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Lovely Maralit

Maralit standing in the ASB archI can climb mountains and shoot for the moon even if I miss I will be among the stars. This is about an experience that brought the best out of me. I never thought I would be pushed to my limits and still have the support to help me stand back up on my feet.

In September 2017, I received the news that I had been offered an Event Managing Internship with Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) for February 2018 through Be.Employed. The anticipation builds as the time ticks down closer, nerves are going crazy and for me the anxiety monster began to eat me. I have been diagnosed with Anxiety and Depression in 2016 and as crazy as it seems, I love the chaos and mundane nature of the production and operation of major events.

Day one and it was already a rollercoaster; unfamiliar faces said their welcome and greetings. This was a place that I see myself grow and develop as an individual and as an emerging event planner. Despite this joy, I still faced the anxiety monster in front of me, there were days that I did not want to get out of bed, days that as simple as hearing someone laugh at the office made me feel like they laughed at me. However, it was reassuring that Be. Accessible provided me the platform to feel okay about disclosing my accessibility needs to my employer. I have felt that there is still a negative stigma with individuals who has Anxiety and Depression,  which stops me from reaching out beyond my skills and my own expectations.

In my experience I built so many new contacts, in my experience I saw myself developed to the person I dreamed to be. Now I face the world ahead of me, I am ready because I am part of Be.

Anna Nelson “dreams the dream” at AUT

Profile photo of Anna Nelson "I went to my director and said 'I want that'". And this is how 2011 Be. Alumni Anna Nelson got her job as Practice Manager – Disability Support at Auckland University of Technology. It is a strategic role, where she reimagines what support may look like to AUT's access students and staff, and in what direction this support may take going forward. "I get to dream the dream and make the magic happen".

After making her statement, Anna had a year to prove she was the right fit for the job by grabbing opportunities and giving everything a go, which helped when it came time to assign the role. Saying it out loud was the perfect motivation to keep herself motivated and keep her eye on the prize. "I tried not to overthink it as well. I kept it simple in my own mind and just went for it". It was more about having "no expectations but then receiving more than I asked for".

Even though Anna was on the Be. Leadership programme eight years ago, she says it was a "positive trigger" to help her on her journey to take up more leadership opportunities. "Something shifted inside and over the year you get the realisation that I'm not here just because. It's because there is a spark and for some people the programme ignites the spark". Over the years Anna has since taken on a number of leadership positions within Rainbow and the disability spaces. At AUT she also talks to lecturers and staff about accessibility and inclusion.

Anna says the trick to her success has always been to make it known that she was interested in the position. Her first job at Wintec lasted three years and she got that because she walked into the office and said 'I want that job' and her experience is 'my lifetime of me'.

"It doesn't hurt to stick around, get noticed and keep putting your hands up … 'Good things take time' is such a terrible cliché but actually it’s true. Be patient and trust in yourself".

Daniel’s media dream becomes reality

Profile photo of Daniel Gada After a lifetime of dreaming of being in the media industry, Daniel Gada is finally living it at 95bFM. He completed his Be. Employed Internship at the Auckland University student radio station and was then offered a permanent Mainstream contract. He works in all aspects of the company, including archiving, news production, voicing, and marketing.

Up until starting his internship in December 2017, Daniel never imagined he would have the opportunity to pursue his goals of working in radio. With hospital visits disrupting his schooling, he says he never saw university as an option, but his dreams of working in the media industry ticked on in the back of his mind. "When I left high school, no one gave me any encouragement of following a dream or passion". But after seven years of unemployment, and brief stints in call centres and retail, he eventually gave university a go. "I just focused on that goal".

After finishing his Diploma in Radio Journalism and Broadcasting, Daniel worked in the reception of an advertising agency for a year. His sister then found the Be. Employed internship advert for the 95bFM position, which he applied for. "Once you have a vision, things just start to come true".

"Things like that don’t happen for everyone and it's only because of these amazing opportunities that I'm here. We all need a little help … There is no way I could've done this on my own". Daniel says that no matter your circumstance, the trick is to be confident, "own your role" and prove that you have every right to be there. "You have to walk into the role and act like you're the last person to have it". The team at 95bFM have fallen in love with his work ethic and are completely mindful of his illness, Beta Thalassemia Major, that requires him to get monthly blood transfusions.

