Zahara: Hey everyone! My name is Zahara Anver, and this is the takeoff episode of the Perceptions podcast. I’m one of your hosts today, and I’m from Sri Lanka! And.. all of us are going to start by introducing ourselves.... and then we’ll move onto our topic for today: the importance of amplifying the voices of young people with disabilities, and a little bit more about the Perceptions writing and art contest! So.. we’re going to start.. and Willa will be introducing herself!
Willa: Hello! I’m Willa, I’m from Massachusetts, and some important things about me would be that I’m a cat person, my favorite poets are Mary Oliver and Phil Kay, and I am oddly good at finding four leaf clovers! I’m a senior in high school. So that’s me, how about Libby?
Libby: Hi everyone! I’m Libby, I’m from the US state of Connecticut, and I love to read… and my favorite foods are tacos and popcorn! I am a junior in high school.
Zahara: Oh that’s so cool I just finished high school! I also love to read, my favorite author is Charles Dickens. Do you have a favorite book or author, Libby? Are there any that influence your work?
Libby: Definitely The Book Thief.. the writing style and point of view are so unique.. And I really try to translate this into my own writing, even when I am writing non-fiction.. or a story about my disability. I think that by.. having a voice or style that is unique and your own, this definitely helps make your story stand out.
Willa: Super well said Libby! I’m absolutely a fan of The Book Thief as well. Do you have any tips for young writers and artists?
Libby: Well I think I notice, as I was saying, when my writing is really honest, I’m able to communicate more effectively with my audience of disabled people and non-disabled people and teach them about my experiences with a disability. My advice for other young writers and artists is to just be honest and keep writing, drawing or taking pictures.. and keep editing your work, and.. don’t give up because your story, your voice is valued.. and needs to be heard. That is why we are hosting this writing and art contest.. To amplify the voices of young people with disabilities.
Zahara: Exactly, yeah! Our contest is open for young adults and teens with disabilities (ages 12-26). The benefits of winning include receiving up to $200, being recognized on our website and Instagram page, and having the opportunity to participate in our spring virtual event, along with Gaeylnn Lea, an internationally renowned musician who is currently writing a book! And as you were saying, Libby, we really hope to uplift the voices of young people with disabilities, including those with invisible disabilities. So how do you see this [the arts and our contest] creating social change?
Willa: Yeah, so I think what makes the arts so universal is the way they can reach people across mediums and speak so memorably to the soul, so that's where the influence comes from I feel. As Stevie Wonder put it so perfectly, it's a language we all understand. So by putting your words, and your photographs, and your paintings and sketches out there you are essentially planting a chunk of yourself and who knows how far that seed can go for someone. Willian Ernest Henley wrote the poem “Invictus” while grappling with his own disability, and the notion of perseverance he captured there ended up helping Nelson Mandela endure his time in prison-- so you never know what kind of lasting effect you can have on someone when you share your work. Societal change is built on individuals, coming together to change their hearts and their mindset. So like Libby said before, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do at Perceptions, we just want to make the space for you to be heard so that societal change can happen. Cause we really believe in the power of art, and what you have to say, and all of your perceptions.
Libby: Yeah that’s so well said, Willa! While you’re writing your piece or drawing your piece, you don’t necessarily have to think about that [the social change aspect]. Just being yourself is enough to challenge the typical definition of disability.. like “inspirational porn” [coined by late disability activist Stella Young], really combatting that with the arts. Really showing people that disability is very different than it’s often portrayed in the media.
Libby: Yeah and I think that the voices of disabled people, particularly young people, often remain unheard and silenced. And we’re really hoping to change this through Perceptions.
Willa: Yeah, our community will embrace the intersectionality of disability, race, gender, and sexual orientation, among other aspects. We also encourage people with invisible disabilities to take part in our contest and future events. And those are disabilities that may not be as obvious as having a limb difference or something. It can be something like a learning disability or autism. So we believe that art is a powerful tool that can alter a person’s perception on disability. Zahara, as a person who does not identify as having a disability, how has being a Perceptions team member challenged your preconceived notions of the disability experience? How might you instigate change in the future, especially in your own country?
Zahara: Hmm that’s a good question. I feel like I, like so many others outside the disability community, was influenced by inspiration porn. I feel like it is something that is rooted deep into our culture and society. So like the idea of placing disabled people on a pedestal and seeing them as an inspiration which goes against looking at them as equals.. You know, as people. And looking at their disability as a hindrance and a burden instead of something that they… like I think Libby.. I think you were speaking to me about this as well.. About how disability is very much a part of you and it’s not something that’s a hindrance, right Libby?
Libby: Yes, definitely!
