El Alto

Edu O. – Brazil

DEAR BIPEDS

In an open letter, the artist Edu O. defines bipedalism, outlines the collective experience of the ageing body, and calls for a disability-led paradigm shift.

Image caption: photography by John Smith, 2019

“My wish is that we— as people with disabilities— occupy spaces, because we are a legion.”

You may not be aware of it, but you are a biped. Yes, if you do not have any disabilities, fall within the standard-body category and view disability as a pathology; if you feel pity and compassion for us poor things; if you consider people with disabilities to be unproductive, less capable and less beautiful; if you think of disability as a unique experience that affects everyone the same way, and you overlook the wide diversity and particular aspects of disabilities, then yes, you are a biped. If your idea of inclusion fences us off in areas that exclude us more, yes, you are a biped. If you think that a body without disabilities is the only normal one possible, yes, you are undoubtedly a biped.

From my perspective, bipedalism is a social, economic, cultural and political structure that determines normality and abnormality; capability and incapability. For me, bipedalism is not just the way you walk but a system of oppression based on the traditional concept of what it means to be “normal” or “disabled”. In Robert McRuer’s Crip Theory, the  construction of “normal” connects to the economic and political interests that establish a compulsory able-bodiedness and normalize dominant ideologies aimed at boosting productivity. 

Therefore, I identify in dance the same structures that enforce a standard of able-bodiedness and exclude those they consider disabled, unfit and incapable. This is what I call compulsory bipedalism.

Therefore, you are a biped if your dance ignores the possibilities of different bodies; if you are unaware of the limitations of your own bipedalism which over time repeats the reductive clichés of verticality and virtuosity in dance and use of the body; if your aesthetic, artistic, and therefore political choices maintain and reproduce invisibility strategies and non-recognition of works by artists with disabilities; if, as a curator, you fail to recognize that the white-biped-cisgender body is predominant in festivals’ dance programs; if you consider our presence as something exotic, as a theme for study or discussion; if your classes and methodologies do not even contemplate the involvement of the disabled, making us the ones who need to adapt; if your production does not care about accessibility, showing indifference to your audience; if, as a journalist, you carry on writing sensationalist articles that treat us like in the freak shows of the past, then you are a biped. 

How am I supposed to feel about your TV programs, plays, musicals, movies and love stories when you assume that I’ll never be able to live? Do you understand? Biped thinking is everywhere, it dominates all spaces and makes us invisible, and rejects our very existence. How many disabled people do you live with or have you worked with?

When you think about dance, what body can dance your dance? Who can perform your art? Who can watch it? If the whole body is the person—because bodies cannot be detached from the person—who do you include? Who do you leave out? What do you think about disability? What words do you associate with it? When you think about dance and disabilities or art and disabilities, what images come to mind? What are your reference points? And if you do not have any references or cannot apply common sense, how do you judge our competence and production? You know so little about so many things!

There is more to it than what meets the eye… and yet it’s still an obstacle course for the wheels on my chair. You always dig holes so I can’t get too close to you. Perhaps you think my disability is contagious. Or, as Boaventura de Sousa Santos says, “there is less to it than what meets the eye”, establishing who belongs and who doesn’t, on the side of a line invented to create hierarchies between some who are authorized to speak and others condemned to a lifetime of silence and submission. You, biped, lock us away in a little backroom to hide what we reveal about you. You are afraid of us.

I’m going to tell you a story I read in the book Holocausto brasileiro – Genocídio: 60 mil mortos no maior hospício do Brasil (Brazilian Holocaust – Genocide: 60,000 Deaths in Brazil’s Largest Psychiatric Hospital), written by Daniela Arbex. Antônio was admitted to this psychiatric hospital in Barbacena and spent 21 years in total silence; the hospital staff therefore considered him to be non-verbal. One day, Antonio uttered a sound when he heard a music group playing. Everyone was shocked. When asked why he had not told them he could speak, he simply said because no one ever asked.

Well you never asked me, either. But I’m not going to hold my tongue, and I’ll say it over and over again: “You bipeds wear me out!”

Without a doubt we cannot deconstruct and destroy such deeply ingrained mindsets. Biped thinking is an integral part of our society; it molds and limits our comprehension of the body and the world, discounting any experience not considered normal. This normality does not exist, biped. Believe me! Rethink, revise, change these concepts. You cannot continue to enjoy so many privileges. Do you know why not?

I feel a wind approaching from far away, perhaps a wind of change. We, the disabled, are finding our place and debunking some stereotypes. We habitually change ourselves when we come into contact with the other; we feel apprehensive when confronted with the unknown or, in this case, the not-so-unknown, but because it is so well-known we take it for granted. Encounters and contacts cause transformations.

I’d now like to address my disabled friends — those “intruding bodies” as Estela Lapponi says — who come without asking permission, encroach on places where historically they have not been invited, and disrupt everything from architecture to attitudes, communication and technology. These bodies incite, bother and perturb. They challenge stereotypes to affirm who we are and to reject standards imposed on them. Never forget that when we enter spaces, we transform them. A lived experience cannot be negated. No one speaks for anyone else, no one speaks for us, but we can comprehend the other’s universe and try to co-create with them.

Biped, I am not writing to you to widen the chasms into which you have thrown us so many times since the times of Ancient Greece. My intention is to build bridges to make you aware of the violence you cause every day, when despite your good intentions you belittle us with your compassion and pity. I get it: some of you may not even be aware of this.

But the time could be ripe for us to change our consumer habits and to dismantle the stereotypes we have created and perpetuated and that ultimately determine for us what is beautiful, productive and capable. When we are free from this isolation imposed by COVID-19—an isolation that perhaps is a new experience for you bipeds, but which for those of us with disabilities is a condition routinely imposed by the lack of accessibility and opportunities—what will matter? Which lives matter? Some more, others less? 

You even appear to support worthy causes in a visible way, but does your activism take into account disabled lives? If not, biped, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I do not believe in your fight. Do you know why?

Because a disabled body awaits us all. This is a message I repeat endlessly. The disabled experience is our unavoidable future, whether we are women, men, Black, Indigenous, transgender, cisgender, gay, lesbian, asexual… either due to some quirk of fate or simply as a result of living. Ageing comes from staying alive, and ageing goes hand and hand with disability. Understanding the disabled body as the future implies thinking about how disability studies have contributed to various branches of science, from medical studies to robotics, technology, communication and the arts. It means thinking differently and dialogically, and deconstructing the idea of the subalternity of disability. If everybody may develop a disability at some point, would it not be smarter to build a world grounded in this fact?

For the future that is already present, my wish is that we—as people with disabilities—occupy spaces, because we are legion. We should work on breaking down the barriers imposed on us by social norms and expose this much-overlooked reality unknown to the majority. To me, this is what gives me the strength to exist in this past-present-future-HERE.

See you soon,

Edu O.