Reclaimed Space: Student Art Combats Disability Stigma

For Erin Davenport '18, who has a disability, the elevator was by far the easiest way for her to get up to her second floor dorm room freshman year. But when walking with her roommate Sarah Gompper '18 and other friends, she opted to use the stairs.

"The social stigma surrounding disability, and my not wanting to ‘seem disabled' kept me from using the valuable and helpful accommodation of the elevator," Davenport said.

This winter she and Gompper decided to examine and address that social stigma through art. In partnership with the Residence Life Office, the students installed original pieces on art on wood panels next to elevator doors in Duke and Belk residence halls. In doing so, they sought to "reclaim" the stigmatized space.

"Sarah and I had the idea to create art near elevators to help change the spaces and potentially alleviate some stigma around their use," Davenport said.

The project, entitled "Rainclamation," is funded by a Friends of the Arts Spike! grant, that supports student-driven extracurricular art projects on campus.

A Multi-level Project

Drawing aesthetic inspiration from rain and topical inspiration from 1950s physical education manuals, the project addresses disability on multiple levels.

"The first level is simply reclaiming the space that used to be painful and filled with stigma and making it beautiful," Davenport said.

On each panel is an abstract wax painting inspired by the question, "what does it look like when rain moves through color?"

In addition to its aesthetic contributions, rain can make life difficult for those with disabilities, Davenport said-especially when it makes surfaces slippery for walking and balancing.

Along with the wax paintings, Davenport and Gompper incorporated erasure poetry into the panel pieces using content from Davidson physical education manuals from the 1950s. This form of poetry involves striking or blocking out certain words from existing documents, which results in poems with new meanings.

"Those [physical education] documents spoke about how paramount physical fitness was to creating the ideal, well-rounded Davidson student," Davenport said. "But disabled people were entirely erased from their thinking and writing. It was powerful for us to reclaim those words for this project."

For example, a letter from former Director of Intramural Athletics A. Heath Whittle in an old Davidson College Intramural Handbook says "every student needs a wholesome outlet for his mental energies through physical exercise," and does not address the fact that some students may not be able to participate.

Campus Collaboration

Davenport and Gompper worked with staff members across campus to bring the project to fruition.

"I was excited about the possibility of putting student artwork up in the residence halls, but even more interested in learning about the ideas they had around artwork and disabilities," said Jason Shaffer, associate dean and director of residence life.

Working on and around elevator doors presents some challenges, but Shaffer coordinated with Physical Plant employees to make the project possible.

The students also sought input from English Professor Ann Fox, who specializes in disability studies.

"The project is fantastic," Fox said, "and it does many of the things I talk about in disability studies work. It uses the experience of disability as the catalyst for creative work that pushes back at structures of normalcy, it gives voice to the disability experience and it reflects disability culture."

She added, "I've been waiting for work like this to come from students for a long time!"

Disability On Campus

Roughly 2.6 million undergraduate students in the United States, or 11.1 percent of all enrolled, have a physical or learning disability, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. As that percentage grows so does the need for resources such as ramps, accessible rooms, counseling services, and clearly stated disability grievance procedures to ensure no student is denied access to any college service, program, or activity.

Davidson has made strides towards being more accessible and inclusive and continues to work on it. Additionally, an increasing amount of work is being done within the realm of disability studies on campus, Fox said.

"Erin and Sarah are part of a community of disabled people and allies making work all over the college that is advancing disability culture and acknowledging disability presence," she said.

"There is a lot of disability on our campus, yet we often treat it as individuated rather than as a culture and community," she said. "We need to do more work integrating disability culture and consciousness into every aspect of campus life, feeling as much pride in it as we do our other identities. This work does that."

Broadening Audience

In early February, "Rainclamation" debuted in front of more than 100 students, staff and faculty members in the Powell Atrium of Duke Residence Hall.

"Many people came up to us at the reception and commented on how the work made them think about disability theory for the first time," Davenport said.

Shaffer, who attended the opening, said the project opened his eyes to some of the stigma and challenges encountered by individuals living with disabilities. He sees potential for expansion of the project beyond Belk.

"It may be additional pieces near elevators in other residence halls or academic buildings, or it may be pieces of artwork meeting entirely different community needs," he said. "This project is a great example of collaboration between students and administrators, and we look forward to more opportunities like this in the future."

Fox agrees. "This work reminds us that our built environment should always be questioned," she said.

Davenport, who is a Belk Scholar, presented the project at the Critical Junctures conference at Emory University and plans to present at other venues in the coming months.

"I couldn't be happier with how it turned out and all we accomplished," she said. "I'm excited to continue to present and share the vision and execution of the project with a wider audience."


Bridget Lavender ‘18


  • April 19, 2017