“Differently-abled is implying that the word disabled or disability is inherently negative, that that’s a bad word we shouldn’t say.” – Bri Beck
Are you now, or have you ever been disabled? That’s not a trick question. Artist, art therapist, and disability activist Bri Beck asserts that disability exists along a complex spectrum––visible, hidden, physical, developmental, temporary, persistent, evident at birth, resulting from trauma––rather than a simple binary. And yet… Even with close proximity to it, so much uneasiness surrounds disability and those for whom it is a fact of life. So, what’s up with our everyday ableism, especially in therapeutic spaces?
“There’s always a very strange weirdness, and I find, at least in my experience, that it’s like, people are trying to show you, ‘I’m cool with this. I’m gonna make sure you know I’m fine!'” says Bri, who lives with pseudoachondroplasia, a form of dwarfism. Bri constantly navigates a world where well-meaning folks can quickly cross the line. “As somebody that’s apparently, outwardly, disabled, I have people touch me all the time, strangers that just don’t know me, and that’s so much, like, boundary-crossing.”
Bri’s experiences don’t end with touching. They often include a blatant disregard for her agency. Out-maneuvering such ableism is exhausting, says Bri, and puts me in mind of the tiresome intent of “good white people.” Both broadcast their opposition to -isms through actions or language so beyond what is necessary that their efforts* become caricatures of authentic human interaction.
*Insert face-palm here because we can all recall a situation (or many) in which we’ve overcompensated for our discomfort in exactly the same cringe-worthy manner.
Dismantling ableism demands that we strip back layers of intentional othering and unintentional maintenance of infantilizing practices. “[Disabled is] a different way of being, a different way of doing,” says Bri. The discomfort we feel around these unfamiliar ways of being is an invitation to listen rather than speak, especially in sessions with a disabled client. “We’re all identifying with this experience of going to therapy and feeling like our therapist didn’t really understand disability.” Bri reminds us that, as with any intersectional expression of self, there’s pride and community in disability. Disability is an identity rather than something that requires our fixing or pity.
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Bri Beck is a disabled art therapist and disability arts and culture maker. Bri sees individuals in private practice and also works part-time with Access Living of Metro Chicago where she facilitates the peer wellness program.
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