Tue, Dec 25, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Rethinking disability through art

Disabled artists are overturning the conventional view of disability as an impediment to creativity and productivity

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

Chen Hsin-yao’s functional pottery is stocked in shops around Taiwan.

Photo: Davina Tham, Taipei Times

Chen Hsin-yao (陳芯瑤) says the time has come for disabled artists to refuse pity as a default response to disability.

“Disability is an aid, not an impediment,” the ceramicist, 32, tells the Taipei Times.

At nine months, Chen was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer. After numerous surgeries and relapses, doctors removed her left eye when she turned five. She made a full recovery, graduated from the National Taiwan University of Arts’ Department of Crafts and Design and now maintains a studio in Taipei.

Chen makes brightly-colored functional pottery pieces that she decorates with animal motifs. Her dishes depict mischievous monkeys, languid cats and families of hens and chicks are hand-formed and hand-painted. She also makes kaleidoscopic hand-dyed textiles.

Chen credits her grueling childhood illness with helping her to put subsequent life challenges in perspective.

“When you have already encountered such a huge challenge in your life, what other problems can there be that you do not dare to face?” she says.

For artist, activist and scholar Sandie Yi (易君珊), her disability directly inspires her creations.

“I make art not despite having a disability, [but] because of disability,” Yi says.

Yi, 37, was born with two fingers on each hand and two toes on each foot. She makes body adornments that reimagine medical prosthetic devices, which traditionally seek to correct the body’s form and function. Yi’s adornments express self-defined notions of beauty and accentuate distinctive features of the disabled body.

Past artworks include a pair of knit gloves customized for her hands and shoes that embellish, rather than hide, the shape of her feet with stones or horn-like protuberances rising from between her toes.

Yi, who is pursuing a doctorate in disability studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, only started identifying as a “disabled person” when she was 25. This might sound unusual since she has been living with a congenital condition. But Yi is drawing on the progressive and increasingly accepted social model of disability, which posits that disability is a socialized condition resulting from an interaction between an individual and the environment.

Put plainly, people with impairments are only disabled insofar as they face discriminatory attitudes and systemic barriers in society.

DISABILITY CULTURE

Yi, who was born in Taiwan and schooled in the US from age 15, grew into this awareness after encountering disability culture in the US.

Yi says that her disability isn’t so much a medical problem as it is a problem that resides in social attitudes.

Chen’s experiences with the healthcare system in Taiwan demonstrate another way in which disability is socially constructed.

According to the government’s classification of disabilities, having only one eye is not considered a visual impairment, despite the condition significantly reducing Chen’s field of vision and affecting her sense of balance.

“When I was much younger, my father once tried to help me apply for disability status,” Chen says. “I think at the time, people did not have as much empathy. The social worker actually told my father, ‘Wait until her other eye loses vision and then come and apply again.’”

Chen finally received her disability status in university, after realizing that she could work around the bureaucratese if she classified her disability as a facial injury resulting from the loss of one eye, rather than a visual impairment.

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