On Friday night, I stayed late after work for an Arts and Culture event at Access Living. When Access Living moved to the building at Chicago and LaSalle in 2007, the organization launched an Arts and Culture project to give visibility to artists with disabilities and to raise awareness around disability culture. Probably six to eight times a year, Access Living will host culture events, from a battle of the bands, to dance performances, to poetry readings and artist lectures. Friday night, an artist named Sandie Yi talked about her art. According to Yi's website, she makes "wearable art that addresses bodily and social experience, and social stigma." Two stories Yi shared on Friday strongly resonated with me. First, she talked about this piece of art she created that she would wear on her hand. It was like a glove with an outer layer of attractive, soft felt. So attractive, and so soft that people would be encouraged to touch it, and stroke it. But within the glove were rose thorns. If an admirer stroked the glove, the thorns would prick the hand of whoever wore the glove. According to Yi, the piece is intended to show the dichotomy between fashion and physical difference. Traditionally, one chooses fashion in order to fit, to stand out, or to be attractive. But no matter what fashion choices we make, it doesn't change our physical differences, and often times, strangers will define us by our physical differences, not by what we wear.
Yi also shared a story about going to Marshall Fields in Chicago. Now it's known as Macy's but at the time it was Marshall Fields. Yi's hands don't look like typical hands. Rather than five fingers, she has two. One winter in Chicago, Yi entered Marshall Fields. The ground floor of the store, then and now, is full of cosmetic counters, with sales people peddling all kinds of perfume, make up, and lotion. Soon as Yi entered the store, a sales person asked if she wanted to sample some lotion for her hands. It being cold and dry in Chicago, Yi thought, "perfect, I could go for some lotion." Yi put out her hand. The sales person, startled at the site of Yi's fingers, gasped. Yi followed the Marshall Fields story with another one, about a time when she put her palms together to collect some change from a cashier. Like the Marshall Fields sales person, the cashier was startled at the site of Yi's fingers, and let out a cry. The stories reminded me of the many times that strangers, unfamiliar with dwarfism, acted startled, if not scared, in my presence.
Yi didn't give any advice about what to do when strangers act startled. She didn't reveal some brilliant coping mechanism. At the time of the incidents, there is really not much that can be done. It's going to hurt, and it's going to take a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days to get over it. But it was great to hear it from Yi. It was one of those moments when one feels, "Oh, I am not alone."
It is people like Yi, who share their experiences, that make it is easier for people with physical differences to deal with outside pressures. And the more we all share these experiences, the better those not familiar with physical differences, will be able to cope.