Daniel is also on the 2018 Be. Leadership programme and loves the challenge of it. "I think leadership is about being the first person to say, 'I'm going to do this' and encouraging others to do that too. It's not necessarily a figurehead like a head of state or CEO … It's very 'come from within' and 'change your thought process.' For example, today I took my medicine and I was like 'this is awful' and then I was like 'no it's not, it's really good for me'. You still have to deal with everything, but it's about the thought-process".

Daniel says he is grateful for the opportunities Be has presented to him. "Be has put me in a place where I finally feel like I'm doing what I've always wanted to do".

Essentialism and Disability by Dr Suzanne Cowan

Profile photo of Suzanne CowanA large part of the content of my thesis could be considered as a theoretical exploration of disability. My main argument is that binary framings such as disabled and non-disabled are inherently unstable, questioning the idea of essentialism. Essentialism is the view that every entity has a set of attributes that are necessary to its identity and function and as such all things have an essence. Postmodernism calls into question this idea of essence and one of the best examples is notions of gender and what is thought to constitute femininity and masculinity. A non-essentialist position holds that gender roles are socially constructed rather than innate. When it comes to notions of disability adopting a non-essentialist position can be politically challenging because without a clear identity how do we organise to promote social change? My personal stance on this and throughout my research is that at times I consciously identify myself as disabled for political reasons and at other times I experiment with other narratives. When I identify myself as disabled I want to draw attention to my disability to examine its implications. For example I might want to draw attention to a lack of physical access in a public location by staging a dance performance. At the same time I recognise that there are limitations in promoting myself as a disabled performer or professional, namely that I am adopting a label that refers to an aspect of my being in a reductive way. The dis refers to what I cannot do rather than what I can do. It doesn't capture my possibility and my potentiality nor my multi-dimensionality in this very moment. So my question is how do we move between adopting the conventions of mainstream language just to be understood and at the same time deconstruct them and search for other ways of defining ourselves? At Be. Accessible we talk about accessibility and possibility in a bid to create a world where everyone has opportunities to contribute and prosper.

Dance academics, Gabriele Brandstetter and Ann Cooper-Albright (2015) suggest placing a / between the dis and the ability as a pathway to deconstruct its meaning. They describe it as a diacritical cut in that it makes a distinction and also points to a multiplicity of interpretation. The cut suggests that there are multiple cultural and political implications involved when we make this distinction. It both indicates the binary and suggests its potential deconstruction. Brandstetter and Cooper-Albright talk about how the dis not only serves as a mark of other but indicates a point of tension and departure. I love this idea of tension and a point of departure. There is great potential in reinventing how we imagine and reimagine ourselves without divesting ourselves of the day to day realities and challenges of living in the world with a dis/ability. My position is that dis/ability and its meanings could do with a serious reframe at multiple levels. In order to do it though I suggest we have to dig pretty deep to unearth basic assumptions about our sense of identity and how we are being in the world. Without a deeper understanding of what drives the distinctions it’s difficult to rearrange the outcomes (and I welcome any discussion of this!) This is one of the great debates between supporters of essentialism (often disguised as common sense and just how it's always been…) and postmodernist thinkers who question simplistic categories that define complex socio-cultural hierarchies.

So what are the tools we need to stretch the ways in which we think and define ourselves as people with so called impairments (again another reductive interpretation)? Theoretically it could be moving outside of binaristic understandings of subject/object that tie us into one dimensional narratives around difference and impairment. Practically, I think we need to experiment, improvise and take some risks at re-defining ourselves. Here's one example: instead of being a disabled dancer who uses a wheelchair in the dance studio:

I am a fast-moving machine that eats up the space. Outside the studio I/we transform into multiple arms and legs that collaboratively propel me up the steep grassy slope. I am touched by and receptive to the feeling of the air on my skin, my mid thoracic spine penetrating the soft back rest on my chair and creating a counterbalance to my fingers threading the smooth push rims of my wheels. My hips merge with the aluminium frame and the weight of my body anchors the machine-body as we roll forwards.

So here I am attempting to dissolve subject/object binaries that separate me out from my environment and the technology and people that surround me. I can define myself as a soma-technic entity where my body doesn't end at the skin (see Margrit Shildrick, 2015, if you want to read more about soma-technics). Ok, this might sound a bit fanciful and fantastical but if you read quantum physicists such as Karen Barad (2007) its actually more accurate to the way in which matter takes shape in the world. The boundaries between matter and space are far less defined than we would imagine. But before we completely disappear into the quantum physics rabbit hole let's consider the idea that if we become more conscious that we are less separate to the world around us than we ever imagined then our receptivity to the world and appreciation of it could flourish, and more importantly our attitude to difference could potentially transform.

