Athletes of the Spirit:
An Exploration of Disability
Through Art and Writing
Kathy Martinez Age 36,
El Cerrito, California USA
Kathy led me to a private conference room
in the World Institute on Disability, where
she works. She knows the pathways through
this building by heart. Also her workload was
tremendous, she was more than happy to
take some time off work to tell me about her
life. My immediate impression was that her
life has been a good one.
Kathy was born blind. She was treated by her
family as though there was nothing different
about her. Only when she turned five and start-
ed school did she become aware of being a blind person in a primarily sighted world. Suddenly there was a bicycle she could not ride
alone or a ball someone asked her to fetch that she couldn't find. She would have to address some things differently from her friends,
like reading or crossing the street. Many of the children Kathy grew up with were extremely supportive. Their view of people with disabilities was quite positive because of their experiences with her. Many of them are still her friends. Kathy could have chosen to feel either needy or independent. She chose to be as independent as possible, because, for her, manipulating people for sympathy was the worst thing she could possibly due to herself or others.
Throughout her life, Kathy has developed skill in many areas, and she seems to have had a lot of fun along the way. While in school,
Kathy was so good at gymnastics, that films were made about her. She loves to cook, ride bikes in tandem, ride horses and drum. She started drumming at age twelve. Eventually she studied drumming in Cuba and learned rhythms for rock, and ultimately jazz standards, using her own trap set. Her band includes a group of sighted men who play dance music with her. Often the others in the band close
their eyes to feel the music fully and to focus directly on the emotion of the music in the same way Kathy does. Their sensitivity increases the better they listen, which strongly unites the band. The band elects one person to give verbal cues if or when Kathy needs them. This way she doesn't get confused by hearing many ideas from more than one voice and can concentrate on the drumming.
Although she loves the mountains, one of the things Kathy likes to do least is camping. She prefers to be in places where she is familiar with the pathways and doesn't need to rely heavily on others for assistance.
At the World Institute on Disability, Kathy plays a very crucial role. She manages international projects which includes worldwide traveling to teach advocacy techniques to people with disabilities. She also coaches people who provide rehabilitation services. Her travels often take her to El Salvador and Honduras where there is limited access for people with disabilities and their struggles for independent living are just beginning. Her latest journey will bring her to the fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.
Kathy's view on disability has aspects that are both unique and shared by many. It's unique because, for her, a layer of judgment between people is eliminated from the start. When she talks with someone, she can feel when a person is being real, honest, dishonest, or deceiving. What the person looks like or is wearing is not judged. Her view on disability, shared by many, is that one should neither be revered because of or in spite of a disability. Anyone can become disabled; therefore, those who aren't disabled should realize the importance of addressing the needs of people with disabilities. The media needs to combat the image of the totally helpless person or the Super Hero. Therefore, disability in art should be neither too spotlighted nor too ignored. The word disability doesn't appeal to Kathy. She latches onto the "dis" and wishes that there were no labels of all.
Kathy recommended that I speak with Paul Longmore, Professor of History at San Francisco State University, to gain a historical per-
spective on people with disabilities. According to Professor Longmore, during the early Middle Ages, children with disabilities were often brought to monasteries, where many eventually became leaders, though they were often still excluded from the broader society. Louis Braille, French inventor of Braille for books and sheet music, was one of the first unsighted people to enter an institution where he learned and lived during the 17 and 1800s. Treatment was often uncivil and his revision of an archaic reading system for people who were blind was not accepted until a few years after his death.
Today, the provision of social services to people with disabilities is more advanced in Western Europe than in the United States. However, in the United States, greater attention is paid to the accessibility and autonomy of people with disabilities. With all our advances, however, the judicial system in the US and abroad often still gives far too much advantage to people who have abused their disabled children, giving their testimonies and preferences more weight in court then that of their children. Also, according to professor Longmore, some doctors still tell parents of newborns with certain disabilities, like cerebral palsy, that they needn't give them the necessary medication for survival
(There may be many changes at this point, as this was written before 2000).
Because Kathy was knowledgeable about the history of people with disabilities, including those who are blind, I chose to make a point of this evolution in a sculptural timeline. It is meant to be touched with eyes closed if you are sighted. Although each layer represents a growing independence among people who are blind, it is representative of all people with disabilities. With all this in mind we climb the sculpture with our hands and reach for the autonomy and community interdependence of people with disabilities.
Victim, Superhuman, or Just Part of the Crowd
Very often blindness is imagined as a condition of perpetual darkness. Assumptions about our condition as a people have been much less than positive. Historically, two very distinct images of blind people have been perpetuated: the recluse living in a miserable state of darkness, or the superhuman blind person. Both images are based on myths and stereotypes which allow society to believe that a person with limited or nonexistent visual ability cannot be responsible for her/himself, much less play a contributing role in society.
Before the Common Era, disabled children were often killed or left to die. Up until the 1700s, our role was often relegated to begging. We
were then locked away in sanctioned segregation, e.g., institutions and/or asylums. With the advent of braille in the early 1800s, we began
to be educated, and schools for the blind sprang up all over the industrial world. We were able to organize because we could communicate with each other as well as with the dominant culture or power structure.
We subsequently began to prove to society that we were capable of contributing, whether it be by managing vending stands, memorizing
the Koran, giving musical performances or Shiatsu massage.
After mastering tasks which had been assinged to us by society, we began to realize that we were capable of choosing our own paths based on interest and ability rather than society's perception of what our careers should be.
Today, Blind people participate in all facets of society. More than ever before, we are productive and empowered. we have made our movement stronger by collaborating with other disability groups as well as proving to our communities that we too can effectively participate.
29 5/8 " x 18 3/8 " $1,600.00