Witnessing the Power of Unheard Voices

Bringing disabilities issues into the forefront of a multi-issue conversation about change
Performers at
Performers at "On Display" in NYC, December 2016

In early December, I had the opportunity to be a part of a very unique social justice event in New York City. I was pulled into it through my son, Eli, who is attending NuVu in Cambridge this year as a part of his high school learning. NuVu, a design/engineering and project-based school gives high school teenagers real life problems to solve, and the space and time to work out tangible solutions. In late September, Eli was a part of a team that was asked to create wearable art pieces for four disabled performers for an event that would take place in December in New York.  

Fast forward a few months, in early December I was witness to a moving celebration for International Disabilities Awareness Day by attending and experiencing, a two-day installation at Tisch College of Art at NYU. Over thirty movement artists shared their expressions silently and powerfully in a moving presentation entitled “On Display.” They wore white attire, moved slowly and strategically in staged locations with thoughtful movements, and controlled their eye contact in ways that worked for them. The performers – and those of us in attendance – witnessed the power of their silence, the beauty and dismay of their expressions, and the challenges that many with disabilities face in their day to day lives.   

I hope that SIF can work toward presenting a future social issue track focused on the challenges of disabilities for so many.

Heidi Latsky, creator of the event and leader in the international dance community, truly made a strong statement about the power of the many voices that go unheard in our society. Complementing the dancers were moving photographs and video clips of past performances. In addition to being in NYC, “On Display” was happening in Boston, Austin, San Francisco, Denver, Montreal, Buenos Aires, Lima, London, and more, all connected to getting an important and often unexpressed set of perspectives out for others to experience and hold.  

As written on materials at the installation,

On Display is a deconstructed art exhibit/fashion show – a commentary on the body as spectacle and society’s obsession with body image. Members of the disability, performance, and fashion worlds are often stared at and objectified in their daily lives. Reverting gaze is integral to disability culture. In the On Display installation, the performers have the power to choose what they do or do not reveal, giving them control over a personal journey that cannot help but be affected by an audience. The tenuous and complex relationship between view and viewed that exists in performative work also permeates everyday life with people who are different in some physical way and hence draws attention to themselves whether they want to or not. 

People in the audience were invited to “go ahead and stare,” but also to photograph, film, and tweet to help bring voice to the under-represented in our midst. 

The event was moving to me, a social justice activist for many decades, as disabilities issues and challenges are often difficult to bring to the forefront in a multi-issue conversation about change. Like the installation, the voices are often silenced and harder to bring forth. The strength of the collective expression of these artists was powerful in ways difficult to describe. My photos will only capture a small part of the depth of this experience – the pain, challenge, and despair – that existed in the piece.

I left the Tisch installation impressed with the energy of so many, the commitment of a group of high school teens and teachers to focus on real life issues, and eager to see how the Social Innovation Forum can be a larger advocate for disabilities issues and continue to support broad-based work around increasing social impact for so many in our community. Our work with Waypoint Adventure and Courageous Parents Network, both 2015 Social Innovators, and with GRIT, a 2013 Impact Entrepreneur, offer us and our community some connections to the disabilities community and these challenges. We know that the voices of these strong organizations and their leaders continue to press for bringing these issues into mainstream conversations. I hope that SIF can work toward presenting a future social issue track focused on the challenges of disabilities for so many, and to more fully bring this important topic into the forefront for all in our community.  

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