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Excerpted from (pages 105–106 of) the SDS 2007 Annual Meeting Program Notes:

"Disability & Disability Studies: Works in Progress"

20th Annual Conference of the Society for Disability Studies
May 31 - June 2, 2007
Hilton Seattle Airport, Seattle, WA


Location: Columbia A
Moderator: Dennis Lang

Becoming Citizens — the evolution of a story

Susan Schwartzenberg, Exploratorium, Senior Artist

In 2002 I began working with the Seattle Family Network to develop a project exploring the rise to action of a group of parents who raised children with developmental disabilities during the American Cold War, 1950–80. Embodied in the project is the story of four women (mother) activists who co-authored a Washington State Law that became a precursor to the Education For All Handicapped Children Act passed as a federal law in 1975, (IDEA, 1990.) The development of Becoming Citizens involved, listening to a community and learning their history, photographing and interviewing 13 families, and searching for a way to "re-tell" their story of family life and disability — and the ways ordinary citizens can be motivated to political activism.

Much of my work has been an exploration of ways to expand the documentary narrative and insert stories of struggle into the public consciousness. In Becoming Citizens, I combined materials from personal/family collections, with contemporary photographs and individual narration to more deeply express the ways these particular parents/family members were determined to construct meaningful lives for their children in the face of often hostile social and political circumstances. This talk will present the specific challenges of learning to understand and represent the complexities of the disability experience as well as the search for modes of representation that might help to generate dialogue and open this story to a wide audience.

Images From Within

Harriet Sanderson, Unaffiliated Generative Artist

Feminism and disability rights, two civil rights movements parallel and intertwined, have each separately and together generated a dense theoretical conversation about representation of the other. Few depictions are welcome except those from within the group. Even within the group, especially within the disability rights movement that is focused on breaking out of the ghetto in favor of inclusion, talk of the real body is nearly silenced. Early feminists, however, recognized the physical body as the primary maker of experience and identity. My research embraces the feminist stance. It centers on the powerful influence of disability on self-identity and the ensuing effect that it has on the body's relationship to its physical space and society.

Though I have been making art for half a century I have only recently, through discussions with Whittaker, Schwartzenberg, Lang, and others been able to name the experiences evidenced in my artwork:

  1. My experience as a typical youngster with polio, and the effect of silence and mainstreaming.
  2. Passing and overcoming as a way of life.
  3. Changes in the capacity to overcome — can society accommodate persons with slower lifestyles?

While my images originate in illness or deformity, they are not representations of it. The images are in fact confabulations of daily life, the result of the brain actively engaged in making sense of long periods of imposed physical stillness, or other sensory feedback from within a unique body.

Becoming Citizens: A Family Album — A Tool for Social Change

Kathi Whittaker, Becoming Citizens, Seattle Family Network, King County Parent Coalition

Becoming Citizens explores the relationships among disability, family life, citizenship and art. It transforms the stories of individual families addressing disability within the home and the community into a symbol of love, courage, and resiliency. This presentation will bring the experience of this underrepresented population within the sphere of SDS.

The Seattle Family Network, representatives of Seattle families and professionals in the disability community, came together as the project advisors. As activists in the disability movement in Washington State, we wanted to gather the stories of our elders before it was too late — to teach, to heal, to celebrate the strength of families and to build bridges between the generations. Just as disability transforms the person and their families, we believe art transforms the audience.

This family album focuses on hurdles and challenges parents of children with developmental disabilities faced during the fifties through early seventies. Four mothers-turned-activists coauthored Education for All in Washington legislation — a model for national legislation.

I will discuss how this book project began and how we are now using it for presentations in the Seattle community, at disability conferences, in college classrooms, at exhibitions, and as a tool for change in healthcare and education.

This work of art transforms these individual human conditions into a universal experience.