Today was intellectual day for the Mobilize March, spending the afternoon at the Royal Ontario Museum. I was tipped off yesterday that academic and writer Georgina Kleege would be at the ROM today giving a guest lecture on accessibility for the blind at art galleries and museums, followed by an auditory presentation of the items included in the “Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember” exhibit. Catherine Frazee, one of the event organizers, invited me last night to read the description of one of the exhibits, dedicated to Jim Derksen and the 1992 Omnibus Bill that solidified disability rights in law.
But before I talk about that experience, I will just say a few things about Professor Kleege’s talk. Not only is she a gifted and humorous speaker, Professor Kleege cuts right the core of our perceptions of disability, outlining how the use of language is indicative of our underlying prejudices towards those with disabilities. One of her points that I really latched onto, and actually write about in my own scholarship, is how so many of our common metaphors for loss, lacking, or missing are reliant on disability imagery. The examples she used were all around sightedness (as she herself is blind), talking about how we use phrases like “blind lust” to refer to a senseless or baseless feeling of lust–in fact most permeations of “blind” metaphors are used to describe a general unawareness or immature/uninformed decision. She then went on to talk about how to make art galleries accessible for individuals who cannot see the art, stating (quite correctly):
The task of translating a work of visual art into language may be a daunting one, but not so daunting that we should throw up our hands in despair. We need to remember that the people receiving these words also have imagination, knowledge, memory and curiosity, whether or not they have perfect vision.
In the hopes of allowing individuals with visual and hearing limitations to participate in this historic disability exhibit, the organizers then had several individuals (your humble narrator being one) to give life to each exhibit item by reading descriptions out loud for all to hear. I won’t go on about this at length, but it was a truly profound experience for me that shook me to the core. I have seen the exhibit a few times and while I was impressed by the breadth and passion of the instillation, it definitely had not hit me on the emotional level that it hit me on today. One of the most emotional exhibits was on the institutionalization of the disabled, describing the experiences of three women who had been institutionalized and forced into domestic slave labour “for their own good.” What was truly terrifying was how complacent we, as a society, were in terms of institutionalization. It was horrifying for me to consider that if I had been born a few years earlier, as early as 10 years earlier in some parts of Canada, that could have been my life–no independence, no education, no future, no hope. I can’t really put into words what the whole experience was like today, except to say that it most certainly had a deep and profound impact on me. It really makes you count your blessings when you look at what could have been.
Today, we gave voice to an unspoken part of our past. We gave voice to the pain and suffering of so many before us, announcing and acknowledging the crimes committed against people just like us. And while this was a deeply emotional and devastating moment (I’m not ashamed to admit I choked back a few tears) it was also a proclamation of hope. The horrors of the past stand in stark contrast to the optimism of the future. Past injustices do not have to loom over the disabled population, threatening to swallow us whole in their shadows of darkness, rage and anguish–today we learned, together, that like ancient columns, this past too will crumble under the pressure of time and progress. As we work together to inform, educate, and advocate, we can correct the injustices of the past, and honour the memory of those fallen, by ensuring no more suffer in this way.
And in that way, this March is tribute to those we have lost and a promise to those yet to come…