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Disability and Art and Social Interactions

I have been impaired since birth, such that, medically-speaking, I am a quadruple amputee. But I never lost anything. My four limbs formed in specific shapes and lengths in my mother’s womb, and these formations are common among amputees. I have always stood out in a crowd, often by not standing. I have attracted many good friends and family members. I also continue to face averted looks, stares, and personal questions about my body, which makes for some unique, and often uncomfortable, social interactions. I have always negotiated my relationships with others, based on how we treat one another. When someone talks or looks down to me, or assumes they know about me and my feelings, I can get angry. Other times, when I know the talker or starer, or when I sense that they have good intentions, dynamic exchanges happen. I am visibly different from the mainstream (everyone who considers themselves “normal”) and have often felt proud of that. I did not label myself as “disabled” in a social and political sense, until I was in graduate school, when I happened upon disability studies and found discourse and artforms that spoke to me.

My dissertation (2005), which has become my first book (Millett-Gallant, 2010), analyzes the work of disabled artists and of non-disabled artists who portray, predominantly, physically disabled bodies. My book focuses on examples of photography, sculpture, and performance, or body art, and in it, I compare and contrast different contexts, social/cultural and artistic, and suggest how they frame, or represent, disabled bodies. I received encouraging feedback, and wonderful recommendations on my dissertation. Two years after I received my PhD, and just one month after I posed for and performed in a fine art photograph, I was involved in the accident that resulted in traumatic brain injury (TBI). The whole experience was traumatic for many, because “the experience” includes the accident itself, the suffering, the legal issues, the medical expenses….the list is endless. I felt very guilty for a long time, until I stopped blaming myself and concentrated on being me again. I have not, by any means, overcome my TBI, and, in fact, I write and make art about my experiences as a survivor. Living with the myriad and inconsistent consequences of this 2007 event, my notions of and identity as “disabled” has metamorphosed.

My identity is not, and in many ways, has never been static. I’ve had a lot of education, in the forms of schooling and the experiences of my everyday life, and I struggle to consider what aspects of my education are beneficial for me. The effects of TBI vary drastically for each survivor, so I can only know what I have been through. I am still working to incorporate the effects of my TBI with the other aspects of my multifaceted identity. For example, TBI is still not largely included in disability studies. I won’t here go into all the specifics and my analysis of this, as I am still unsure myself. Through my writing and artwork, as well as my social interactions, I have attempted to embrace some effects of my TBI as valid aspects of my identity. After the 2007 accident, I was put into a medically-induced coma, to allow my brain to swell. Images of my various brain scans are features in my memoir (2017). When I reached consciousness, a moment that was not really a moment, but rather a slow process, I remembered nothing. I didn’t even know myself. Over time, and as the result of a lot of hard work, parts of my history and my identity have crystalized, yet not in a measurable form. I have tried to draw connections between myself and others with shared experiences, a process that has proven to be also abstract, and often contentious.

For one example, I do try to empathize with everyone who forgets things and everyone who has been through trauma. Yet, trying to do so would exhaust me. I try to thank everyone who has supported me, but that would mean that I would spend a significant amount of time doing so. I have sent some homemade cards, I write well for diverse readers, and I have given away paintings to people I am close to. “Who?????,” some may ask. That’s nobody’s business except for mine and theirs. “Damn, what’s your secret?” others have stated. The answer to this question would take writing, editing, and publishing either an academic textbook, a memoir, an/or an edited collection of essays. “What???” you might exclaim, and it IS overwhelming.

I don’t have any secret except that I’m fabulous. I feel hesitant to write that. It sounds narcissistic, and I do love myself, and I love other people too. Most of my friends are technically non-disabled, but I never noticed. They all relate to me, in varieties of ways. I sometimes feel guilty, like I should actively pursue more disabled friends, but I don’t pursue anyone because of how they increase my status or contribute to my identity, but rather, because I like them and want to talk to and spend time with them. I used to like to be more social, when I was younger. I was often the life of the party, just by sitting there. I could dance or sing or just watch others enjoying themselves. I would dance on my prosthetic legs. At my first Disability Studies conference, I was dancing on my legs, and Petra was dancing on the floor, so I just threw myself down on the floor (and yes, I have been trained how to fall and have practiced doing so safely, with much experience!), and at this disability dance, I took off my legs, or doffed them. To boogie on my butt. I have been told several times that this act was memorable, but I have never considered it as that revolutionary.

Maybe I am the liminal person. Not stuck between, and never committing to one side or the other, but taking inspiration where it strikes me. And blowing it up in brilliant color and embodied brushstroke. Okay, now this blog is helping me. I was telling my publishing team the other day that I ruminate, perseverate, whatever, so that I can try on different options and scenarios. I don’t wear shoes anymore, but I try on different hats. I end up wearing the ones that make me feel and look good. I have given up on hats that block my peripheral vision or headbands that are too tight. “It’s not necessary to get headaches. Headaches! You, you can’t afford to get headaches, due to your condition!,” many might feel. In response, I can only close my eyes and throw my “amputee” arms up in the air! I could get angry about all these situations, and many beyond the scope of this blog, because I am so passionate. I must choose my battles and express myself strategically.

“The Hat and the Cat,” acrylic on canvas, 12 x 12 in, 2017

“The Hat and the Cat,” acrylic on canvas, 12 x 12 in, 2017

In this painting, which I have called “The Hat and the Cat,” I painted one of my favorite hats. It’s tall. I like the colors and patterns and how it makes me feel larger than life. It weaves together various shades and textures of blues and white. To the right of this hat, I painted an orange tabby cat, in sparkling whites, oranges and yellows. I love orange tabbies, and I have had wonderful relationships with such cats. Blue and orange are also complimentary colors, meaning that they oppose one another on the color wheel. Yet, they are anything but contentious. Paired together, blues and oranges make each other more vibrant.

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