Disabled Artists Show Us a Way Forward Against a Trump Adminstration

The rise of Donald Trump over the past year has been for us, like many, a growing dread - not wanting to believe that America would really elect an unfit candidate, while watching both political parties and the news media self-destruct in the face of a changing world. To witness  a depressed and disenfranchised electorate, distrustful and paranoid, simply fail to show up for unsatisfactory candidates has been deeply troubling. We’ve watched this unfold not only as concerned citizens and advocates for disability rights and inclusion, but as witnesses of the excellence and potential of those with disabilities across America, and as friends and fans of artists we’ve had the privilege of meeting over the course of our careers. Combined, we (Disparate Minds co-founders Tim Ortiz and Andreana Donahue) have two decades of experience working in this field, not only as facilitators and studio managers in art programs, but in various organizations and positions, ranging from locked down psychiatric facilities, assembly workshops, vocational coaching, case management, and home or community based services, working hands on and providing direct care.  From within a system that supports people who depend on well-functioning public support, the cavalier attitude that the failure of America is a better option than an unsatisfactory candidate is a disturbing betrayal to those for whom failure just isn’t an option. 

From the inception of this endeavor in 2014, we’ve described our mission as “an american journey for a viable future”; our core belief has always been that the practice of supporting those with disabilities represents everything we must aspire to as a culture in order to survive and progress. What artists with disabilities offer to teach us about how to proceed in this uncertain time, is that the advancement of social justice can no longer compromise. Our issues and concerns can no longer be ignored, ostracized, suppressed by taboo, or left to fester.  More than ever, it’s essential that the world is able to experience the incredible work of our most marginalized and vulnerable fellow citizens. 

The existence of individuals with disabilities, especially those who excel, is absolutely at odds with the vague conflation of physical ability and human worth that has been central to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. His disdain for perceived “weakness” was most egregiously expressed in his infamous mocking of reporter Serge Kovaleski who has arthrogryposis, but has been consistently the foundation of his message - defining worth physically in terms of strength, stamina, energy, and genetics:

In this Huffington Post video, Trump’s lauding of his “german blood” at the end of a montage of thinly veiled endorsements of eugenics is a fairly obvious suggestion of Nazi beliefs. The reality that we must face, however, is that these ideas are more mainstream than we would like to admit. It’s impossible to argue that being a winner isn’t innate to German genetics or that being a criminal or rapist isn’t innate to Mexican genetics, without fully embracing the truth that a person's value shouldn’t be determined by a measure (such as genetics) of their physical resemblance to an imagined ideal. This principle doesn’t seem controversial until we consider that almost two thirds of unborn fetuses diagnosed with Down Syndrome are aborted. The women who make that difficult choice do so for a wide range of complex personal reasons, but undeniably, this statistic tells us that from that position, they overwhelmingly see a world that isn’t sufficiently hospitable and accommodating to those who deviate from what is considered “normal”. The unfinished work of the civil rights movement and feminism is evidenced by our failure to defeat the insidious allure of eugenics. 

Keeping this in mind, it shouldn't surprise us that in that same inhospitable, unaccommodating environment, Black Lives Matter is met with vehement opposition and crowds cheer for mass deportations and a ban on Muslims entering the country. Drawing a parallel between these phenomena feels almost excessively radical, but provides a perspective from which to understand that as a culture we’ve simply failed to reject the idea that a physical assessment of a human being is a sufficient measure of the value of their life. The success of neurodiversity and disability rights is our best measure of all diversity and all human rights. 

To be radical in this regard was not a choice for an artist like Judith Scott, who couldn’t make any of the concessions or compromises of the social justice movements that preceded her.  She could not assimilate, speak a familiar language, or stop being essentially different. Judith Scott was born with Down Syndrome and despite enduring decades of our society's failures against her, proved to be an incredible example of the value of true diversity - connecting with millions through her work and contributing to our culture without ever becoming any less different than she was at birth.

Artists with disabilities who are receiving recognition in the contemporary art world directly defy Trump’s movement against diversity and inclusion on an intellectual and philosophical level. The “alt-right” white supremacists, misogynists, nativists, etc. have risen up around the President-Elect to cheer for his defiance of “political correctness” because they believe that misguided politeness and concern for the “weak” is an impediment to the advancement of the strong - that those who are born superior (according to their rules) deserve to succeed, while the inferior deserve to fail. 

In her beautiful essay published by The New York Times earlier this year, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describes the defiance of this brutal sentiment as a “coming out“ for someone with a disability:

As we manage our bodies in environments not built for them, the social barriers can sometimes be more awkward than the physical ones. Confused responses to racial or gender categories can provoke the question “What are you?” Whereas disability interrogations are “What’s wrong with you?” Before I learned about disability rights and disability pride, which I came to by way of the women’s movement, I always squirmed out a shame-filled, “I was born this way.” Now I’m likely to begin one of these uncomfortable encounters with, “I have a disability,” and to complete it with, “And these are the accommodations I need.” This is a claim to inclusion and right to access resources.
This coming out has made possible what a young graduate student with a disability said to me after I gave a lecture at her university. She said that she understood now that she had a right to be in the world.

