20 questions for disability justice art dreaming: a pre-solstice present

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Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha offers a pre-solstice present offering some thoughtful reflections on disabled justice and healing

Photo of six disabled people of color smiling and posing in front of a concrete wall.

Photo of six disabled people of color smiling and posing in front of a concrete wall. Used under creative commons from the Disabled And Here series celebrating disabled Black, Indigenous, people of color. Photo by Chona Kasinger.

My experience with being a disabled creator/writer is definitely not everyone’s. I’m that weird rare thing, a cranky middle-aged brown, queer writer who is sick, autistic and crazy, doesn’t have a trust fund or a rich partner, and somehow still makes a living from disabled art and politics. From writing, teaching, coaching, mentoring some crip artists, consulting, speaking – it all adds up.

I’m offered a lot of work, which is a mixed blessing. It’s a lot better than being offered no work, which has often been the case in my life. But, like many disabled creators, many of my gig requests mean being asked to do things for ‘abled’ people on their timeline and limited vision. It’s a request for “Can you do a DJ 101 workshop?” or “We totally forgot about access at the festival, could you help us, it’s starting in 48 hours?”  And all of them want it in the next few days. All of them are marked “urgent”. 😉 They’re mostly an ask for help in some way, setting up a paradigm where I as a disabled creator am there to educate or fix it. Not to stare out the window, dreaming my next book or performance or online whats-it.

In this set up, we’re  often put in a position where we’re responding to need, thinking “ok, I guess they need help…. I guess it’s an opportunity to put disablity on the agenda… so I guess I’ll do it.”

I’m not shaming any of us for taking that gig or doing that work. For many of us, any work offer is incredible, something we can’t afford to say no to; any offer to do any kind of disabled work is an even richer one.

But these offers and their ways of conceiving of disabled art practice limit our vision. They take us away from what we want to do – from that groundbreaking disabled cultural work we might otherwise be dreaming up. They keep the reference point the ‘abled’ need, not the disabled imagination.

As disability justice creatives, we are a phenomenal disabled richness within an ableist scarcity wasteland. We have so many many amazing things we are creating, dreaming, thinking, and doing, in the midst of a society that is still in the negative balance when it comes to thinking about anything disabled. There is still critically little space or resources that support us as disabled creatives, period – and even more so for making art that puts a crip perspective on traditional art practice and art forms. Our wild disability justice dreams, the ways we bend and reshape traditional neurotypical and abled art practices, or, with autistic/disabled/ sick/Deaf audacity, view them as irrelevent, are way beyond the radar of most abled curators, funders and those who ‘people-who- hire!”

My friend and comrade, the great disability justice organizer, poet and writer Stacey Park Milbern, said when she was  organizing a successful crip-made fundraiser to make the house she’d purchased accessible: “disability justice dreams got me here, and I’m going to keep banking on them.” Sins Invalid from its inception has been an audacious disability justice art dream – of course you can advance a disability justice agenda and transform the world and people’s hearts and minds by creating truly WILD performance art about disability, race, sex, kink, medical torture, desire and isolation.

In the spirit of these wild and wonderful disability justice artists who are my comrades and kid, I offer the following series of meditative questions for disabled creatives. As the northern hemisphere grows dark, many of us have the possibility of turning to what disabled Black and Indigenous queer ancestor Ibrahim Farajaje referred to as luminous endarkment – a sacred Dark time, a quiet, inward, bed time, a crip space of creation and possibility. Use them as inspiration for the creative work we might want to do in 2021.

I think of these questions as a potential deep space of disabled healing. They are places we can heal the wounding of ableism, by re-centering ourselves, by making ourselves the fuck-normal normal, by honoring all the disabled skills, brilliance and gifts we have.

  • Where is your disabled existence/ experience  at right now? What’s new? What are you learning, amazed by? What is kicking your ass? What are you bored by?
  • What kind of crip art community are you a part of? (One person counts. People you’ve never met count. Non-human beings count. Yourself, alone, with a book counts.) Where are things at with them? How are your relationships with them? What needs tending, mending, real talk conversations, or celebration?
  • Where is the community at in terms of issues we’re facing, internal ‘isms’, big political things impacting us, and dreams for the future?
  • What’s the latest thing you learned from a kin? The latest thing you were enraged, or amazed by? Who do you want to collaborate with?
  • What do you want to learn next?
  • What is the lineage of crip art creation you are rooted in right now, and all ways? How do you honor, reference and relate to it? What’s the next piece of work you want to add to it?
  • When you start planning your art, cultural, whatever project: how are you thinking about disability? From the beginning? Wait, are you?
  • Tell me, and yourself, all your secret, internal crip shit. What did you figure out this week about yourself? What do you want to figure out? (I’ll start; I figured out I can only work 7 hours a day. I know, wild. I mean, of course I can do more – and have done more hours – but this is what works for my body. Also, I will never wake up easily and be at work at 9am! I have brain fog! Why not stop fighting it and just accept that my workday starts consistently at 11am?)
  • How much time, space, etc, do you really need? Like really? How much wiggle room when you get sick, when something falls apart (surprise, not surprise? )
  • What are your needs? Wait, I did that too fast – I know, some of you may be saying, “what’s a need”, again?
  • What are the needs you’re comfortable-ish stating out loud, and what are the ones you can barely whisper to yourself, and what are the ones you’re not even letting yourself dare to dream?
  • Can you take a minute to honor all the ways you’ve survived, quite handily, by having no needs? Shoving those holy sacred disabled needs in the closet, taking whatevet you could get and making it shine? Taking care of all your shit on your own, quietly, in the background, where you knew you would get it right and no one would see? We all have done this, we all are in a process of unlearning this, we all still have to do it sometimes.
  • What do you want to offer? You, on your own terms? What’s the one or several disabled art things that only you can offer?
  • What are the skills your disability gives you, that abled, hearing, neurotypical people don’t have?
  • What disabled art practice or project gives you the most pleasure to imagine creating?
  • What’s your wildest, no holds barred, disabled dreaming?

The image above is from Disabled And Here – a terrific resource for creative commons images celebrating disabled Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC).