Perspective: Highlighting Disabled Voices through Artistry and Accessibility
At the age of seven, I was involved in a car accident that nearly amputated my left hand. Since the accident, I have journeyed from denying my disability to embracing it. With this progression, I have frequently rethought concepts that are considered critical to what disability is and can mean, such as being weak, helpless, and incurable.
This thinking progressed in a dialogue with legendary activist Judith Heumann, known for contributions to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and foreign service with disability rights. During a conversation in 2019, Heumann asked why I refer to my left hand as “weak.” This question struck me personally and politically, as I usually called my left hand “weak” to provide a quick response for what my disability may be, thus categorizing it within narrowly defined social definitions of what weakness can and should be.
In response to Heumann’s inquiry, I wondered if rethinking this terminology could foster a broader understanding and interpretation of “weakness” and related terms—terms explicitly central to disability culture yet relatable to all, disabled or nondisabled. I aimed to explore this by asking what these terms meant to disabled individuals across disabilities, highlighting the plurality of the disability community, and reframing collective perceptions about disability overall.
This prompted Perspective, an ongoing project in which I asked the below questions to disabled interviewees worldwide:
- What is access for you?
- What is care for you?
- What is control for you?
- What is weakness for you?
- What is strength for you?
- What is cure for you?
- What is interdependence for you?
- What is assumption for you?
- What is resilience for you?
- What is isolation for you?
- What is connection for you?
- What is darkness for you?
The concepts were conceived from independent research in disability studies and personal frustrations as a disabled individual. Access, care, and interdependence are touchstones of disability culture, whereas the question of cure is often viewed as controversial. Additionally, control and assumption about my body have consistently frustrated me. Very often, I do not feel in control of my body and experience pain resulting from the overuse of one side. With assumption, I typically navigate assumptions about disability as a negative rather than a neutral or positive asset.
I interviewed individuals across a range of disabilities spanning physical, cognitive, vision, and hearing impairments, as well as further identities involving varying race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, religion, and backgrounds, including veterans, academics, activists, and pageant models. Once the interviews were completed, I selected highlights for each question and arranged the responses in a temporal order that responded to or contrasted with the musical underscoring I was creating for the project. I chose to juxtapose divergent responses to highlight the nuances of these concepts and the diversity of answers. For example, in the “Cure” section, one respondent states, “I hate that word,” followed by another expressing, “I would love a cure.”
Once I completed the editing and ordering, I added musical underscoring that involved my voice, vintage toy organ, and electronic processing of both sources. This aural combination is a common facet of my practice. The toy organ is well suited for my physicality, with chord buttons on the left-hand side and a keyboard part on the right. The scoring process was delicate, as I knew that the musical content might suggest particular interpretations of the questions and interviewees’ answers. I periodically tried to lean into this discomfort and play with the musical material. For example, in the “Cure” section, there are fast, arpeggiated C-major and A-minor chords. This arpeggiation suggests a fantasy-like land as if a “cure” is an impossible-to-reach destination. The “Weakness” section features a meandering vocal line with a static higher-pitch drone above it, suggesting the inevitable fragility of weakness and ultimately giving in to its feeling and experience.
I prioritized accessibility from the project’s conception by incorporating multiple sensory outputs, such as the aural output with the interviewees’ voices and my musical underscoring, along with the visual output of their responses through open-caption videos. This open-caption idea was from project curator Sandy Guttman, former assistant curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Guttman introduced the idea of open captions as the only visual output by placing the question for each respective section at the top of the video frame and interviewees’ responses at the bottom. I appreciated this suggestion as it gives a black void in the rest of the frame, which I feel leaves the rest of the visual output up to the viewer’s imagination and emphasizes captions as an aesthetic in and of itself. Typically, captions are added as a facet of compliance or accommodation for artistic works and not artistically integrated; therefore, I appreciated adding them from the start rather than the end of the work.
The project will be released as an album on New Amsterdam Records on October 28, celebrating Disability Employment Awareness Month. I hope Perspective highlights an approach for artistic pieces conceived with disability viewpoints and accessibility from the beginning, rather than as an afterthought of the work. Within the arts, accessibility and disability are often relegated to forms of compliance and accommodation, and with this project I attempted to ground it in a disability-centric standpoint and production in promoting access as aesthetic. I hope Perspective shines a light on the crucial voices and viewpoints of the disability community, literally and figuratively, and for all to cherish and learn from these perspectives.
First Iteration // Halcyon Arts Lab in Washington, D.C.
Stefan Sunandan Honisch
Third Iteration // The Great Northern Festival in Twin Cities, MN
Katie De Leo
Nicole Mary Milligan
Atlas O. Phoenix
Nathan R. Stenberg
Poppy Jean Sundquist