Objectification Happens

Imagine you are walking through the street, you are passing many different people. As far as you can see, everyone looks normal. Then you see someone with prosthetics, wheelchair or some common object that marks disability. You might become fixated with that device and the person using it. You start to either stare or consciously try to avert your eyes away. It does not matter that the person just going to work or picking up milk. It matters that they use something that signifies that they are different. These objects helped facilitate people with disabilities’ inclusion but also hampered their inclusion as well.

One of the biggest issues of what society teaches about disability is that being disabled can be a hindrance.  Our society might teach about how the deaf child won’t be able to socialize or the adult with muscular dystrophy won’t be independent. To some extent, it might be true. We learned to think this way because disability is relational. It is created through how people relate to their environment. These relationships are shaped by the senses and sometimes connected to language. [1] With the ability to hear or walk impaired, innovative devices such as the Cochlear Implant or motorized wheelchairs bridged a connection to the senses.  As technology improved over the last fifty year, disability bonded with technology.

So technological tools that help disabled people live life does exist. The objects disabled use to perform daily activities also illustrates how technology makes disability situational. [2] Devices like iPads can be used communication purposes (either to speak or to get real time captioning) while prosthetics can aid walking or moving objects.  Inventing these objects helped facilitate people who are disabled interact with their environment. The creation of these objects created a problem. Disabled people who uses these objects becomes known as the deaf guy or the one who can’t walk with aid of crutches or wheelchairs.

This merging of these identities is objectification. Search for the famous quote “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” How many of the images are of someone disabled in some manner?  Quite a bit when the author googled the quote. The

The inspirational image mentioned. Image comes from http://oregonyouthline.org/1741/the-only-disability-in-life-is-a-bad-attitude/, last modified July 3, 2012, accessed 3/22/2015.

image on the left shows a young girl running with her prosthetic. It’s inspiring and cute. She is overcoming her disability and looks happy. The attachment of the quote to this image presents a certain image. It’s saying that the girl overcame her disability (which she did) because of her attitude. Attitude remains to be a powerful tool. However, it does not help with everything.  Attitude does not pay for equipment such as Cochlear Implants which requires surgery and maintenance. Attitude does not enable every buildings to be wheelchair accessible.  Attitude has a limit. Also, the image presents that the girl is worse off than whoever is viewing the image. She is being limited by her disability and her prosthetic.

Disabled comedians like Shannon DeVido speak out about this objectification. Shannon has a Youtube series called Staring at Shannon. Basically, she tapes herself living life and try to see how uncomfortable people can become or what she can get away with. Below, she tries to see how much she can get away with in a grocery store.

Her video of her experience pushing the limit at Giants highlights several things. One, she can get away with a lot in a super market including eating ice cream in the freezer aisle. Secondly, people will assume the worse. The worker assumed she would not be able to lift the bottle by herself or the one customer who apologized for being in her way.  She did not have to apologize for anything.

In the words of the late Stella Young, I want to live to in a world where a kid in year 11 in a Melbourne High School is not one bit surprised that his new teacher is a wheelchair user. [3] Material culture and disability mingles and remains fascinating.  These devices help people with disabilities function independently. The problem is that people seem to think that diagnoses and objects define the person. Disability does not make a person limited. It makes them strong for their courage, creativity, and strength to get through every day.
Please note this blog post encompasses on physical disabilities.  Invisible disability does exist and the author made the choice to focus on physical disability. Everyone presents their disability differently as well and some might never be truly be independent. As Katherine Otts said, Disability is no more dichotomous than race, gender, and sexuality are. [4]

[1] Katherine Otts, “Disability Things: Material Culture and American Disability History, 1700-2010,” ed Susan Burch and Michael Rembis (Champaign: University of Illinois Press,2014),  119.

[2] Otts 126.

[3] Stella Young, “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much,” Filmed  April 2014 at TedxSydney, https://www.ted.com/talks/stella_young_i_m_not_your_inspiration_thank_you_very_much?language=en

[4] Otts 121.

Categories: ABP

13 thoughts on “Objectification Happens

  1. This is such an important topic to discuss especially with children. As new innovations come about, the material culture associated with various disabilities is going to become even more prominent. I think that a difficulty is that parents tend to tell their children not to stare or pay attention to things like prosthetic legs or Cochlear implants. However, if kids are allowed to ask questions and realize that these items simply help people then it becomes a conversation and not something to avoid or step around. I think that encouraging these types of clarifying conversations from a young age can help change the treatment of disabled individuals as “others.”

    1. I completely agree with you, Caitlin. I think parents often believe they’re doing the right thing by telling their children to ignore items like wheelchairs, implants, prosthetics, etc, but that approach leads to assistive technology becoming the elephant in the room, something people are afraid to talk about. If we encourage people to acknowledge assistive devices and engage in conversation about them (obviously following the lead of the person with the disability), it will lead to less objectification.

    2. I really liked what you said, Caitlin, and Emily. As I was reading this post I was thinking about how avoiding things always makes them a bigger deal then they are. This is true for anything in life. Communication is such an important element of day-to-day life and categorizing things into “don’t ask about that” creates divides.

