disabled means becoming invisible.
Many disabled artists have taken up the markings of disability in their crafts. In 2009, Sue Austin, a physically disabled multimedia artist, put on an exhibition called Traces from a wheelchair. She uses paint on her wheelchair to make loops on grass and on paper. Against the green of the grass, two distinct thick white parallel lines mark a smooth path. First traveling straight, then smoothly taking a turn, the wheelchair creates tracks on the tiled pavement with fluidity like a slithering snake. The white trails, straight, curved and circular, lead from the grass onto the pavement into the gallery in Dorsey County, England.2
Inside the gallery, hanging on the walls are pieces of papers exhibiting the same straight, curved, and circular black marks. These lines weave across the entire walls, on and on and on, surrounding the viewers. These tracks evoke the very pavement “bipeds” walk on and the very grass they step onto. With only the traces of her wheelchair, it looks as if she wheeled into the gallery and onto the walls. Enveloped by Austin’s marks, viewers are forced to acknowledge disability is literally in the room. Austin’s marks enlighten people as to a different way of embodying a common space, a way with more fluidity and curvilinearity compared to bipedal steps. By surrounding the viewers with these wheelchair marks, Austin overwhelms with the presence of disability.
Austin’s wheelchair tracks do not solely accentuate the presence of disability around us. The fluidity of the marks contests the prevalent perception of wheelchairs as restriction. These tracks demonstrate to abled-bodied people the experience of riding a wheelchair from the point of view of a wheelchair user. “It was like having an enormous new toy,” Austin states in her TED Talk.3 Contrary to the way wheelchairs are commonly perceived, her chair has given her freedom to go places independently, to feel the air outside, and to have fun. Her wheelchair has brought freedom she has not had since she lost her ability to walk in 1994. The intersecting smooth circles and straight tracks demonstrate the variety of wheeled movement. “It was exciting to see the interested and surprised responses from people. It seemed to open up new perspectives,” Austin remarked.4 Disability marks not only remind us that disability does exist around us but also challenges the dominant perspectives that assistive technologies are restrictive. Austin’s wheelchair marks up the status quo.
Despite the expanded perspectives some viewers have acquired from this installation, others view the work as vandalism. When Sue Austin took her tracings into the street of Plymouth city with fellow artist Jack Morris, controversy arose. “Plymouth City Council has received complaints from locals unhappy about the paint which they do not see as art,” BBC News reported in its coverage of the event. “Peter Adams, manager of the Duke of Cornwall Hotel in the city, said they ‘lowered the tone’ of the area.”5 If we can understand Austin’s marks as the footprint of her wheels, then why does the familiar footprint suddenly become offensive?
Remove the Stains
A mark, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has two meanings: 1) “a line, figure, or symbol made as an indication or record of something; 2) A small area on a surface having a different colour from its surroundings, typically one caused by damage or dirt.”6 Condemning Austin’s wheelchair traces as an act of vandalism is seeing the marks as its second definition: a stain. Disability is often acknowledged as an impairment, as a form of stain.
In Nussbaum’s Good Kings, Bad Kings, all of the disabled teens in the residential facility are considered a burden by most of the house parents, and some have been abandoned by their own families. Some of the home parents who are supposed to take care of the teens resent assisting the teens and scold, hit, and sexually abuse them. Only very few of the physically disabled teens have been equipped with mechanical wheelchairs, and the rest have to be carried around. Michelle, an agent working for the company that owns the facility, collects disabled teens and sends them to the residential facility regardless of their wishes, just to fulfill her target number for commission. The owner of the company runs the facility on the lowest budget, minimizing the costs by cutting home parents and overworking them, while maximizing the profit by stuffing the facility with teens. Instead of building a environment helpful for the disabled teens to grow, the facility is purely for profit. In his 2017 essay “Cure Me? No, Thanks!” disabled writer Ben Mattlin discusses how disability is always seen as something that needs to be cured, as marks that needs to be removed. He points out the Food and Drug Administration approved the first drug for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) within three weeks, under “first review,” without fully understanding the long-term effects of the new drug. This implies the hurry to find a cure for SMA, which shows the perspective that SMA is a disease that needs to be cure immediately.7 In addition, disability scholar Tobin Siebers discusses the prevailing consideration of disability as dominated by what he calls the “ideology of ability,” which is “at its simplest the preference for able-bodiedness.”8 One of our modern conventions of the ideology of ability is it “simultaneously banishes disability and turns it into a principle of exclusion.”9 This reveals our tendency to exclude disability, to remove it from our society. Then when art that uses disability aestheticism emerges, disability become the reason the works are automatically invalidated. The ideology of ability helps explain how these marks are marked once more, as inferior and pitiable.
It’s telling to compare Jackson Pollock and Jefferey Mansfield’s work. One of the major painters in the abstract expressionist movement, Pollock drags his brush dipped with thick paint across the white canvas spread out on the ground. He traces his presence in the moment of painting, surrounded by the yellow rice straw swaying in the autumn wind, by translating the rhythm of fall onto the dips, dots, and drags of color in his hands. In Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), from 1950, the circular strings of black, white and yellow paint marks trace the spinning of his legs bent at the knee moving his upper body smoothly and drawing the arm with it. The exploded blobs of paint amidst the intertwining webs record the abrupt flips of his wrist splashing the paint from above onto the canvas. Suddenly, he moves up, throws his cigarette away without lifting his head, and waves his wrist quickly with strength. While his feet move horizontally to the left along the canvas, he dips his brush into the can and repeatedly waves it against the canvas.
