An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, a book by then practicing physician and author Oliver Sacks, has been an interesting read. Sacks examines the lives of seven fascinating, extremely talented, and creative individuals living with neurological disorders. The book begins with the story of Jonathan I., a painter who lost his ability to perceive colors after a tragic accident and ends with the story of Temple Grandin, a scientist, professor, and entrepreneur living with autism. Sacks takes it upon himself to visit each of these individuals to essentially ‘observe them in their natural habitat,’ almost as though they are subjects of a scientific study rather than human beings. I found the style and language he uses when speaking about the people he is observing to be the most bothersome about his approach.
Because this book was first published in 1995, some of the words he uses are terms, such as ‘retarded,’ that are unacceptable today. Beyond that, I find that Sacks’ tone and style is filled with condescension when he attempts to explain his interactions with the people he is interviewing. For example, Sacks is surprised by the abilities of the people he observes, almost as if he goes into the interaction with a bias that the person is a distant entity incapable of performing normal functions. In this way, his approach reflects his background as a physician, as it is very clinical and diagnostic in nature. I find that with this book, he is trying to move away from the medical examination tactic, toward a more progressive approach where one seeks to relate on a human level. However, he is only somewhat successful in achieving this goal.
Sacks generally seems to care about the seven individuals he is interviewing, but it comes across as pity rather than empathy. What Sacks does is separate the individual and the disability, failing to see how the disabilities somewhat inhibit their personalities. A better approach would be to focus on the person as a whole and not on what is wrong with them. In other words, focus on the abilities not the disabilities because doing the latter is limiting. At the time, Sacks’ book would have been considered revolutionary; today there are many organizations and institutions that continue to revolutionize how we think about disabilities.
Art Beyond Sight (ABS) is a model organization that “is dedicated to making the visual arts play a vital role in the lives of people who are blind and visually impaired.”  What they do is provide resources and materials to museum professionals, schools, community groups and art enthusiast on how to create greater accessibility, ability and diversity at cultural institutions. On the topic of institutional thinking on disability and ability, ABS advises that accessibility should not only be for the general public of museum visitors, rather for everyone that enters the door. This includes employees, board of directors, volunteers, artists, funders etc. There are many more resources that one will find helpful on the organization’s website,http://ww.artbeyondsight.org. Increasingly today, museums have been rethinking accessibility in their institution and how they approach ability. What are some examples you know of?
 Art Beyond Sight, “Why Create Access to the Arts?” Art Beyond Sight, http://www.artbeyondsight.org/handbook/dat-access-to-arts.shtml#institutional