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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Opening Reception for Impaired Perceptions: Portraits of Humanity at Art Inspired



Opening Reception for Impaired Perceptions: Portraits of Humanity at Art Inspired

On Friday September 6th Impaired Perceptions opened at Art Inspired in Springfield Missouri as a part of First Friday Art Walk.  Art Inspired hosted the show in conjunction with Abilities First.  The opening reception for Impaired Perceptions: Portraits of Humanity was a huge success.  I gave a talk about the work before the opening.  The show was very well attended, and three of the photographs sold!  I was also asked to return next year to be the keynote speaker at a convention. 

Art Inspired is a gallery in Springfield Missouri that makes all kinds of art and decorative objects out of recycled paper.  They use recycled paper to make wine racks, clocks, crates that can support wooden cabinets, and chairs.  They also employ and work with the developmentally challenged. 

They were very gracious and hospitable.  They put me up in the University Plaza Hotel and Convention Center, which was very nice, and had a gift basket waiting for me in my room.  Everyone I met was really friendly and open.  

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How to ask someone you don't know well about their impairment


A lot of people are curious, and there is nothing wrong with wanting to learn new things.  The desire to learn and gain understanding is an admirable thing, but what if you are curious about personal details of another person?  You see someone who appears to be different from you in some noticeable ways, and you are curious about why they have those noticeable differences.   Do you approach them about the matter?  If so how?  The best way to gain information about a person regardless of ability or difference is to get to know them.  If you are the impatient type whose microwave just can’t heat up noodles fast enough, and you have to know about their condition right away I have a few do’s and don’ts you might want to consider. 

First, if you do not know the person, do take the time to introduce yourself prior to your inquiry.  No one wants to talk about personal things with anonymous jerks; seriously, even attention grabbing celebs get annoyed by this kind of behavior.   

Secondly, it would be nice to request permission to ask a personal question before you inquire about the part of them that you feel makes them different from everyone else.  This will show that you are aware that you’re planning on asking a total stranger about the details of their body.  It will also allow you to gauge how comfortable they are with sharing about themselves with people they barely know.  People have different personalities and temperaments regardless of ability.  Some people are an open book, and don’t mind talking about anything with anyone, and others prefer to get to know people before they reveal anything personal.  Asking for permission first will also give them the option of saying “no thank you”, so you won’t have to feel awkward about bringing up an unwanted topic, and if they are okay with being asked, it gives them a moment to prepare for your question.  

Thirdly, ask in a respectful manner that does not comment on their differences or assume things about them.  For example, if you were approaching someone like myself you might say “If you don’t mind could you tell me a little bit about your condition?  It’s okay if you don’t want to.  I am just curious.”  This shows the person that you are genuinely interested in learning about their condition, and that you respect their right to privacy.  Do not ask questions like “Why do you walk funny?” or “Damn you’re skinny why is that?”  These kinds of questions tend to make him or her uncomfortable, and put an emotional barrier between the two of you.  This will most likely cause the person to give you a reply that is extremely brief, and therefore, not very informative.  Also, while you are putting them in the “other” category, this kind of behavior will cause him or her to place you in the “ignoramus” category.  Don’t ask assuming questions about the person’s ability like “who drives you?” or “who takes care of you?”  A lot of impaired people drive, and take care of themselves, and even if the person can’t drive it doesn’t matter what form of transportation they use.  The person has obviously figured out a way to get around.  

Lastly, when they answer listen with an open mind, and allow them to give you their perspective on the subject.  It would also be nice to engage in a little chitchat about some other topic afterwards.  No one likes to be asked and then immediately left; it makes you feel so cheap and used.  If you follow these guidelines you can satisfy your curiosity without causing offense, and allow them to give you their side of a subject that they most likely already knew that you were wondering about.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Angry letter sparks outrage


An angry letter written to the grandmother of an autistic teen has sparked public outrage towards its writer.  Ontario resident Brenda Millson received an anonymous letter from a neighbor who was furious with her and her autistic grandson Max Begley.  The writer was infuriated with thirteen year-old Begley’s constant whaling and screaming in Millson’s backyard.  The author said that she was an angry mother, and described his whaling as “DREADFUL”, and wrote “it scares the hell out of my normal children.”  The irate mother goes on to refer to Begley in a number of derogatory ways that cast him into an “other” category including: a wild animal, idiot son, and retarded kid.  The author also made claims about the future of the thirteen year-old stating that “no employer will hire him” and “no normal girl is going to marry/love him.”  The writer then goes on to suggest that Millson have Begley euthanized, and donate his “non-retarded” body parts to science.  Since the letter went viral on the Internet many have referred to its creator as an evil monster.  The author’s behavior was inexcusable and extremely unkind, but I would not classify this person as a lone evil villain.