Few groups are guilty of convoluted quibbling over politically correct language more than the disability rights movement, but this is because such discussions are the byproduct of an unfinished endeavor to parse the attitudes and ideas within our culture that inhibit the “right to be in the world” for many. So, when Donald Trump talks about “PC culture”, we must understand that he’s not criticizing the debate over identity-first vs. person-first language, he’s fully rejecting our obligation to provide accommodations and access to resources, not only to those with disabilities, but also people of color, women, and individuals with low-incomes. 

What artists with disabilities have to teach us is that providing access to resources and accommodations is not a burden that the strong bear to support the weak. It’s the essential purpose of organized society; the survival of the fittest ends where civilization begins. We don’t live in a world where, like animals, the fastest, strongest, and most brutal among us are the most prosperous. We live in a world where some of us farm so that others can write computer programs or become doctors. Our reward for this is a society comprised of divergent minds working together to share incredible human achievements with each other such as advanced medicine, space travel, or the breathtaking drawings of Susan Te Kahurangi King. In progressive art studios, the most marginalized, discounted, undervalued and underestimated citizens in our country are empowered to create some of the most celebrated and highly valued works in their communities, through the provision of accommodation and access to resources. 

The progression of contemporary art to include artists with disabilities who are being supported in progressive art studios definitively demonstrates that access and accommodations that enable diversity don't preclude competition or undermine excellence. It demonstrates that the opposite is true; art and culture has only been able to progress as it has expanded to include a more diverse range of perspectives. This is not the consequence of a desire to be compassionate or fair, but because we are enriched by new ideas, which inevitably come from those who think differently. Despite often being by way of uncredited appropriation, American art has always been defined by the sourcing of concepts from outside and continuously breaking down barriers. The fact that more artists with developmental disabilities than ever are currently represented by prominent galleries and museums should be a source of great hope and optimism, not only for those who are physically or genetically different, but also culturally and neurologically. 

In Trump’s America, progressive art studios for artists with disabilities can no longer view the obligation to be more integrated as an inconvenience to their well-established operations. Every American city needs a progressive art studio, but producing nationally recognized artists shouldn’t be their first priority or measure of success. Progressive art studios are uniquely equipped to be champions of neurodiversity in their local communities. A central priority of these studios must be to share (not just with the broader art world, but with as many people as possible) the revelatory experiences that come from examining a Joe Zaldivar map or browsing a folder of drawings by Roger Swike - moments in which we see with sublime certainty that there’s no greater or more worthwhile investment than to provide accommodation for a human being to exist, express, create, and excel.

There is a lot to fear, not only as a result of Trump's dishonest, divisive, hateful rhetoric, but also in anticipation of the concentration of conservative power that may pass destructive, extremist legislation that has been restrained for the past eight years. Paul Ryan’s Medicaid Block Grant proposals present a devastating reduction in resources for even the most basic daily services - a potential decrease in funding by a trillion dollars over the next ten years, resulting in the loss of life-sustaining support for millions of this most vulnerable and at risk population. For people with disabilities, this setback comes at a time when, despite major progress and victories, they needed a champion. The progress of the disability rights movement has been enacted primarily behind the scenes, through the direct engagement of policy-makers and abstract of a significant social movement. It has been absent from the discussion of police violence despite the fact that as many as half of those killed by police are disabled (source), and the discussion of mass incarceration even though more than a third of the population in US prisons are disabled or mentally ill. (source

Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and one of President Obama’s appointees to the National Council on Disability, voiced urgent concerns about essential disability services and legal protections (such as the right to medical confidentiality) after Trump’s election. Ne’eman insists that we need to remain committed to action and our progressive vision:

...And yet, as in all such things, there is opportunity in disaster. Our imminent Trump presidency is likely to be a calamity for a broad swath of Americans — and liberal and progressive activists will respond by seeking to attack Trump on every front available. For a disability rights movement that’s often seen as the orphan stepchild of progressive advocacy, there’s a chance to better integrate disability into the liberal pantheon of diversity, identity, and protected class. By better highlighting how disabled Americans will almost certainly suffer under Trump policies, disability activists can familiarize the advocates and policymakers who will form the nucleus of the next Democratic administration with our needs and our values.
Just like the George W. Bush administration’s crusade against same-sex marriage helped to normalize the role of the LGBTQ movement under the civil rights umbrella (and within the Democratic Party’s political coalition), it may very well be that disability rights activists will achieve greater solidarity from other progressive groups after four years of shared opposition to the outrages of President Trump. (source)

Moving forward under this uncertain and alarming transition of power, our advocacy and activism efforts must be redoubled rather than stalled in despair. Improved outreach and integration are imperative, in tandem with diversification of revenue through private fundraising to brace against potential disaster. It's necessary for all of us to connect with and become invested in one another and our local communities with the goal of understanding and valuing each other while raising awareness; this certainly includes supporting and working with other social justice initiatives and maintaining communication with local and state elected officials (especially in states with a Republican majority). Our obligation is to make possible the victory that Ne’eman describes through vigilance, tenacity, and continuing to champion the great works of this population, while ensuring they have the best possible time, space, and opportunities for their voices to be heard.