After using their nonvisual senses for a prolonged time, participants begin to recognize looking as one of the many ways to engage with and interpret a place. They realize the opportunities for learning and knowing that become available through the nonvisual senses.

– Carmen Papalia

Trust is an essential ingredient of democracy,
and it grows from the grassroots up.

To performance artist Carmen Papalia, walking is a political adventure
that cultivates trust. In Blind Field Shuttle, for example, he leads as many as ninety people with their eyes closed, hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them, on an adventure in darkness. They know he is blind and trust that he will lead them safely to a destination of his choice. In Mobility Device, instead of using a white cane, he uses the sound of a high school marching band as his navigation system. In White Cane Amplified, he walks down unfamiliar streets using a megaphone to ask passersby for their support. He wants to illustrate that the social function of the cane is to prevent people from following their natural inclination to help. Papalia describes himself as a nonvisual learner, a term he chose when a hereditary condition began obstructing his vision. He resists terms such as legally blind and visually impaired.

He views the white cane with its signature red tape as an institutional technology that reinforces dependence and victimhood. The one he uses is made of black graphite and has a wooden handle. “The white cane entrusted a sighted community with my care when all I needed was to be supported in learning through my nonvisual senses,” he wrote in an essay.

Papalia puts his faith in mutual support and trusting relationships between people with and without disabilities. His insights also apply to the relationships between all citizens and their democratic institutions. He wants to end the top- down nature of institutions: “When you take away the structure, the museum is just this mess of relationships.”

He demonstrates this by conducting accessibility audits of art galleries around the world. His aim is for people in power to understand what systemic oppression looks like. It’s one thing to be able to get into a museum, he says. It’s another to feel unwelcome once you get inside and to encounter exhibits that aren’t compatible with the various ways in which you learn. Papalia describes this as a relational approach to accessibility as opposed to the more common policy, rights-based approach.

Papalia has worked with New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Harvard Art Museums, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Tate Liverpool, and the Vancouver and Ottawa Art Galleries.

He wrote An Accessibility Manifesto for the Arts to foster a creative, reciprocal, and ongoing relationship between citizens and their institutions. Papalia believes that everyone carries a body of local knowledge and is an expert in their own right; he also believes that interdependence is central to a radical restructuring of power and for leveling the playing field. Accessibility isn’t relevant only to people with disabilities, he said; “it is an affirmation of mutual trust.”

This is an excerpt from Al’s new book, The Power of Disability – 10 Lessons for Surviving, Thriving, and Changing the World.

Learn more about Carmen…