In the video Paintings have a life of their own, screened at SFMoMA in 2016, Pollock shows his process of painting—a process of able-bodied mark-making. The paint breathes life directly through his movements of the body, arriving at the intersecting drip marks, lines, and dots of yellow, black and white on canvas that embodies Pollock’s emotions.
In a similar fashion, one of the pieces from Jeffrey Mansfield’s Gesture Drawing series, Dandelion is comprised of thin black marks. Two dense webs of lines weave together almost forming an ink blob in the left and right of the illustration. Wiggly lines, straight lines radiate out from the center and circles from the center and back, resembling four pedals of varied shapes. Different from Pollock’s, these lines are traces of sign language, from Clayton Valli’s performance of his own poem “Dandelion.” “Yellow flowers, many in the grounds, waving in the wind,” his hands moving gracefully, fingers coming together for a second and wiggling upward like a flower sneaking out of the mud for a peak of the world for the first time.10
The repeated movements of his fingers illustrating the dandelion “waving in the wind” formed the dense spots in the center of the drawing. Then Valli’s strong and rapid waving and pulling of the arm back and forth, as “Man comes, looks, angry, sees, yells: ‘DANDELIONS,’ pulls them out, mows” create the lines zigzagging from the center.11 Compared to the dense and smooth lines in the middle, these lines emanating from the center are hard-edged, and strong. The medley of lines together create this illustration that demonstrate the variety and depth of emotions buried in this ASL performance of “Dandelion,” the persistence of the little yellow flowers and the fury and cruelty of human actions. The little flowers continuously crashed by the cruel farmers symbolizes the deaf community which the abled-bodied community is constantly trying to fix.12 The poem is a channel for the deaf community to let the world hear the pain and oppression they have suffered and see their persistence despite of it. The hand gesture performance manifests this voice of the deaf community; the line illustration transforms this voice into a permanent mark for the art world.
One is an avant-garde painting translation of the graceful movement of the artist’s body, the other a documentation of sign language performance; both are records of human movement, evoking the elegance and expressiveness of human gestures and the complexity of body languages. What’s more is that Mansfield’s drawings signify the capacity of Deaf Gain, which views deafness as a “gain” instead of a “loss,” counter to common perspectives. Gesture drawing, when compared to Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm, is a statement of not only the equal social presence and social acceptance of disability as ableism but also special perspectives the disabled artists brings to the art world that enriches arts overall.
By comparing Jackson Pollock’s marks with Jeffrey Mansfield’s marks, it is evident that the marks of a disabled person are no less expressive, less communicative, less powerful, or less graceful than the mark of an able-bodied person. In fact, art of disability introduces other ways of living and thinking that expand the narrow minds of the “normal” society. Then why should disability be considered marks to be removed? When marks such as Austin’s challenges our preconception of restraints and Mansfield’s reminds us the expressiveness of gestures, why is disability still a mark of stain, not mark of existence, of wonderfulness, or of diverse perspectives?
Embrace/Erase the Lines
When I was a little girl, my first drawing homework was to practice drawing straight lines on a piece of paper. I was told to make lines as perfectly straight as possible. I was told that my lines should parallel the direction of the first line I draw, so from afar they align neatly to form a perfect square. So every time my lines curved a little or varied a bit from the first line I would erase them with no hesitation.
Instead of erasing and erasing, let’s acknowledge them, embrace them. Instead of marking the white pages with only straight lines, let’s add some fluidity, smooth curves leading from one corner to the other, entangling and forming circles, ovals, triangles, rectangles, or shapes we do not have words for. Before us will appear more intricate and inclusive creations like that of Austin’s, with lines zigging through the pages making a right angle turn into a loop, continuing in a straight line, and ending with a graceful and careless sweep, off the pages, onto our lives, and into this world.
New task of the day: Open your eyes to the extraordinary lines, shapes, and lives.
- Susan Nussbaum, Good Kings, Bad Kings, (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2013), 73.
- See more at Stohl, Ellen. “Transforming Preconceptions”, New Mobility Magazine, June 1st 2013 http://www.newmobility.com/2013/06/sue-austin-transforming-preconceptions/.
- Austin, Sue. “Deep Sea Water Diving in A Wheelchair”, TedTalk x Women, December 2012, https://www.ted.com/talks/sue_austin_deep_sea_diving_in_a_wheelchair
- Kate May Torgovnick, “See Much More of Sue Austin’s incredible Wheelchair Art,” TedBlog, January 8 2013. blog.ted.com/see-much-more-of-sue-austins-incredible-wheelchair-art/
- “Art Student Paint Plymouth White,” BBC News, June 10 2009. news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/devon/8093930.stm
- Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), continually updated at http://www.oed.com/, s.v. “Mark.”
- Ben Mattlin, “Cure me? No Thanks,” New York Times, March 22, 2017. www.nytimes.com/2017/03/22/opinion/cure-me-no-thanks.html
- Tom Siebers, Disability Theory (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008), 8.
- Siebers, Disability Theory, 10.
- “‘Dandelion’ by Clayton Valli,” YouTube, uploaded by Sorenson VRS, June 10 2016. www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZ1LTInEQbk
- “‘Dandelion’ by Clayton Valli,” YouTube.
- See more at “‘Dandelions’ – an ASL poem by Clayton Valli”, Traditional Project, October 2012. http://vmkengcomposition2012.blogspot.com/2012/10/dandelion-by-clayton-valli-video-source.html