DSQ > Winter/Spring 2007, Volume 27, No.1-2


Thanks, DSQ, for inviting me to be part of the blogging roundtable.

A little bit about myself? I am a dancer; I work for a west coast physically integrated dance company and sometimes do project work with a similar east coast company. I have an acquired disability (I am a wheelchair user) and came to dance as a disabled person. That's a small sentence, but it essentially explains who I am as a dancer. I don't dance in my chair as an accommodation or adaptation; dance starts for me with my chair and with my disabled body. I find dancing to be a very local and locally intense activity. We work from project to project, piece to piece, rehearsal to rehearsal, class to class; there's no clear career path, no formal appraisal structure, etc. And I enjoy that freedom. From the moment I slip into my dance chair, I am focused on perfecting my movement; nothing matters but the here and now. I live in my body; I experience the emotion that both precedes and arises from movement; I watch as the external manifestations of my disability become part of my work. I share hours of intense interaction with the other dancers of my company (ya gotta trust them to be there and vice versa, and we all share the power of the work we are doing), and then I come home at the end of the day, exhausted. And that's where blogging comes in.

I have never been a diarist (couldn't see the point of reliving the agony), but even though I haven't been blogging very long — less than a year for this particular iteration — I find blogging a very different kind of endeavor. I enjoy the immediacy of dance and my body, but part of me also requires a frame through which I can understand my dance life on an intellectual level. I blog physically integrated dance and my disabled life in order to understand what I do in some larger theoretical context and in the context of disabled community.

DSQ asks: What kinds of digital communicative practices are being explored and invented by people with differing abilities? What new kinds of texts are they reading and creating? What is the relation between these practices and disabilities studies?

It is a good thing that we blog. It is a good thing that we are getting our stuff on, say, YouTube. For years before I ventured onto the blogging scene, I had a couple of disabled blogs that I would read avidly, desperately, even. But they were very few in number. And in the short time that I have been writing there has been a veritable explosion in the number of disability blogs, pages, portals, clearing houses, carnivals. Now, I can't keep up with them all.

What kinds of texts? All kinds of texts. Artists record their music, perform for video, create video performances, and make art. Bloggers document their lives, gather information, circulate, meditate, and rant — there's a large social network with expectations about authority. Activists use their blogs as clearinghouses for information and for organizing. And there's a significant amount of overlap. For me, though, the thing is not so much that disabled people are creating texts that are somehow new kinds of texts (where newness differentiates our work from that of any other digital artist and where newness depends on disability), but that disabled people can now be seen to be creating stuff that is as powerful as the stuff we see coming from other groups. It's more that disabled people have a detectable presence in the now dominant genres of digital expression.

Oh yes. I am a little worried about that word "text."

Just because it is out there on the Internet doesn't mean that our work is necessarily an ideal "text" in academic terms. Call it a knee-jerk response, but I feel like my work is not there to be consumed and then erased by the academic gaze. And that's the kind of positioning I feel is implicit in the word "text." It's not that I think academics shouldn't work in this arena; it's more that I don't want to be subject to being looked at in this way. (Mmm. Prolly shouldn't be writing this essay, then, huh?) I have had students contact me to ask if they can use material from my site in their coursework (usually it's dance, PT, or rehab types, but I say yes anyway). In this regard, I suppose you could call my posts "text" — but I am still kind of unsure about this use of my blog. I mean, using my posts to change the dominant understanding of who dances is important work, but I don't think of the analysis that I do as "scholarly," "intellectual," or even particularly "deep." And, perhaps for that reason, my posts can only be primary material ... subject to the critical gaze of others.

A second concern with the whole "text" thing is the potential for what I regard as an individual exercise to become overly representative. And while it is true that me complaining about access is no different from any other w/c user complaining about access, treating my posts as "text" increases the chances that these scenes from my life will come to have greater meaning than I intend (it's a risk with any kind of writing, I know). My life is not the definitive life of a disabled dancer — and then, there's the little truth problem. Our common understandings of blogging as a genre promote a kind of literalness, an expectation of autobiography, and a vulnerability to the expectation that the posts are (mostly) "true." Here, I hasten to add that I try not to be circumspect with the truth on my blog; part of the point is to have a space in which I can be unsparing if I need to be. Nonetheless, we don't expect to have to deploy the usual set of theoretical, critical tools for reading and thinking about blogs — I mean, would you automatically theorize a blog?

These reservations aside, I also confess that I am really curious about other disabled people. And that curiosity leads me to read blogs as if they were, in some senses, literal records of people's lives. Weird, eh? I find other people's lives absorbing, and other people's posts, videos, podcasts etc. offer me insights into worlds I could never have known first hand — perhaps would never have even known existed. To the extent that the record of our lives is richer, thicker — to the extent that there is more primary source material — blogging and other digital spaces are a useful resource for disability studies. Disabled people's histories have not been extensively written and now, here we are. Out. Now, there is a potential for a record of our opinions and perspectives. And that's a big plus for disability studies. But the fact of that record should always be complicated by the reader's reference to literary theoretical tools. I mean, you just don't know what you don't know — and writing is always, well, writing. No matter what the genre.