So when it comes to considering accessibility what are the cuts we are making in describing ourselves and our relationship to the world and how do we keep the language alive and dynamic? What tools can we utilise to reinvent our status and move beyond essentialist distinctions?

About Suzanne

Suzanne Cowan is a dancer, choreographer and researcher who recently completed a Practice as Research PhD in Dance Studies at Auckland University. Her research explores notions of identity and the possibilities for reframing disability in the 21st century. Suzanne is Be. Leadership Alumni from the inaugural programme in 2011.

Disability Identity in the 21st century’ by Dr Suzanne Cowan

Profile photo of Suzanne CowanThis blog series is based around my PhD in Dance Studies entitled 'Choreographing Through an Expanded Corporeality'. So what on earth would a PhD in Dance Studies have to do with accessibility and disability? Well as it turns out quite a lot. As an artist with a disability my research is an exploration of identity and the possibility of expanding our identity and idea of ourselves beyond the confines of a fixed body or neat little categories such as disability. But rather than trying to regurgitate the PhD in blog sized bites I’m going to pick out conversations and philosophical ideas that are relevant to what Be. Accessible would refer to as the access customer or the conversation around possibility. In some cases the relevance might be a little obscure but what I can offer as an artist and a budding philosopher is an opportunity to reimagine how we might embody the world and what our possibilities are within in a fast changing technological age.

To unpack the title of my thesis a little, choreographing can simply be reinterpreted as designing in the context of this blog (life is a dance after all!). Corporeality is a word used in academia to refer to the body's transitory nature. That means it is not a fixed, stable entity but it is something dynamic and ever changing and when it comes to exploring meanings around disability and how we position ourselves in the world this is crucial. To put it very simply we are part of a much bigger picture and how disabled we are depends on our context. For example with a physical disability we are hugely dependent on environmental design factors for our access to the world. In a virtual world, which most of us inhabit to some extent these days, we are limited to our ability to access technology. Our disability and accessibility fluctuates constantly dependent on these factors. The concept of an Expanded Corporeality is developed from this idea and is also linked to a broader notion of our interconnectedness in the world i.e that we are not separate from the world in any way, shape or form rather we are intrinsically embedded within it.

One way I engage with the idea of an expanded corporeality in my thesis is through discussing somatechnics. Soma refers to the body and technics obviously refers to technology. We extend into the world through our various body technologies and this is especially pertinent to people with disabilities. So then our sense of self extends into objects such as my wheelchair for example. I inhabit my chair/body self as if we were one entity in unique ways. My point here is that our sense of embodiment in the world is continually shifting as we extend into our environment through various modalities. My question is to what extent are we aware of this immersion and how do we develop it? And if we did develop it how would that change our sense of being in the world and more importantly our relationship to it? If we experienced a more deeply felt sense of connectivity and embeddedness would it profoundly shift our behaviour, our culture and our sense of ethics?

Throughout my research I conducted what could be described as a series of performative research projects that saw myself and other dancers inhabit mostly outdoor environments to experience their effect on us and our effect on them. I gradually extended the range of performers to include audience members and interviewed them about their experiences. Not surprisingly I found their responses differed enormously dependent on their unique approach to the world and the idiosyncracies of their psychology and physicality. What I propose is that we have and can continue to develop a fluid approach to our identity and our experience of being in the world. Our potentiality and possibility is unlimited. And while this may sound utopian and wacky it is already happening in a very tangible way in the virtual world as we adopt avatars and 3D experiences of virtual realities. At a grassroots, everyday level even a subtle shift in understanding our incredibly complex interconnectedness could dramatically shift the kind of world we want to invent or inhabit in the future. At the very least it is food for thought.

Throughout this series of blogs I will explore some of the central themes in my thesis that might be relevant to moving forward into a 21st century technological, fast moving world.

About Suzanne

Suzanne Cowan is a dancer, choreographer and researcher who recently completed a Practice as Research PhD in Dance Studies at Auckland University. Her research explores notions of identity and the possibilities for reframing disability in the 21st century. Suzanne is Be. Leadership Alumni from the inaugural programme in 2011.