One is not born, but rather becomes a disabled person

Workshops "Women of varying degrees of ability against traditional and stereotypical social roles", GM Arsenał, photo: Irek Popek. The picture shows people with and without visible disabilities who are discussing.

One is not born, but rather becomes a disabled person – to paraphrase a famous quotation from the ‘Second Sex’ by Simone de Beauvoir. Much like the female person, who is bound by the expectations of the cultural dimension of her gender and trained to play the role of the structurally weaker, disabled people tend to clash with an exclusionary environment that denies access to many spheres of social life.

In a habitable space for people using wheelchairs, where messages for the visually impaired are translated into Braille and the able-bodied remain aware of differences, levels of ability would manifest themselves in the choice of lift rather than stairs, sound rather than text, a tram with a lower floor rather than a scooter, but nothing would restrict mobility and access to shared spaces.

Discrimination manifests itself not only in lack of access to public spaces, but also in economic status and, above all, in a paternalistic mentality that deprives disabled people of their agency. This attitude leads to the denial of political and personal rights. It deprives the possibility of imagining other, more accessible future. The 40 days of protests in the Polish parliament last year were an attempt to challenge these prejudices. The social, economic and political change demanded by disabled people and their allies is shared by all emancipatory movements (feminism, LGTBQ+, Black Lives Matter, migrating people and economically marginalised groups, etc.). It stems from a disagreement with the impossibility of adapting to a reality shaped around the needs of able-bodied, white, heterosexual, economically privileged male person, which doesn’t include the perspectives of others, especially people with disabilities. In contrast to the visually attractive LGTBQ+ parades, which, although colourful and peaceful, are met with aggression in Poland (e.g. the equality march in Gniezno), disabled people’s protests are socially accepted, but their aesthetics are far from Instagram conveniences. As a result, they are often condemned to virtual non-existence.

Workshops "Women of varying degrees of ability against traditional and stereotypical social roles", GM Arsenał, photo: Irek Popek. The picture shows people with and without visible disabilities who are discussing.

Workshops "Women of varying degrees of ability against traditional and stereotypical social roles", GM Arsenał, photo: Irek Popek. The picture shows people with and without visible disabilities who are discussing.

That is why the 5th issue of RTV Magazine is dedicated to disability in art, theory and activism. We want to be visible. We want to explore the possible alliances between different emancipatory movements. In previous issues of the magazine, we have considered how to make the world more sensitive to the needs of non-human beings. This kind of sensitivity is also needed to bring about changes within human society. It is important to understand that our individual needs are not the same. The differences, apart from gender, race, sexual orientation, economic and symbolic status, also stem from the degree of (dis)ability of the bodies we live in.

We would like to propose mixing the codes, so that the tested representative strategies worked out by the queers, (eco)feminists, anarchists, socialists, culture producers and others could be put to advocate for good conditions of life for the disabled people. Nancy Mairs – a  feminist writer living with MS – talks about ‘habitable worlds’. It means that people with disability co-create a social space in all dimensions: institutional, cultural, social and legislative, therefore the status of disabled people change from the dependent to the decisive. For Rosemary Garland-Thomson – a researcher and activist, who is also a professor at Emory University in Atlanta (USA) – the degree of social inclusivity, which we co-create, is directly related to the answer to the question about how we want to build and inhabit our contemporary world.

‘The environment, which we created in the past centuries, does not fulfil in many respects the criteria of the world, which could be inhabited by people with a varying degrees of disability. Our efforts predominantly focus on the elimination, not the barriers making it impossible for those people to participate in social and cultural life, but on eliminating the disability perceived from a medical perspective as a deficit and anomaly.’*

In the 5th issue of RTV Magazine, we express our opposition to this kind of exclusion. We see disability above all as a politically and socially enriching diversity.

In Poland, it is Theatre 21 from Krakow that hails the revolution. The group recently visited Poznan (more about it in the text by Ewelina Jarosz). The performers consist of fully-abled actors and the ones with the Down syndrome. The group uses Drag strategies (changing clothes in order to manifest positive diversity). The theatre published an anthology of texts about disability representation in art: Regaining Presence. Disability in theatre and performance (2017).