The gap between the known and unknown of blogging practices is why I want more than a first order analysis from disability studies. Yes, the field has to continue to work with various concepts of identity politics; it has to do activist civil rights work. Yes, images of disabled life are key source material. But, as I see it, there should be something more. Something that takes us beyond the same constellation of social constructivist ideas. The first and second waves of disability studies are well-established scholarly traditions, but where does the field go now? Blogging as a genre of writing may or may not be part of those new directions, but I would expect to see multimedia arts being in the vanguard of whatever happens next.

DSQ asks: How do concepts-such as "writing," "text," "author," "rhetoric," "literacy," change in digital landscapes that involve people with different abilities?

Even as I enjoy the content of what I see and read, I am fascinated by the only slightly visible: the ways the text gets on to the digital page. I am curious about the process behind the "text." The thing about a non-scholarly short essay is you get to state your thesis without the backup evidence — ha! Thesis: the disabled body is a force that writes itself.

When I am looking at the work of other (identified or known to me) disabled people, I eventually find myself wondering about mechanics and logistics. Even if I don't know the person, the content of the blog often allows me insight into an individual's body. I then start to imagine the presence and influence of that body in the text. Was voice recognition involved? How did they tame their Dragon? Did they touch type? Is there a facilitator invisibly present? I can't help it. Lady Bracknell claims an editor (I imagine that her social status prevents her from having to undertake the dirty labor of writing by herself), but I am inclined to read the Editor as a literal amanuensis, a prosthetic — with all the theoretical weight of that term. Ballastexistenz describes herself as non-verbal in the conventional senses of the word, but I do get see her speak her own language. Does the existence of this language allow me to position her video and her written words as intermediary communication devices? The written word as assistive technology?

I admit that this is an idiosyncratic perspective, but it is one that is directly connected to my online life. I continue to read a large number of conventionally published disability memoirs, autobiographies, and, perhaps more controversially, pathographies, but it is only in my online life that I detect — desire — the disabled body. It may be true that no one knows you are a dog on the Internet, but my experience of disabled online life is some weird combination of a different reading practice and a hunch that disability inevitably makes itself felt. So, in that sense, I guess you could say that the words we conventionally use for approaching a text have a different force. I don't think we should change them, though. I enjoy the shock of recognition, exclusion, or simply difference when, for example, I realize that writing can be a spoken word. It forces me to check my terminologies and positions as a reader.

DSQ asks: In what ways have digital and multimodal technologies enabled new forms of communication among different disabilities studies communities? How do issues of digital access, materiality, or economics affect our understanding of disabilities studies within and outside the university?

What defines us as a disability studies community? Even if we don't all share the same level of commitment to the social model, can we be defined by our rejection of the medical model? And if we can be defined by a loose constellation of ideas, is that really helpful? What do those questions mean for disability studies as a scholarly field? I think my primary uncertainty here is that I am not sure how disability studies functions outside the university. There's obviously a strong right-on politically active community, and many of its members are high profile scholarly figures. And it's also clear that many of the same ideas and approaches pass from the activist to the scholarly. I would be reluctant to categorize my blog as a disability studies blog, though. Ascribing to certain positions in the writing of my life doesn't seem to me to be necessarily disability studies per se, even if my posts can be used to develop other kinds of disability studies work.

The other thing is that I am not sure how far outside the academy disability studies goes. I don't think, for example, it has the degree of reach as other fields that deal with issues of identity. My totally unscholarly sense is that feminism as a political movement and as collection of ideas and approaches has penetrated into nonacademic life in ways that disability studies has not and in the near future is unlikely to do. Just look at the (lack of) racial diversity in our identified disability studies community vs. the disabled population at large. Ditto also class — though I think the disability studies community has a longer history of sensitivity to class. In some ways, having access to the ideas of disability studies is, I think, one of the biggest disability community privileges. And that question transcends problems of digital access.

DSQ asks: What are the responsibilities of educators have to use multimodal texts (texts consisting of audio, video, animation, images, and words) in their teaching?

I think that educators have duties both to their material and to the presentation of their material for their students. I see them as two different kinds of responsibilities. No use looking for multimodal primary texts if you are teaching Ancient Greek language, though you can certainly use a digitized text. If you are teaching Classical culture, it's only a slightly different story. In both cases, however, there is plenty of use looking at a multimodal lecture/presentation style. Plenty of use in creating one, too. But there is also a moment when the principles of access ride up against the squishyness of time and support for creating access in an academic context. An aware graduate student may in the course of her career build such a collection of teaching materials, particularly if the subject matter of her field is not obviously an immediate part of the digital world, but an assistant professor is not going to get to keep her job if her institution doesn't explicitly support her in creating accessible materials. The calculus changes again for, say, high school teachers.

