As a PhD student living with a disability, occupying space is both a fascinating and problematic process. Walking with a wheelchair like I do means I am very visible to those within my institution and indeed to the public, blending in isn’t an option. One of the reasons for this is because I move through space in a way that is seen as ‘other’.
Whilst these circumstances often mean most know my name (even if I don’t know theirs) I wish to highlight the distinction between knowing someone’s name, knowing them as an individual, and knowing what they do.
I still consider myself in the early stages of my PhD research (which encompasses my creative practice as a Performance Poet) and I am troubled by the lack of visibility and easily accessible platforms for female academics living with a disability. We are out there but rarely seen or heard from in the public domain and if one doesn’t know where to look you may miss us completely.
I recently read a brilliant essay by Eleanor Ward entitled How Can We identify a UK disability poetics? The essay was published in Stairs and Whispers D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (2017) by Nine Arches Press.
In it, Ward expresses her early reluctance to adopt the label of a disabled poet because she ‘was unsure what belonging to this group meant’ (Ward, 2017:130). I have to say, this early reluctance is something I share with Eleanor Ward. I am female, an academic, and a Poet who lives with a disability and I remain mystified and quite uncomfortable with the whole idea. Firstly, my poetry isn’t ‘disabled’.
For someone who had their first poetry collection publish last year and who has performed as part of the Bridport Literary Festival, I consider my work something which I am very much able to accomplish and deliver effectively. Although of course, these accomplishments aren’t without their challenges and hurdles like all art forms.
Now you may be asking yourself if I feel my work is successful then why am I so reluctant to adopt the disability label? Well, my own discomfort originates from another one of Ward’s observations and that is the question of perspective. She expresses her early concerns around the consequences of labelling herself as a ‘Disabled Poet’ and how this label could change people’s perspective on her own writing. After all, pigeon-holing one’s work is an undesirable concept at best and often results in unnecessary elitism, not to mention exclusion, territory which is all-too-familiar for those living with a disability.
That being said, the issue of perspective is one of the central reasons why I resist the label of a ‘disabled Poet’. Often when I explain my PhD research to strangers or newcomers outside of my field in public, the conversation goes something like this…
Me:“I’m a Performance Poet studying for a PhD which explores what it means for me to walk with my wheelchair in nature and also walk the landscape of my mind. I often refer to this process as walking without footprints”.
Newcomer/Stranger: “Oh wow! That sounds really interesting. Good for you, a bit like Stephen Hawking then?”
Me:“Actually, not really. Stephen Hawking worked in the Sciences and was a famous Physicist. I work in the Humanities and I’m a Poet”.
Newcomer/Stranger: “Oh… You must admire him though?”
Me:“I do. But we are not alike. We both use wheelchairs but that shouldn’t define a person. Sometimes I don’t think people realise that Motor Neurones disease and Cerebral Palsy are entirely different disabilities”.
Sadly, at the end of June this year, I encountered what I like to call the ‘Stephen Hawking Comparison’ three times in one week in completely different contexts, none of which were science related. These encounters meant the issue of limited visibility for individuals working in similar fields to myself really hit home. The public have very little access to suitable reference points and the range of artistic practices created and shared by those living with disabilities. ‘The Stephen Hawking Comparison’ is a safe ‘go to’ reference for people because he is often the only other well-known figure that wasn’t a famous Paralympian. Therefore, unless you have a working knowledge of Disability Studies and can reference Petra Kuppers, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, or indeed Eleanor Ward, then Stephen Hawking is all that is left. This is highly problematic for me both as an individual and early career researcher.
When the ‘Stephen Hawking comparison’ comes into play we stray from the path of my PhD research (the original point of the conversation) on to the complexities of living with Cerebral Palsy and therefore we are in danger of unintentionally misrepresenting not only my research journey but Stephen Hawking’s work too. This awkward meander leads us from a rich scented woodland to a dry limp desert, where both parties stumble around in a sandstorm searching for a clear horizon. As I try to smile through the remainder of the conversation, my throat begins to dry up as the pressure to live up to the Hawking comparison mounts. As the newcomer exits, I remind myself to exhale and wish with all my heart that I could be seen and heard as myself rather than as someone else.
About the Author:
Kay Channon is a Performance Poet, Writer, and PhD Student from Dorset (United Kingdom). Her debut poetry collection The Dark Side of Light was published by Bardic Media in 2017 and is available through Amazon via this link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dark-Side-Light-Kay-Channon/dp/0993069517/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1532537715&sr=8-1&keywords=Kay+Channon
Some of her more recent poems have been published online by the London Progressive Journal and can be viewed here: http://londonprogressivejournal.com/user/view/6712
She is undertaking her doctoral research at the University of Chichester in West Sussex. More information on her current research can be found via her contribution to The Red Line: http://theredline.org.uk/walking-the-streets-as-a-space-invader/
You can also follow her progress on Twitter via: @KayChannon