Reimagining the World through Disability Arts and Justice 

June 2, 2021
Megan Perram, PhD Candidate in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies at the University of Alberta 

Congress 2021 blog edition 

In the fourth panel of the Big Thinking series at Congress, audience members were treated to an invigorating lecture-performance by Alice Sheppard, the Artistic Director of Kinetic Light. Kinetic Light is a project-based ensemble working at the intersections of disability, dance, design, identity, and technology to create transformative art and advance the intersectional disability arts movement. 

The most striking element of “Disability Will (re)Make the Arts” was the centering of accessibility. After entering the Zoom meeting, audience members were offered an array of accessibility options including closed captioning, language translation, sign language interpreters, and image description. In light of National AccessAbility Week in Canada, Bill Flanagan, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Alberta, noted: “these events are more inclusive than ever; by removing barriers to access, we create more open spaces to learn, share, connect, and participate.” 

In an introduction given by Syrus Marcus Ware, activist and scholar from McMaster University, the audience was introduced to the significance of disability justice and art. For Ware, “disability justice grows out of BIPoC communities, particularly queer communities, and says in fact we can create a world where all of our lives are considered inherently valuable.” Poignantly, the scholar declares that disability is something to be desired and adds immense value to our communities. Disability arts, for Ware, “is a beautiful opportunity to reimagine the ways that we make work, the ways we make work together, and the ways things can be possible when we come together.” This air of possibility lingers as Alice Sheppard takes the virtual stage. 

Sheppard begins by describing her appearance and background, to establish an image description of what the audience would see on their screens. She then brings her audience through a lively and illuminating lecture-performance of her work on disability art activism. Sheppard explains: “disability is only self-evident if you rely on white, medical, social stereotypes as your dominant interpretive lenses. So let's change the lens.”  

Sheppard effectively shifts that lens for the audience throughout her discussion. However, one of the most important moments of her talk is when Sheppard acknowledges how her own analysis has slipped back into this normative lens. The artist halts: “I stop, I pause. Even as I make this argument that is so urgent and necessary to my work, I notice how our understanding has already slipped into the understanding of whiteness.” Sheppard takes the time to resituate her centering of Black disability, then continues: “So I start again…”  

Sheppard ends her talk with a call to action for the audience: “the question is not how to include disabled artists, the question is will you move aside and move with us. Do that and disabled artists will remake the arts.”