Advances in telecommunication technology have enabled the media to bombard us with stories and images of battles between different groups of people who are fighting for position and view each other with suspicion and anger on a regular basis. However, some battles over differences are a little less outspoken; they exist under the surface between what is said and what is unsaid. One of these particular battles I know very well; it is not a battle over land, religion or money, but rather one over perception and position between the “able” and the “disabled”. I was born with short fiber syndrome, which basically means that I have very weak and small skeletal muscles. My biggest challenge is not my limited physical means. It is how others react to my physical difference. I was familiar with my physical body from birth, but I was taught that I was handicapped. The physicality of the form of our bodies is scientific fact however, the implications of how that form is contextualized and perceived is socially constructed.
The socially constructed roles begin very early. When I was in first grade I was placed in a separate classroom that was just for children with physical and mental “handicaps.” I also rode on a separate bus that was just for children with physical and mental “disabilities.” I was the only one on the bus with a physical impairment. The bus was in no way designed for children with physical impairments; there was no wheelchair lift or space for a wheelchair. I was on that bus because I was on their list of “disabled” children. The socially constructed walls that placed me in a “handicapped” role extended beyond the separate classrooms and buses. I and three other students from my class were mainstreamed into the “regular” music class; however, we were assigned to sit on the end, separate from the other children. We were also not allowed to touch the instruments that the other children were allowed to use; we had to sit there quietly while they participated. At lunchtime we sat at a separate table on the far end of the cafeteria; as we walked by the other children they would stare at us like we were oddities. Society had decided that we were not normal. You cannot declare something to be abnormal until you decide what is normal. In Plato’s Cave Plato explains how we are all prisoners of our own perceptions. We filter everything that we see through the lens of our perceptions so it is not until we are able to step outside of our perceptions that we are able to determine what is real and what is not. I created Impaired Perceptions, a portrait series of people with physical impairments, to challenge viewers to step outside of their perceptions, and question these perceptions as they see each person as an individual. Impaired Perceptions is a series of black and white portraits of other physically challenged people and myself, who deal with false perceptions that others have of us, because of our appearance. Some of the people are misperceived, because of the affect that their impairment has had on their appearance, and others have impairments that are not visually noticeable. The people with impairments that are not visually noticeable are misperceived in the opposite manner, because people cannot see why some things are harder for them. The title is a play on words; the individuals in the photographs are physically impaired, but it is the perceptions that others have that are conceptually impaired.
The portraits are traditional, empowering, and show each person’s humanity. They are black and white, which gives them an essence of traditional photographic portraiture. They use traditional painting elements from the Renaissance and Baroque periods such as, tenebrism and chiaroscuro to highlight and show the natural beauty of the individual. In this series chiaroscuro is used to show the natural beauty of each person’s form. Tenebrism is used to draw the viewer to the individual’s face, so that the subject and the viewer would be looking eye to eye. The empowering photographs show the subjects looking eye to eye with the viewer with calm confidence; the subjects are empowered and relaxed, but vulnerable, in essence their humanity is shown.
The misguided views that Impaired Perceptions is working to correct did not begin with this generation. The word normal in reference to the physical body first appeared in the English language only one hundred fifty years ago, coinciding with the birth of eugenics. Before the nineteenth century the ideal body was the dominant paradigm, so all bodies fell short. The invention of a prescribed normality created an imperative to be “normal” and eugenics was used to set the bell curve. Eugenics is a form of social Darwinism where Darwin’s natural selection theory is applied to society in an attempt to improve the quality of people that are born by controlling who is allowed to breed. It was invented by an amateur scientist named Sir Francis Galton in 1883. He believed it was possible to create “a highly gifted race” by only allowing people with “good” genes to reproduce. Galton believed that photography was a precise scientific tool and he could determine a person’s mental traits from their facial features. These misconceptions led to the notion that seeing is believing and the establishment of a false sense of “normality” that casted people with impairments into an “other” category where they were not viewed as full citizens. In 1903 Eugenics came to America, and the American Breeders Association was formed. They passed laws in 24 states mandating the sterilization of people who were “unfit”; these were people they considered to be “feebleminded” which was a catchall term for anyone that they thought was deficient. This false presumption encouraged seeing people with impairments as less useful and more dependent on others than helpful to society. During World War II this notion led to tragic ends; the Nazis began executing their citizens with impairments. Ironically one of the leaders fighting against Nazi Germany defeated them from a wheelchair. Former President Franklin Roosevelt had polio, and he led us to victory in World War II, saved us from the great depression, and gave Americans hope when all seemed lost. Unfortunately, in an attempt to keep America trusting in Roosevelt the White House Administration did everything they could to hide the fact that he had an impairment, so his success did little to change how people with impairments were viewed. These false notions were left unchecked, and the result was the continuation and growth of ableism.
Ableism is a form of discrimination against people with physical or mental impairments that is characterized by the belief that people with impairments need to be fixed or cannot function in society. An example of this would be when someone refers to a person who uses a wheelchair as being confined to a wheelchair. A wheelchair is only a limitation in a city designed for people who use steps. The person using the chair is being defined through the gaze of the “able bodied”.
Impaired Perceptions is working against the ableist gaze that places people with physical impairments into an “other” category. It works against the misguided notions of normality and physical difference. The series shows people with physical impairments in a traditional portrait style that aids the viewer in seeing them as individuals. The lighting in the portraits highlights their faces drawing the viewer into connecting with them individually. The viewer is invited to stare openly at the portraits, and this opportunity allows them look long enough to see past their physical differences. This allows the viewer to see them as individuals bringing the subjects out of “the other” category. The inclusion of people with physical impairments that are not visually noticeable shows the opposite end of the misperception spectrum and works to debunk the false myth that seeing is believing; it fights against the notion that you can judge a person by looking at them. On a deeper level Impaired Perceptions is about realizing that we are all the same and we are all different; it is how we respond to those differences that matters. During Coretta Scott King’s funeral her daughter Bernice Albertine King, while speaking about race relations, said “God has been waiting a long time for us to get it together.” Whether a person believes in God or not, one has to concede that empathizing and individualizing is a much better path to a brighter future than viewing differences with ignorance and assumptions.