Last week, my husband and I flew to Memphis, where I had been invited to lecture at the Memphis College of Art. I have lectured before on my first book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art, in which I analyze the representation of the disabled body in contemporary art in the work of disabled and non-disabled artists. Yet, I had not spoken in public for a few years. In the past, delivering a lecture to a group has made me very anxious. I would practice the talk and feel uneasy for days, and traveling in addition would make for a nerve-wracking experience. This time, I decided in the couple of weeks leading up to the trip that I refused to worry.
To begin to explain the reasons for my worrying, I should first state that I am a physically disabled woman. The process of traveling alone raises difficult situations. This time, I chose to book my own flight and hotel and be reimbursed by the College, rather than trying to communicate all my requirements to someone else, because there are so many details to consider, as well as many services that I don’t need to concern myself with. For example, I often don’t like “accessible” hotel rooms, which have roll in showers. I do not use my wheelchair for bathing, and without some sort of chair or high surface, I cannot reach all the shower levels. I also travel with my own wheelchair and must continuously refuse offers from others (strangers) to help, many of which, at least in my experience, have been condescending. I struggle to be friendly to others who do mean well, and, in general, not get too defensive. I am often referred to as “honey” or “sweetheart,” which I used to find demeaning, but now that I am 41, I try to take such gestures as compliments.
The experiences in the airport were, as usual, slow and annoying. Because I cannot walk through the security sensors, I must be subjected to a “pat down” by a female security attendant. They always ask me if I would prefer to do this in a private room, as if I should expect it to be somehow shameful or exploitative. On this trip, in Raleigh, the attendant asked me if it was okay if a new attendant in training could do my pat down, and I agreed. The trainee was very through in both her explanation of how she would feel me all over my body, and assured me that when she went over “sensitive areas” (i.e. breasts, inner thighs, buttocks), she would use the back of her hand, as if this is somehow less intrusive. Her examination was as thorough as her explanation, and basically, I was frisked. I told my husband jokingly that I had been molested. I was aggravated, but I also felt sad. It’s terrible that people who cannot walk through the sensor are so awkwardly screened, but then I know that the security measures for everyone are extreme. While I appreciate the efforts to maintain travelers’ safety, I lament that we live in a world in which we cannot travel freely, without being reminded that we are in danger.
The flights were basically on time, although on each flight, there was a period of just sitting on the runway. waiting for a place available to unload (or “deplane,” a term I find funny and used throughout the trip). We had considered gate-checking my portable wheelchair through to the final destination, Memphis, rather than waiting for it to make our connecting flight in Charlotte. In the past, we have almost missed our flight because somehow the wheelchair got lost or someone failed to bring it to the gate in time. The wheelchair did appear, but the flight got in late, so my husband had to walk as fast as possible, pushing me, to reach the connecting flight. We got into Memphis a little after noon, but were exhausted for the rest of the day. I was glad I had a night to recover before my noontime lecture.
I had practiced my talk at home, and a read through my notes a few times, so I felt confident I spoke about primarily about my first book, and I showed images from the book I co-edited with my friend and colleague, Elizabeth Howie, Disability and Art History, as well as a few examples of my own artwork, which are featured in my recently re-published memoir, Re-Membering: Putting Mond and Body Back Together Following Traumatic Brain Injury. Information on these books, as well as images of my artwork, can be found on my website: annmg.com
I thought since this audience was composed of students and faculty of a school for fine arts that they would especially appreciate seeing examples of my artwork. I had worked out with my husband in advance signals he could send me from the audience if I began to talk to quickly; since I was born with my tongue somewhat fused with my lower jaw, my speech is affected, and I am hard to understand if I don’t talk slowly and remember to articulate. Once I started speaking, however, I watched my audience staring at the images I projected with great interest, sometimes nodding in agreement or looking with fascination, and taking notes. I found myself not even having to consult my extensive notes as much as I had planned for. When it was over, several students approached me to tell me how much they enjoyed the lecture, to talk to me about their artwork, and to ask good questions. One young woman asked me how I thought the world could change to accept and respect disabled people. This was clearly a question I could not respond to thoroughly, but I just encouraged her to look more into disability studies and think about the issues when making her own artwork. The faculty of the college were so generous and expressed to me how excited they were that I was there.
When I returned home, I was still worn out for days. However, I felt not only satisfied, but proud of myself. As someone who teaches online, it was challenging but gratifying to speak to a group and feel that they took something away from my talk. One of the professors emailed me that she felt my talk was “revelatory” for many. The idea that I affected how people thought about disability and disabled people and perhaps even inspired new ideas and images made me feel as though I can make changes in the world, even though I work from home and spend many days alone in my apartment. My audience’s interest in my work, in turn, inspired me. Following my return, I worked more on a proposal for a new online course called Women’s Voices: The Personal is Political, based on personal and political writing by a selection of female writers, including disabled rights activist Simi Linton. I thought how the election in the next few days could change history, in my opinion, for the better. I continued to feel positive, until the day after the election. But more on that later………
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