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.