By Nomy Lamm
October is Disability Awareness Month, and it’s the perfect time to make sure that Disability Studies, Art, Culture and Politics are
integrated into any topic you are teaching. Whether you’re teaching Social Work, Medicine, Gender Studies, Black History, Performance Studies, or Early Childhood Development, examining and learning from a disabled experience will provide a fuller and deeper understanding of the course materials for your students. Below are some guidelines to help integrate the perspectives of people with disabilities into your classroom.
- DON’T perpetuate the myth of the “tragic cripple.” You know, the story where someone is disabled and miserable, and everything they do is so hard, and everyone around them is brought down by their struggle, and then maybe they almost achieve happiness but then… they die. Learn to identify this trope so you can call it out when you see it. DO offer stories and examples of people with
disabilities who are living complex, full lives, who are in reciprocal relationships, who make choices and have life journeys. Mimi and Dona, one of New Day’s recent acquisitions, documents the symbiotic relationship between an aging mother and her disabled daughter, offering a useful jumping off point for analyzing dynamics of inter/dependence. The Key of G is another film that shows a disabled person growing and changing in the context of a community who loves them.
- DON’T teach our stories solely through the lens of the medical establishment, or assume that all people with disabilities want a cure. DO examine complexities of access to health care,
allocation of resources, and how these privileges break down along race/class/age/gender lines. Fixed is a useful documentary for examining the politics of “human enhancement” and the impetus toward “fixing” people’s bodies rather than taking care of people’s basic needs.
- DON’T succumb to the false-positive messaging of ‘inspiration porn’ – you know, the story about the amazing disabled person who, despite all their hardship
s is still able to rise above and overcome their circumstances, inspiring able-bodied people to say, “If they can do it, what’s my excuse?” This narrative centers the able-bodied experience and perpetuates competitive, ableist constructions of “success” and “failure.” DO share materials created by people with disabilities where we frame our own experiences. Who Am I to Stop It is a compelling documentary about three artists with traumatic brain injuries, made by a filmmaker with disabilities from brain injury.
- DON’T hold up one type of disability as the “true” disability. Disability is an intentionally broad category that includes people with mobility impairments, people who belong to sensory minorities, people with psychiatric disabilities, chronic illnesses, learning disabilities, cognitive challenges, chronic pain, and more. DO
encourage awareness of the ways our society disables us by stigmatizing the ways we show up in the world. Michael and His Dragon and When I Came Home both follow soldiers who return from Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Twitch and Shout is about people with Tourette Syndrome, a neurological condition that is often misunderstood.
- DON’T perpetuate unconscious use of ableist language that frames disability as bad. This includes words like “crazy” when you mean abusive, “lame” when you mean uncool, or “blind” when you mean ignorant, or even words like “weak” or “stupid” that imply ableist hierarchies. DO examine the use of identity labels, including “disability” itself – how are these words used by people who identify with them? Identify nuances of language that differentiate between what we want others to call us, and what we call ourselves. In
Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw, the most powerful opportunities for healing come when Chamique is able to connect with others who share similar circumstances, to release the shame and isolation associated with words like “crazy.”
- DON’T feed into stereotypes of disabled people as sexless and childlike. People with disabilities have desires, are desired by other people, enjoy sex (solo, partnered, in groups…), have relationships, and experience all the ups and downs and ins and outs that come with being an embodied being. People with disabilities are also at high risk of sexual assault, so sex education is crucial to understanding what is happening and knowing that we have a choice. DO promote work by disabled people that explores sexuality. Sins Invalid follows the eponymous Disability Justice performance project and movement-building organization that creates work around disability and sexuality, centralizing artists of col
or and queer and gender-variant artists with disabilities.
- DON’T isolate disability from other identities, or play ableism against other forms of oppression. There are disabled people in every demographic, so any struggle for justice and liberation also affects people with disabilities. DO share examples of people navigating simultaneous experiences of racism, ableism, sexism, and more. Making Noise in Silence looks at intersections of deafness, youth, immigration, and race in the lives of two young deaf Korean students. E Haku Inoa: To Weave a Name
looks at the impact of colonization on a mother’s mental health.
- DON’T assume that people with disabilities are always in the position of receiving but not giving. Many of us who are disabled are also caregivers, therapists, parents, medical professionals, teachers, and healers. DO look at the ways our lives change over time and how the amount and type of care we receive and offer fluctuates at different moments. States of Grace follows the story
of Dr. Grace Dammann, a pioneering AIDS specialist whose near-fatal car accident changes her perception of self and relationship to her body and family.
- DON’T assume that nobody in the classroom has the disability you’re discussing. Disabled people are not a separate group – “they” are part of the “we” that you’re speaking to. DO model accessibility in the classroom by providing opportunities for access needs to be identified, including bio breaks, seating options, lighting changes, large print, captions, audio description, scent-free space, or whatever the individuals in your class might need in order to participate. Most New Day Films are closed captioned, and a number of them including Fixed, Sins Invalid, The Key of G, and Who Am I to Stop It are audio described fo
r blind audiences. For more thoughts about classroom accessibility issues, Read Me Differently is a powerful New Day film about a young woman’s learning differences.
- DON’T imagine that you will always be able-bodied! Everybody experiences some type of disability in their life, whether it’s a temporary injury or surgery, a chronic illness, an accident, or just getting old and losing abilities over time. DO co-create a world that recognizes and respects the many ways we live in our minds and bodies.
Explore New Day’s rich collection of films on Disability here.