Rising UP: Where Disability and Colonialism Meet

It has been quite a while since I last posted. Much of our snow pack has melted, the days have lengthened considerably, and the outside world shows signs of awakening to spring. In the sugar bush, the maple sap has been running intermittently and here and there farmers have begun to boil.

A couple of weeks ago we were at the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association Conference, Rise Up: The Evolution and Revolution of Expressive Arts, in Berkeley, California. It was lovely to get out of the cold, and even the rain did not stop us from enjoying walking along the marina and enjoying the ocean, flowers, and wildlife.

As so often happens at good conferences, there were a couple of potentially transformative moments when the dominant discourse was challenged by persons in the audience. The two areas of conflict at this conference were the rampant ableism and the lack of recognition of Native people, both Native conference attendees and those who hold responsibility for the local land.

I have been thinking about this intersection for some time but had not taken the time to discover what had been written about it. My post-conference literature search revealed a substantial body of thought that interweaves disability issues and colonialism. This morning, a deeply felt, and carefully considered, essay on the subject, written by Jen Deerinwater, appeared in my e-mail feed, courtesy Mary Shining Elk Daily News. Mary had re-posted it from the Disability Visibility Project. I encourage you to read it.

Jen’s thesis is that for Indigenous people colonialism is inherently disabling. She then clearly lays out the myriad ways Indigenous lands and bodies are disproportionately subject to colonial  processes of control and disablement. She also challenges the greater disability community to stop ignoring the disabling conditions assigned to most Indigenous people around the world, and to do something in response.

Other theorists have suggested that as colonialism is always enacted on and against bodies, and that since Indigenous bodies and disabled bodies receive a disproportionate amount of that colonizing focus, we would be well served to carefully assess the working relationship between health care and other colonial structures, a collaborative arrangement frequently referred to as Medicalized Colonialism. We might then move on to build coalitions to address the harm done to us all. ( Obviously one may be both Indigenous and disabled, and Indigenous people disproportionately experience disability.)

I find this notion of a colonizing medical gaze to be deeply resonate, calling to mind the countless times as a child when my Polio shaped, Native perceived, body was displayed, demonstrated, poked, and otherwise “Othered”. In those moments I was both frozen in a Native and disabled identity, and subject to a totalizing loss of personhood as the colonizers gaze erased me, claiming ownership of my body, mind, and soul.

Yet my childhood was not uncomplicatedly bad. I was, after all, receiving a superb education and the best health care available. This stands in sharp distinction to the poor health care and education afforded most Indigenous people and persons who are disabled. (It is crucial to note that which “conditions” and persons meet criteria for disability/Otheredness is established by the very colonial gaze that marginalizes us. Disability by definition lies outside the norms of the dominant ableist culture.)

Even today my body and mind remain in contested territory. My body is normal for someone who had polio as a child but is seen by the dominant culture as deviant and in need of rehabilitation, even as repair remains impossible. As a result I find myself subject to all to frequent disqualifications from everyday life even as I am aware that as a light-skinned, male-identified, person I escape some of the harsher processes that accompany colonialism’s efforts to control and discipline Othered minds and bodies. This complexity makes life layered and belies simple categories of identity.

The conflicts at the conference revolved around the problems inherent in living in/with minds, bodies, and cultures marked as Other and deviant, and the dominant culture’s insistence on utilizing those markers as reasons to simultaneously and paradoxically erase, and exert control over, Othered bodies, minds, cultures, and lands. I believe that when individuals stood up to protest their (our) invisibility and systematic exclusion from full participation in the conference (and by implication in the fields of the arts, education, mental health, and medicine, to say nothing of everyday life), they (we) did so as an invitation to those who render us invisible to rise up and create the conference and society they profess to desire, and in an effort to save our very souls.




5 thoughts on “Rising UP: Where Disability and Colonialism Meet

  1. Thanks, Michael, for keeping me aware of how it feels to you to be marginalized – in a way that is different than I have felt marginalized as a woman. It is pretty amazing how the Western world order was established around male power with so many defined as other. Has aging compounded the marginalization? I have struggled with how my life can have meaning now that I am retired. Do you think being marginalized impacts on how you have defined yourself and your place in the world – whether you can live a meaningful life?

    1. Pat, you ask such big questions! Yes, since I stopped teaching I feel more marginal. As an elder with a visible disability I feel doubly marginalized. Yes, I have increasingly become more of an advocate for myself and others, more of a provocateur. I am more OK with my anger, and, perhaps, more articulate. The question is always whether anyone is listening, outside my small circle of friends. One of the reasons I have not retired is I do not want to be erased entirely…..

      I am very glad you are a part of my life!

      1. Thanks, Michael. I am also glad that our lives have crossed. I teared up with your last sentence, because I care about you… But more honestly because I understand, I share that fear. I have felt the tug to write an in-depth post for some time but haven’t wanted to expend the energy. I think the time is ripe. Thanks.

      2. Pat, I ultimately believe that whether I disappear is largely in my court. I can be an artist, write, and present at conferences whether I am formally working or not. Still, having fought all of my life against erasure, not having a formal role is a threatening idea. Anyway, I am looking forward to reading your in-depth post.

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