Learning about KripLove from Krip Hop: Part 2 – Thoughts on Disability Awareness

Atlanta got its first taste of Krip Hop Nation, the international movement of disabled hip hop artists, on October 13, 2010 at Georgia State University (GSU). This event was brought to the campus by Center for Leadership in Disability, the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine and GSU’s disability student group IMPACT. We had a room packed with engaged people, which was really exciting because I’m still trying to figure out how to procure a crowd for events in an urban commuter school. I organized the event for GSU’s Disability Awareness Day with some great graduate research assistants who kept me as sane as a Bethany can be (and I am immensely grateful for their work because without it Krip Hop would not have been the fabulous show it was).

Krip Hop Nation provided a rare opportunity to celebrate the beauty and talent in the disability community.  Their form of disability awareness deviated from the traditional mode of awareness which often hinges on exposing medicalized aspects of our lived experiences – sometimes through the use of inspirational overcoming disability narratives and/or simulated activities.

Disability Awareness Day at GSU is usually hosted by another group of people; their leader got overwhelmed with grant writing so the ball flew in my court. I gave her students space for tabling of information in the back of the room. The information was supposed to be about various impairments – visual impairment, hearing impairment, etc. – and I explained that providing this information is not really disability awareness. Disability awareness entails 1) a celebration of disabled people (our culture, our bodies and minds, our lives, etc.) and/or 2) exposing power dynamics around devaluing disability. I was assured the information presented would be useful for both educators and students because it would provide ideas to promote inclusion of disabled folks.

When I arrived in the space, I saw someone in a wheelchair driving around a cone on the ground.  I immediately asked who was in charge and told them to stop the simulated activities. Sara, along with others, are right; I should work on my delivery because I am often abrasive. But, I could not believe the crap that was being shoveled in the name of disability awareness. To be clear: NO ONE CAN KNOW WHAT IT IS LIKE TO BE DISABLED BY trying on an impairment for a few minutes. This frustrates me to no end. It makes a mockery out of the disability experience because it assumes that the utilization of assistive devices or brief voluntary removal of an aspect of ability can promote an understanding of disability. Perhaps these activities could be useful with people who have been prepped with disability knowledge and tools to engage in empathy but that is rarely, if ever, provided in tandem with these activities. Additionally, simulated activities maintain the cultural belief that disability is solely personal and physical/sensory/cognitive, NOT grounded social meaning or stigma.

The problem with this traditional brand of disability awareness is that it inevitably works to stimulate the culturally pervasive affective responses to disability: mockery, fear, discomfort, and hostility. Though few admit the latter, Barbara Waxman (1991) and Mark Sherry (2010) did great jobs at explaining how the most common cultural response to disability – pity – is really hatred concealed with a mask of benevolence.  For the record, though, these are all emotions that need to be interrogated in a thoughtful way – not toyed with in order to mobilize affective disability discrimination, such as in the case of simulated activities.