‘Indisposable’ Reveals the Lived Experience of Disability Through Art

Person laying on ground in green surrounding

The short film El Dios Acostado, from Ecuadorian-American artist Alex Dolores Salerno, describes how Americans in search of health and longevity flocked to Vilcabamba in Ecuador, changing local culture and creating more pollution. The film incorporates access as part of its aesthetic, featuring captions and audio descriptions in Spanish and English. Courtesy of Alex Dolores Salerno

A Ford Foundation Gallery exhibition co-curated by Professor Ann Fox and Jessica Cooley ’05 to mark the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act debuts Sept. 17. The exhibition will unfold online in chapters throughout the year, with an in-person component scheduled to open summer 2021 in New York. The exhibition features visual and performing artists, writers, poets and activists whose work focuses on disability.

The novel coronavirus sweeping through the United States has largely dealt its most deadly blows to the elderly, Black, Brown and Indigenous people, the poor, the chronically ill and disabled.

They’re people often dismissed by a society that values vitality, productivity and whiteness. The inequities have always existed. The pandemic and recent protests against racism have just further exposed them in particularly stark terms, said Davidson College English Professor Ann Fox.

These events of 2020 have posed an uncomfortable reckoning of our values, she said, and raise the question: “Who do we see as disposable?” 

Fox and Jessica Cooley ’05 pondered that as they prepared an exhibition to mark the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. With the world in deep turmoil, they wanted to remind audiences that we can’t talk about disability without also discussing race, gender, sexuality and class. They wanted to highlight presenters who’ve experienced barriers based on social inequities, and the support systems they’ve created.

Their collaboration turned into the upcoming Ford Foundation Gallery exhibition: Indisposable: Structures of Support after the Americans With Disabilities Act, which debuts Sept. 17 and will unfold in periodic online chapters over the next year. The in-person component of the exhibition is scheduled for summer of 2021 at the Ford Foundation Gallery, housed in the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice in New York City.

Cooley and Fox co-curated the exhibition, which features visual and performing artists, writers, poets and activists whose work focuses on disability. They include well-known and emerging Black, Brown, LatinX and LGBTQ artists.

It’s an evolving exhibition, “We’re kind of building the plane as we fly it,” Fox said.

The original exhibition was scheduled to be in-person this past summer, but the pandemic turned it into an online offering and postponed the New York show until next summer. The pandemic and ongoing protests against racism following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people also reshaped their concept.

“When the pandemic collides with calls for social justice, it brings into question the value of human life in so many ways,” Cooley said. “Who is deemed worthy of life-sustaining medical intervention when ventilators must be rationed? Whose lives matter when police draw their weapons? We’ve seen the horrific evidence that some lives are deemed more disposable based on ability and race—and particularly the intersection of ability, race, gender and sexuality.

“This exhibition tackles this question: How is human life valued?,” Cooley said. “How can we insist that ableism, racism, sexism, transphobia and homophobia are called out for their destruction of life? How can we insist on our indisposability?”

Access Aesthetic

The online components of the exhibition will range from poignant to funny to hopeful.

Television and stage actor Ryan J. Haddad will serve as the emcee for the exhibition’s first online event.

Haddad wrote and starred in an acclaimed one-man play, Hi, Are You Single?, an irreverent look at his dating experiences as a queer, disabled man. Haddad currently co-stars on the Netflix series The Politician

The first exhibition includes a 10-minute film, El Dios Acostado, from Ecuadorian-American artist Alex Dolores Salerno. The film compares the unspoiled beauty and welcoming culture of their mother’s home village to the nearby community of Vilcabamba, where Americans in search of health and longevity bought up property cheaply and settled.

In essence, they gentrified the community, the film shows, at a cost of creating more pollution, driving up prices and forcing locals out of their homeland. The film incorporates access as part of its aesthetic, featuring captions and audio descriptions in Spanish and English.

Writer, poet and academic Ellen Samuels will share several poems in the opening exhibition. Samuels lives with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic connective tissue disorder. Her poem In Answer to Your Question riffs on the questions people with disabilities and chronic illness get from well-meaning friends, family members and random strangers. 

“Yes, I have tried yoga, I have tried going gluten free,’’ the poem says. “I have exercised every day until my abs ripple like an armadillo shell.”

In a sign of the pandemic times, Samuels, an associate professor in the gender and women’s studies and English departments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recorded her poetry in her back yard, a switch from the readings and lectures she’s used to giving in person.

“What I hope most of all is for other disabled and chronically ill people to feel less alone,” Samuels said. “That they feel heard, and seen. Even though there’s this unbelievably supportive community for disabled and chronically ill people, there are times when you can still feel terribly alone.”

Other exhibition artists will include Christine Sun Kim, Riva Lehrer, Kiyan Williams and Sandie Yi. (The complete list is on the exhibition website.)

Divergent Perspectives

This will be the third collaboration for Cooley and Fox. At Davidson, Fox specializes in 20th and 21st century dramatic literature and disability studies. Cooley is finishing her dissertation, titled “Crip Materiality,” in the art history department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The two co-curated two exhibitions in 2009, when Cooley was assistant curator of the Van Every/Smith Galleries at Davidson. Their exhibitions, RE/FORMATIONS: Disability, Women, and Sculpture, and STARING, were well-regarded in the disability arts community and caught the interest of the Ford Foundation Gallery for Social Justice.

The foundation’s Gallery Director Lisa Kim wanted an exhibition celebrating the 30-year anniversary of the ADA. A colleague in disability arts production told her about Cooley and Fox.

“I responded immediately to the scholarship of their previous work,” Kim said.

At first, they worried that taking the show online would add to “Zoom fatigue.” But as they talked about it, they realized that the online offering makes it far more accessible and inclusive for people who can’t travel to Manhattan.

“We wanted to highlight diverse perspectives,” Kim said. “There is not a monolithic voice in the disability community. This online presentation gives us an extended way to parse out the ideas and themes we will present in the physical show. It’s been a thrill to work with Ann and Jessica, and we’re excited to launch this exhibition over the course of the next year.”

The pandemic has offered a new understanding of the social contexts in which disabled people live and move. It’s forced Americans to slow down and experience both the need for access and living at a slower, more measured and intentional pace called “crip time.” Hopefully that will lead to more kindness and empathy, Fox said, as we ask ourselves:

“What does it mean to be in a body that moves more slowly? Why is it not okay to rest when we need rest? The pandemic is making us embrace slowness, to redefine productivity, to have more depth, and less breadth.”