Eyes Wide Shut – Carmen Papalia’s Guide to Democracy

Vancouver artist Carmen Papalia’s adventures in darkness refreshes the practice of democracy. And illustrates yet again the depth of wisdom within the world of disability. His views on agency and accessibility are influencing art galleries around the world, including the Vancouver Art Gallery, Ottawa Art Gallery, New York Museum of Modern Arts, The Guggenheim, Whitney Museum of Modern Art and Tate Liverpool.

Papalia’s walking based performance art offers an experience of discovery. About who has the expertise when it comes to learning what is best for oneself. About levelling the playing field between people who see and people who don’t. About trusting your senses. About changing the nature of your relationship with institutions.   

For our collective benefit he has carefully summarized every critical step and codified it into an Accessibility Manifesto for the Arts which he describes as, “an affirmation of mutual trust.” The Manifesto is not just a departure from typical approaches to accessibility for art institutions. It brings fairness and equality to the ways we care for and coexist with each other. And suggests we develop “a reciprocal, ongoing relationship” with institutions. Which is a pretty good definition of citizenship.

Papalia describes himself as a “non-visual learner” a term he chose when a hereditary condition began obstructing his vision. He resists medical terms such as “legally blind” or “visual impairment.” And he sees his white cane as institutional technology. He takes great care to remove vestiges of victimhood from his life. That’s why he doesn’t think of himself as having “gone” blind. Instead he declares that he chose not to use vision as his primary way of knowing. And to use mutual learning as the basis of his relationship with others. Thus we learn how to retain one’s base of power when dealing with people in institutions who want to help. And how to prevent oneself from remaining an “object” and being marginalized into an inflexible program.

Papalia’s walking based performance art includes: “Mobility Device” in which he surrounds himself with a high-school marching band as his navigation system instead of using his white cane; “Blind Field Shuttle” which invites participants to close their eyes and walk with him, hand to shoulder in a human chain that can stretch up to 90 people long as he safely guides them to a destination of his choice and “White Cane Amplified” where he walks down unfamiliar streets using a megaphone instead of his white cane to express his needs and uncertainties and to open source alternatives to, “the social function of the cane.” 

Carmen is introducing an idea with liberating consequences – to shut one’s eyes in order to know. And to trust others before relying on technology. He shows us the value of heightening all our senses in order to stop seeing only what we want to see. He also demonstrates how to take responsibility for changing the terms of our relationships with people who inhabit top-down institutions. Why? “Because when you take away the structure institutions are just “this mess of relationships.” 

Carmen Papalia’s accessibility manifesto is really a manifesto for citizenship. Inclusion “shuffle,” Natural Caring “amplified,” or Basic Income “device” anyone?


The white cane entrusted a sighted community with my care when all I needed was to be supported in learning through my non-visual senses. ~ Carmen Papalia

If we were going to be assessing the culture of the institution, we didn’t want the culture of the institution to influence our work. ~ Carmen Papalia


Musical selection this post is On the Way Home by Neil Young from his Buffalo Springfield Days. (When the dream came, I held my breath with my eyes closed…) There was a time when I thought this was one of the best songs ever. Sigh. Here’s another version more than 40 years later.


Don’t Forget the Other Innovators

“Saving” Ryan

Ken Dryden’s Tips for Changing the Rules of Your Game

Artisans for the Common Good

The Role of Containers, Hacks and Metaphors in Social Change

A Bystanders’s Guide to Civility in a Time of Rage

First Leap, Bold; Second Leap, Wild

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