Fred Henzel, a staff member in the Cultural Arts program at SpArc Services, penned this essay to describe what he is learning as he teaches a class called ‘Disability Visibility.’ The class is available to SpArc participants, whether they are receiving services in our North Philadelphia building, or on our virtual program.
Teaching this Disability Visibility class has been an eye-opening experience. Since starting this class, I have learned so much from my research and from the participants, who have been enthusiastic.
For our ‘Disability Visibility’ classes, we have covered such topics as Hispanic heritage, the autumn season, Halloween/Day of the Dead, video games, and space travel. We looked deeply into the unique experiences of people with disabilities in other countries, and are learning the stories about specific individuals who have invented adaptive devices, overcome societal barriers, or gone through personal struggles and came out on top.
We learned about adaptive video game controllers and Rocky No Hands, whose body is paralyzed from the neck down but is an e-sports star. We discussed recent adaptations to a Disnelyand haunted house and how we would design our own ideal haunted house to include everybody. We watched videos of athletes who have turned their disabilities into superpowers while doing fall sports such as wheelchair rugby or skateboarding, and brainstormed how people could get out and enjoy the fall weather around Philly while dealing with the barriers that might get in the way of someone who uses a wheelchair.
I want to make this class into a venue for people to connect with each other directly. Participants are learning about each other through discussions and appreciating each other’s unique triumphs.
Going beyond our immediate community, however, we are inviting special guests. One of the positive things about social distancing is that we are all becoming more savvy with technology, and as a result, there are opportunities to connect with people virtually from around the world. We recently had Dr. Sheri Jensen-Wells, a professor from Bowling Green University, join us to discuss her research into disability in space exploration. We had an incredible discussion, with many questions and answers, interspersed with short video clips about the future of space travel. In this class, we discussed how the future of space travel will be defined by the involvement of humanity as a whole, and why people with disabilities should and must be involved. Going forward, my next class will feature Michael Anderson from The Arc of Philadelphia, who is a disability rights activist. I am also organizing sessions with groups similar to SpArc that are situated in other countries.
My main takeaway from teaching this class is that there is infinitely more that I can learn from the participants and the disability community as a whole than what I could think of by guessing what their experiences are like. I have gotten many ideas from using Google to find academic articles, and I have watched YouTube videos, such as the channel Attitude. However, I find that a lot of the media on this subject is imperfect at best, as it can focus on the negative or force emotions such as pity. This is why I feel that part of my job is to create my own media by collecting facts and presenting them in the context of discussions, as opposed to just showing the videos with someone else’s running commentary. In other words, SpArc participants are writing their own story, as they should and are more than capable to do.