Sue Austin and Disability as Art

Have you ever heard of “disability art”? Neither had I. Sue Austin is an artist, a performance artist, to be precise. And she is disabled, confined to a wheel chair. Except that she won’t allow it be confining.

Actually, that’s not quite right. It’s not so much that the goal of her art is to transcend her wheelchair, but to repurpose it. To actually make use of it to see – and help us to see – the world differently.

It’s a striking idea. That while one can certainly approach challenge, hardship, suffering, and disability as things to be resisted, overcome, and transcended, those aren’t the only options. Another valid option is to embrace it for what it is – hard, sometimes bitterly hard, but also real, with real possibilities you wouldn’t otherwise have. And so Sue Austin has decided through her artistic performances to use her disability to see the world differently and help us to see ourselves, the world, and certainly disability differently.

Why? Because, as she narrates, she realized that she’d accepted the definitions of the larger culture had put upon disability and therefore on her. In order to challenge those stories, she needed to tell a new story to herself about herself. So when she got a mechanized wheel-chair, she started calling it a “power chair.” And then she started to paint it. And then to do art with it. And then to combine it with other technologies – like scuba gear! – to use it to experience and share the world in a new way.

Like Jeffrey Wright, Sue Austin has another response to tragedy than either to succumb to it or overcome it; she’s learned to live with it and through it until it is no longer simply tragic, but also beautiful and creative and powerful.

She doesn’t imagine that her response is the one everyone should make, but she does realize that her responding differently to disability creates a sense of possibility and freedom for others to do the same, or even to discover their own. I hope that happens for you.

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