The neighbor’s claim that Begley should be kept hidden or euthanized, because of his condition is not a new ideology.  At the turn of the twentieth century eugenics was rising in popularity and in the 1903 the American Breeders Association was formed.  They believed it was possible to create a stronger race of people by controlling who is allowed to reproduce.  They began passing laws mandating the forced sterilization of people considered “unfit to breed.“  They passed laws in 24 states calling for the forced sterilization of the: mentally challenged, mentally ill, blind, deaf, epileptic, feebleminded, sexually deviant, criminals, and physically deformed.  These laws also targeted the Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics.  Between 1907 and 1981 the United States forcefully sterilized 65,000 people.  The neighbor’s viewpoint is terribly misguided, but it is also sadly unoriginal.

There is another aspect of ableism at play in this situation, and that is the belief that impaired people are not capable of handling accountability or constructive criticism.  It is clear that the writer had never spoken to Millson or Begley.  The letter was addressed to “the lady that lives at this address.” The author also refers to Begley as Millson’s son when he is actually her grandson.  It is clear that they have never even met.  If the neighbor had simply spoken to Millson and Begley about how his actions were scaring her young children the situation could have been handled without anger, hate, and hurt feelings.  There are a number of statements in the letter that indicate that the author did not feel comfortable addressing the issue without being anonymous.  The frustrated neighbor wrote “I hate people like you who believe, just because you have a special needs kid, you are entitled to special treatment.”  The author also stated, “Nobody wants you living here and they don’t have the guts to tell you!”  These statements, the excessive use of exclamation points, and the amount of words in all caps indicate that the person wrote it was filled with anger that had been building for a longtime, and finally reached a point where it could no longer be contained.  I am not excusing her behavior; it was entirely inappropriate, but I also believe this is an example of a buried grudge that was not dealt with properly.  When a person carries anger they hurt themselves and most of the people around them.  Impairments and the ramifications of those differences should not be taboo topics.  If someone with an impairment is doing something that is bothering you, or is inappropriate it should not be a sin to approach that person about it with the same level of respect that you would show anyone else.  We need to nurture a culture where all differences can be talked about openly with sensitivity and candor.   

Friday, August 23, 2013


I have recently been asked to speak about my ImpairedPerceptions work at a middle school as a part of their advisement program.  The main goal of the advisement program is to put an end to bullying, and to promote tolerance towards people that one perceives to be different from him or herself.  When I started Impaired Perceptions I was creating work to speak up for myself.  As I progressed in the project it became about standing up for people with all kinds of physical impairments.  I like many of my peers began creating work that spoke about the experiences of the group of people that I most related to in terms of life experience. 

It’s an odd thing each on of us is unique.  There have never been two people who were exactly alike, but we believe in the existence of normality.  Each person is as one of a kind as his or her fingerprint.  Have you ever heard of a person having an odd fingerprint?  However, as unique as we are there have never been two people who were completely different.  No matter how different someone might seem if you sat down, and talked to that person long enough you would eventually discover that you had something’s in common with him or her.  Even if you did not agree with them on hardly anything if you genuinely tried to empathize you would see yourself in their story in some kind of way.  It isn’t the differences and similarities that divide or unite us.  It is the importance and spin that we put on our differences and similarities that create our walls and bonds. 

Imagine a society where people with protruding belly buttons could only eat in restaurants, and use restrooms that were separate from those with belly buttons that stayed in.  What if we banned marriage between left-handed people?  Does this sound ridiculous to you?  It should, but what is more ridiculous the suggestion or how familiar it sounds?  Our uniqueness is our common bond, and should not be used as an instrument of division.  Some may perceive differences as a threat, but the best way to protect your own freedom and acceptance is to stand up for someone else’s.  If we leave the determination of who is acceptable or normal to human judgment our acceptance in society rests not on whom we are, but rather on who is making the call.  When we stand up for someone’s right to be accepted for who they are, we are not just standing up for that person and the group with whom we associate them; we are standing up for everyone.

Monday, August 19, 2013


I am excited to announce that I will be showing my Impaired Perceptions series at Art Inspired in Springfield, Missouri.  Art Inspired is a nonprofit organization that recycles wood and paper into art frames, stationary, greeting cards and home d├ęcor.  They also employ and advocate for the developmentally challenged. The show will open on September 6th and stay up through the first week in October.  

I will be presenting a lecture on the work during the opening reception.  In my presentation I will be discussing the experiences in my life that led me to create the work, ableism in our history and culture, and the work itself.  When I started Impaired Perceptions I was merely venting my frustrations with how I was being perceived, because of my physical impairment, but when other people joined in by participating as models, and sharing their stories it became something much bigger.  When Impaired Perceptions was featured on CNN I heard from countless physically challenged and able-bodied people who were touched and inspired by the work.  I realized that the series could do something much more powerful than challenge people’s perceptions; it could inspire, and give hope to others.  I decided to put together a traveling show and wrote Impaired Perceptions: Portraits of Humanity, a book that shows the work, and delves into the ideas behind it to enable people to further experience the project.  

I am happy to announce that I am beginning Impaired Perceptions’ journey as a traveling show with Art Inspired.  Art Inspired is located at 310 S Campbell Ave Springfield, Missouri.  To learn more about the project visit www.briancharlessteelphotography.com