Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Oregon disability rights activist, filmmaker: 'We're not inspirational. We're just us.'

From The Oregonian:

On Saturday, two Portland women will debut a series of comedic shorts exploring disability identity and culture. "Very Special Episodes" is not your typical disability-themed film. There is no inspirational obstacle-overcoming. No swelling music. No feel-good moral.

"We're not inspirational," Caitlin Wood said. "We're just us."

The Oregonian spoke with Wood, a 32-year-old writer and disability activist (pictured). Wood grew up in Arkansas then moved to Portland in 2000 to attend Reed College. There, her life changed, she said, when she took a disabilities studies class. She learned about activists who fought for the passage of the ADA and for accessible buses.

She teamed up with filmmaker Cheryl Green, 40, to create the comedic films.

Tell me about the project, Criptiques on Film: Very Special Episodes.
It started as an anthology I edited of all-disabled authors. I wanted to expand on that project. I started working with Cheryl Green. We decided we wanted to do some films. We received a grant from RACC to make some short comedy disability films. The goal was to present disability in a normalizing way that you just don't see elsewhere. You don't see this kind of representation. It's not inspirational. It's not tragic. It's just us.
We're both disabled and very strongly into social justice. But this is not that. This is just about fun and comedy.

What portrayals of disability do you see elsewhere?

There is a huge dearth of disability portrayals on TV and in film. Only 1 percent of characters in 2014 prime time were disabled. I think about that statistic a lot and how that affects the psyche of disabled people when we are completely erased. When there are disabled characters, it tends to be very stereotypical and hackneyed portrayals. The person always has to be inspirational. They have to overcome their disabilities. 
It's always presented as if the disability is the obstacle instead of the disabling society. Also, when you see a disabled character, 99 percent of the time, the actor isn't even disabled. The characters tend to be white men who are physically disabled. There's no diversity, no nuance.

That was one of the biggest motivations for the book. The goal was to have disabled people talking in their own words. It wasn't just white, physically disabled people. I wanted to have cross disability, people from different backgrounds.

What do you mean cross disability? Can you talk about the range of disabilities represented by Criptiques?

People with chronic pain, people with autism. There's a really great story from a blind burlesque dancer. This is actually what disability culture is. People are doing amazing work, but you just don't see it.

Tell me about the PSA you posted on YouTube. It starts with, "Dear Diary, today was inspirational. Scratch that, I was inspirational. ... I did a lot. I even brushed my hair."

It's called "Your Daily Dosage of Inspiration." It's a satire of what is referred to as inspiration porn, when disabled people are presented as inspiration. Like when you see posters that say "The only disability in life is a bad attitude" and other things that are there to make non disabled people feel good about themselves. It's not acceptable to view disabled people doing everyday thing as inspirational. It should be normal.

What are the effects of disabled people being pigeonholed into that role?

It's very damaging on a psychological level. Disabled people feel like they're not allowed to be disabled. They're supposed to be ashamed. Or they're supposed to be exceptional. They have to be put up as some sort of inspiration for non disabled people. That's their role. That's the only way they'll achieve value, if they're inspiring. It's just a really insidious approach to disability, labeling everything disabled people do special. That separates us.

On that note, can you tell me why the film is subtitled "Very Special Episodes?"

It's a play on disabled people constantly being labeled special and a comment how infantilizing that is. Also, I grew up watching after-school specials. I love them. I love how cheesy and corny they are. We thought it would be fun to make a play on that.

Tell me about the episodes. What will people see Saturday? 

There are several episodes. We're not necessarily likeable. We're not choosing to do the right things. We're not inspirational. We're just us. We're going to show four videos. They're all pretty short. Then we'll have a Q&A. We'll be selling the book and hopefully just having a really interesting conversation about disability culture. Most people aren't even familiar with that phrase. I'm hoping people who are interested in seeing a different perspective on disability will show up because I think it's going to be really fun.