Zahara: Right.. Perceptions has.. It definitely has challenged the societal norm. Because I learned all of this by listening to you, Libby, for example, and Willa as well, by listening to other people with their ideas about disabilities and the arts. So I think that by being a Perceptions team member, I actually started having the right conversations that I should have had a long time ago.. That we all should have had a while ago.. like the people outside of the disability community. It opened up a new door.. Because I believe in your ideas as well, Libby, where.. We can create social change and change the perceptions of people outside the disability community by being honest and being yourself and stepping out of the stereotypes that are placed on you early on. Yeah.. let me see.. Yeah, exactly.. Yeah.. I just want to carry on these conversations in my own country.. Like in Sri Lanka, I just want to just start having these conversations with other people.. That’s really important to me.
Libby: Definitely! Like you were saying, at the meeting I think last week it was? We were talking about different cultures and different countries, and Zahara you were saying that in your country, right, the education is lower for people with disabilities.
Zahara: Yeah, I really have started to recognize this after I have had these conversations with the Perceptions team.. and I realized that everything we do is entrenched in cultural norms and stuff. So for people with disabilities, what goes on culturally and nationally… like what goes on in your own country.. this varies across the board.. like across social classes and across ethnicities.. So there’s so much variation.. So that’s something I don’t fully understand yet.. Playing into how the disability community in Sri Lanka and the world over are treated [the differences between national and global perceptions of disability]. I feel like.. At Perceptions, we are taking the first step by asking people to.. By giving them a platform to have their voices heard. So I think that’s the first step.. Because I think that once we start having the right conversations, we will slowly create change. And I feel like that’s a practical and a very good way to start… cause it changed me as well.. Like the cultural norms that were around me and I was able to challenge.
Willa: Yeah, jumping off of that idea, it’s the fact that regardless of whether you have a disability or you don’t, maybe you think you do and you’re not sure.. Everyone has their own internalized, preconceived notions about people with disabilities and regardless of where you stand in the community, if you’re part of it, if you’re an ally, we all need to have these conversations and we all at Perceptions know that we need them to be challenged and discussed. So I think as someone with an invisible disability.. Like growing up, I definitely had a lot of embarrassment about being in the ‘special’ classes for my particular learning style… and so did a lot of the other people in them. So by creating these spaces, I think it’ll also be a way to empower people with disabilities, so that we can get past that embarrassment so that maybe younger kids who are.. As they’re receiving their diagnosis can face that with ‘oh I’ve learned something about myself that’s cool’.. instead of feeling embarrassed or ashamed.
Libby: Yes that’s such a good point, Willa! There’s a lot of internalized ableism and along with the… educating the people around us, like our peers, our teachers, our friends.. There’s also a lot of stigma around disability, and so that influences how we see ourselves… so yeah, that’s a great point Willa, and I have experienced this (internalized ableism) myself.
Zahara: So I think this is a great time to have your reading, Libby, it’s called ‘Stone Figurines.’ So I remember I read this a couple months ago and I was just telling you a little while ago.. And it just really really stuck with me..
Libby: Aw, thank you!
Zahara: Yeah Libby, it really struck me, I read it four or five months ago, I still remember it now. So I’m really excited to hear it again Libby.. would we like to get it started?
Libby: Sure! So I’m just going to read the end.. so I’ll describe the first part of it. So I’m talking about how a girl.. I believe it was in my freshmen year, came up to me and she asked me, “what is wrong with your legs?” And I wasn’t sure how to respond and like Willa was saying earlier, I had a lot of internalized ableism. And I wasn’t really sure, like I say, “how can she see my disability as something other than wrong?”.. Because this historic perception of disability is so negative. I.. talk about that, and I reflect on this perception, and by the end (of the personal essay), I realize that my ideas and experiences around disability are different than these stereotypes. And so this is where I’ll start:
[Libby begins reading]: “From an early age, stereotypes are etched into our skin. Weak. Brave. Small. Quiet. I try to rewrite my own narrative, and the narratives of people with disabilities, yet I find that my words are still strewn with formulaic beliefs. My story is dependent not only on the way I tell it, but the audience’s interpretation. This belief that disability is wrong should not be blamed on an individual or a singular idea; we must work as a society to fix this.
Moving towards my jazz band class, I look in the glass to my side, watching as my mirage speeds along above spinning wheels. I try to imagine myself as a frail carving of a girl, composed of only scars and mistakes. Yet I am beautiful. I am strong.
In this moment, I am no longer built of stone, I am flesh and blood and bone. I will never be ‘normal’. The chaos in the hall continues, undisrupted. I swerve around feet as I speed around the corner. I am human.”
Zahara: Thank you, Libby, that was amazing, it still hits home.
Willa: Yes, that was wonderful.
Libby: Thank you!
Willa: Thank you everyone for listening!
Zahara: Thank you everyone!
Libby: Yes, thank you! Bye!