    3. Caitlin I think your point is very strong here. I think that when parents tell children not to stare, or say its impolite to ask questions, this leads to a lot of confusion and maybe even some fear. If parents talk to their children about disability in an open way, this can hopefully stop the feeling of “otherness” that many feel.

  2. I found the Stella Young quotation that you incorporated to be really important, and a thought that can be applied to museums. As emerging museum professionals, we need to remain sensitive to the needs of all audiences and provide inclusive, safe spaces for visitors. We can do this not just by having programs that cater to one specific audience, but programs which foster dialogue regardless of background or ability. Perhaps if museums take the lead and set a good example, this mindset will transfer over to our visitors.

  3. As I read this post, I kept thinking about the people with developmental disabilities I worked with at my last job. Quite a few of them used technology to facilitate their relationship to the world around them and remain as independent as possible. Most people around them seem to understand that, but sometimes it’s had to see the person and not the technology. One woman I worked with used her iPad for communication, and sometimes people would focus on her iPad and not actually look at her. Even though her iPad was helping her relate to the world, at times it was almost a barrier, because of how other people treated it.

    I also really liked your point about how attitude doesn’t solve everything. It’s a powerful tool, but it has its limits. Someone will a good attitude can make the best of their situation, but it won’t change how society treats them. It takes more than a positive attitude to cure ableism, sexism, racism, or any other -ism; it also takes a lot of hard work on the part of everyone.

    1. Emily, I was going to say that same thing – I hate it when people promote the supremacy of a “good attitude.” A good attitude can get you far, but if simply having one cured you of disability or difficulty, no one would be disabled. I sort of think this emphasis on attitude connects to an idea that disabilities are the faults of the people who have them, or that they deserve them because they have a bad attitude. Disabled people with a sunny disposition are least socially burdensome because they don’t cause able people to feel uncomfortable. When disabled people are sad or angry, able people have a harder time handling it.

  4. Matt, you bring to light the most important points in Otts’ paper. Technology can be used as a way to identify those who are physically disabled. Is there a way to use technology in a museum setting to connect people with physical disabilities to people without? Perhaps exhibits that engage with different types of media (auditory, visual, etc.) so that there are forums in which everyone can engage without highlighting differences? As Christine said, museums need to be aware of every visitor coming into the museum and do their best to facilitate conversations between all audiences.

  5. When visiting an exhibition on disability, objects are certainly at the forefront. But how often do we see the individuals who made use of those objects? Museums have the ability, and should, use their voice to reinforce the fact that a Cochlear Implant or a wheelchair is only one part of an individual’s life. We should also work to incorporate the history of those with disabilities into the history of everybody. How can we see past the object when that very object has cast them out of our history lessons?

    1. Sammy, I agree – objects are what people notice and are at the forefront of museum exhibits, but in some sense obscure the stories of the people that used them. They can be an important way to start dialogue about the subjects of disability and objectification, we just need to figure out how to do so.

  6. I think that as museum professionals we have a responsibility and opportunities to engage with diverse audiences and make these issues an important part of our education programs, exhibits, and history of our communities. If museums worked to discuss disability in relation to different exhibits we can foster dialogue about the objects that are part of what makes people with disabilities stand out. We can also use museums to develop teacher and professional training for people that work with people with disabilities so they are also trained to help others talk about disabilities and so they can answer children’s and adults questions about the objects and make it so that they understand how these objects are only one part of the disabled person’s identity. If the questions are answered than it can stop people from feeling like the disabled are different.

  7. Matt, what a great post on an important issues that will always be relevant. And Emily I really appreciate your follow up comments about ignoring vs. addressing the issue of visibly noticeable disabilities and related implements. The parent that tells their child to ignore someone, or their assistive objects, is well-intentioned, but misses the main point. Nobody wants to be ignored, what they really mean is to look past the difference, admittedly a hard concept to communicate to a child who is still figuring out how the world works.

    When I was 15, I spent six months in a wheelchair recovering from injuries, and nearly another year thereafter with crutches, a walker, leg braces, and the like. I found that people generally want to help by opening a door or what have you, or they stare. At different times I found myself offended by both of these responses, either by the assumption I can’t do something myself, or the assumption that I’m weird and something is wrong with me. I came to realize that all of these responses are manifestations of natural human curiosity. I may have rose-colored glasses on, but I think that most people just want to understand what is happening, and maybe how they can help. It is not the responsibility of any individual with a disability to speak for or represent an entire segment of the population, but it is the responsibility of people by and large to engage in some kind of conversation, so that people can walk away with some better sense of understanding. As emerging museum professionals, we should be using the opportunity our chosen career provides to create a space for this conversation for those who are wanting to partake.

  8. Thank you Matt for such an interesting post! I found the reading on material culture and disability so interesting because it’s a relationship I’ve thought so little about, but one that is so important to consider. I really liked your point about objects being both allowing for inclusion and exclusion. This is so important to consider for museums who use objects to tell stories, which can also be inclusive and exclusive.

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