Photo of Grzegorz Press documenting the performance of Teatr 21, "Revolution, which was not there". On the picture is depicted a lying female figure, behind her are inscriptions in Polish and English from the protest of people with disabilities in the Polish Parliament in 2018.

Disability studies in the academic world, which include social studies, therapy and rehabilitation, have moved into the field of humanities and cultural studies. Magdalena Zdrodowska (PhD) from the Jagiellonian University is one of the promoters of the expansion of the field of social studies to include disability issues. The subject of disability, as addressed by Zdrodowska, appears more and more in magazines devoted to culture, e.g.: Contemporary Culture – discussing the relationship between technology and disability, Fragile. Cultural Journal (discussing the analysis of disability representation in film, comics and literature) or Studia de Cultura (a volume dedicated to Polish disability studies). RTV Magazine joins this momentum with the theme of its 5th issue.

In Krakow there is an association called Strefa Wenus z Milo. We publish here an interview with Katarzyna Żeglicka, the chair of the association, who is also an activist and a dancer. In Warsaw, Grupa Nowolipie brings together people with multiple sclerosis, who have been sculpting, painting and performing for 25 years. I would like to thank Izabela Skonecka for allowing us to use the reproductions of the Nowolipie Group and Adam Mazur for inspiring me to write this article.

In Poznań operates the “Bojka” Diving Collective. During the exhibition and series of events Workshops 0f revolution at the Arsenal Municipal Gallery in Poznań last year, there was a discussion organised by Anna Rutz, Barbara Sinica, Magda Szewciów, Katarzyna Pierzynowska, Aleksandra Majer, and Paulina Banaś concerning stereotypes around disabled women*. During the event, the participants could watch a film about the female divers ‘The Great Blue’.

Photo from the archive of the Kolektyw Nurkowy Bojka presents the divers at the pool

The Poznan initiative called Nice People focuses on equal opportunities and tackling discrimination of all marginalised groups, including disabled people. TAK Gallery exhibits and promotes outsider artists. In the text by curator Malgorzata Szaefer entitled ‘Carmela Melina Riccio / I am the star’, which we publish in the Affirmation section, you can read more about art practised outside its commercial and institutional circuits.

In addition, in the 5th issue of RTV Magazine, we analyse the politics of exclusion in cultural institutions with Stefanie Wiens from the Berlin initiative Platz da! We try to show how to change the situation so that disabled are involved in the all stages of creating programmes, where they are not just participants in workshops dedicated to their disability. In an interview with Christian Bayerlein and Grit Uhlemann from the collective Army of Love, we talk about art as an ever-expanding field of social participation. We also internalise the critique of the avant-garde as an anti-social practice focused on satisfying the needs of its able-bodied creators. We also travel to Wroclaw to critically examine, with Daria Skok, the exhibition The Physical States at the Contemporary Museum.

The issue of disability in art has been very much on the rise, with artists addressing it in their work, such as Romily Alice Walden and Michal Baldyga – both featured in The Art Channel. Bottom-up initiatives and institutions are increasingly including disability perspectives in their programmes. Critics draw attention not only to the content but also to the accessibility of exhibitions. However, the big change will come when open calls and job offers for artists and cultural producers include the possibility of using a voice synthesiser, or when residencies for artists take into account the needs of people in wheelchairs. We want to see disabled people employed in management and other positions. We also want the art world to critically counter the exclusion on which symbolic capital has been based. This is work that we need to do together. This change will not be possible without the financial means and the support of allies. We hope that the 5th issue of RTV Magazine will contribute to this change.

* a fragment of a lecture by Rosemary Garland-Thomson given during a conference ‘Negotiating Space for (Dis)Ability in Drama, Theatre, Film and Media; in Katarzyna Ojrzyńska ‘Critical Studies over disability in Polish Humanities. Some words on the conference ‘Negotiating Space for (Dis)Ability in Drama, Theatre, Film and Media’.


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