Access shouldn't have to be an issue, but of course it is. I am not sure that making it the responsibility of the instructor is the right way to go — though, at some level, it is the individual responsibility of the educator. Some middle path between an institutional commitment to access, a commitment that facilitates the use and creation of multimodal texts for educators at all levels and in all disciplines, and individual educator responsibility, I suppose, will have to do for the time being. I don't know how you even start that conversation.

DSQ asks: What is the relation between new and old communication medias in the context of disabilities studies? How do new communicative practices change or inform our attitudes toward traditional scholarly texts in disabilities studies and established conventions — and vice versa?

I am not sure about this. I imagine disability studies as the kind of field that adapts flexibly to new stuff, partly because it is so new — you aren't stepping on 100 years of "it's always been done this way." It's also that disability studies, unlike other more traditional fields, is, at the moment, more visibly driven by its contemporary population and not just by its researchers. More flexible. Faster moving. That's mostly a good thing, no?



DSQ asks: Below follows an entry originally posted on The Wheelchair Dancer's blog and lightly edited for reproduction here. The original post can be accessed at http://cripwheels.blogspot.com/2007/01/contact-in-chair.html

I work almost solely in my chair (vs on the floor). There are a number of reasons for this. West Coast Dance has a number of power chair dancers who work only in their chairs; this has meant that there is a context, a precedent, and a community of TAB dancers who are accustomed to working with and around chairs. I work in my chair for a number of different reasons. The first — and least important — is that I don't want to give choreographers the "easy" option of simply being out of my chair; they know what to do with floor work. But the deep reasons for my chair are closely associated with how I learned to move and how I learned to dance.

I have no memory of this — though I agree it's likely — but, apparently, I showed up to my first class with a cane or two. "My wheelchair is in the car," I said. I felt awkward. For the first couple of classes, I tried moving using my feet and legs. What I remember of that time are feelings of disconnection, of not being able to move in an integrated fashion, of not knowing how to move, of not being at home, of not feeling in my body, and of not being able to know and move my body. When I switched to my chair (pain and fatigue drove me to it), I felt clumsy at first. But I also found freedom of movement. Pain-free movement. I felt strongly supported by the teachers and class participants. So, I finished the sequence of classes in my chair. When, as things progressed, the chair became my only daily movement option as well as my dance movement option, I felt at home in my chair. This metal body I knew better than my own flesh.

There are some suggestions for wheelchair care before going into a contact class — the most extensive list I have seen is in the Adam Benjamin book (Making an Entrance: Theory and Practice for Disabled and Non-Disabled Dancers. London: Routledge, 2002). People disagree about brakes or no brakes. I don't have brakes on my chair, but that's personal, I think. But from there on out, I find contact in a chair fascinating.

I don't know how to write this. It's kind of like dancing with a third body. You can hold a point of contact with two bodies, but if you want stable positioning, you have to deal with that mobile third body: your chair. You can press chair to chair and feel the energy/force transfer up into your body. When do you counteract with your wheels? When do you let them go and run as they will? You can navigate the relationship between you and your chair and you and your partner and your partner and your chair. When are you one with your chair, both subject to your partner's movement? When is your chair — a partner who must respond to physics — supportive of or in conflict with your relationship with your partner?

Good contact dancers don't just work with the frame of your chair; they understand the delicate balancing act that we chair performers dance. The most difficult part of contact in a chair is remaining an active partner in all the moves. It is so important for chair dancers to feel and have access to the point of contact. It's not creative to push me or pull on the frame; you might be able to kick up higher or show yourself in interesting positions, but it is not partnership if you use my chair or my body like a passive piece of furniture. Stop sitting on my lap. Yawn. Don't just try and stand on me. It is brilliant if you understand how force and energy transfer from you through the frame to me and in any of those combinations. There is an infinite variety of angles and possibilities you can explore and at the core of them is the relationship that I share with my chair. I rarely have the chance to work chair to chair.

This week, I learned that my chair could have its own energy circle — you know, that buzzing force you sometimes feel when gravity, energy, and balance are doing their thing. I was seated, leaning (with counterbalance) to my right. My partner was lying on the floor, to my right, with her back to me and her head slightly in front of my casters. I expected to feel the buzz in my body, in my chest — the part that was closest to her — but I couldn't. I tried again and listened as deeply as I could. Suddenly, however, I realized that the energy force was there — between my partner's back and the front of my frame — my chair felt like it was alive. I held still; no, it was definitely in there. My partner rolled up, placed her hand on my arm, and the three of us took off.

Copyright (c) 2007 Wheelchair Dancer

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