Creative translations of the multi-dimensional ways that we can be and are together, even while faced with great pain, tension, and uncertainty.

Preface by Elwood Jimmy, Tracy Tidgwell, and Eliza Chandler

We started this project a few years ago. We (Elwood and Tracy) came together as curators on the Translation roundtable to gather artists’ responses to Eliza’s provocation about how accessibility changes experiences of art at a time when the world looked, sounded, and felt differently than it does now. Injustice, of course, has been with us all along and acutely felt and resisted by intersecting communities of Indigenous, Black, people of colour, disabled, Deaf, Fat, and mad people. However, the massive cracks in our systems had not yet been ruptured and left agape by the intense public response to the longtime disregard and murder of Black and Indigenous lives; before the Coronavirus pandemic had us sheltering in place, and began disproportionately impacting the lives of Black, brown, poor, Fat and disabled people, and revealed health and social inequities, like the dangers of living in congregate settings like prisons, care homes, and transitional group homes, inequities that many in our communities have been speaking out against for decades; before liberation movements (re)surged to the front. The reflections below, now nearly two years old, offer us timely insight into different ways of knowing and being that many of us have always held close and have been shaped through living and loving interdependently. These contributions reveal how normative conventions, entitlements, habits, and desires oppress and need to be disrupted. When taken up in this contemporary moment, such uncovering suggests that the construction of normalcy oppresses and, as Dionne Brand so eloquently offers (2020, July 4), is not a state to which many of us desire to return. This collection of responses offers creative translations of the multi-dimensional ways that we can be and are together even while faced with great pain, tension, and uncertainty, and calls us to reconnect to our capacity to take care of one another in small and big ways.

Elwood, Tracy & Eliza

Introduction to the Translation Roundtable

Earning her PhD from the Social Justice and Education department at the University of Toronto in 2014, Eliza Chandler was dually appointed as the Artistic Director at Tangled Art + Disability, an organization in Toronto dedicated to the cultivation of disability arts, and the postdoctoral research fellow in Ryerson University’s School of Disability Studies from 2014-2016.

Disability art, a burgeoning artistic practice in Canada / this north part of Turtle Island, takes the experience of disability as a creative entry point. Drawing on the insights of disability scholar and activist Catherine Frazee (2008), not all disability art explicitly represents disability, but all of it springs from the experience, politics, and culture of disability. To fully appreciate and engage disability art requires us to directly take up and appreciate disability cultures, identities, politics, and practices.

As someone working in disability arts, who is in the fortunate position of learning from folks in intersecting disability, mad, Deaf, spoonie, and neurodiverse communities, I have learned that in order to cultivate disability arts to its fullest potential, we need to support disability arts through funding, artistic development programs, programming, and mentorship, and make arts and culture accessible by developing, communicating, funding, and enacting innovative and effective accessible curatorial and programming practices. Of course, these two ideas are connected; making arts accessible is a core disability cultural value that ensures disabled people have access to culture, which is necessary for the artistic development of disability artists.

One way of beginning to make arts and culture accessible, welcoming, and desirable for disabled people and our intersecting communities is to think about all of the ways that art galleries and other cultural institutions have structured their spaces and their practices in ways that have imagined people of difference out of our culture. As artist Carmen Papalia says, “Museums disable me as an audience member for they assume that I experience the gallery in a particular way and don’t account for me as a non-visual learner” (2011).

We can identify how museums and other culture spaces assume we experience these spaces when we ask questions such as: When was the first time you visited a gallery (or maybe you haven’t visited one yet)? When you visit galleries or other cultural spaces (if you do), do you feel that there are some unspoken rules, ways of behaving/engaging that you aren’t aware of and you feel you should be? If we do visit galleries or other cultural spaces, the questions we ask before attending may be similarly revealing, questions such as: Is the gallery/venue accessible? Will there be an Elder at the event? What time will the event be over so that I can schedule my wheel-trans ride? Will the videos be captioned? Will there be audio description? Do I have to pay to get in? Is there a dress code? Is the art for sale? Does the food cost money? Will there be alcohol, or will it be a sober event? Will there be an all-gender washroom nearby? Can I talk to people? Will people talk to me (even if I don’t want them to)? Can I talk to the artist? Can I make noise? Can my kids scream? Will it be loud? Can I sit down? How long do I have to stay? Will someone be there to guide me through the exhibition? Will I be able to understand the artist statement? Will my experience, identity, community, and culture be represented? If so, by who? I invite you to add to this list based on your own experiences.

These questions tell us that, normatively speaking, cultural spaces and practices are built for some and not others. They also prompt us to ask, as Syrus Marcus Ware (2014) asks, “What would our institutions look like if we got rid of this [normative] way of thinking?”

Thinking with Papalia and Ware, I would like to use this round table to discuss the dynamics, considerations, and provocations that emerge from these cultural practices. I’m going to offer a couple of examples of how disability arts and cultural practices change the way we create and participate in culture. I am curious to hear about how your cultural and community practices also give us a sense of how to answer the question, “What would our institutions would look like if we got rid of this normative way of thinking?” (Ware, 2014).

Disability art and disability cultural practices are provocative. They provoke us to pay creative attention to the endlessly different ways that bodies and art interact. They teach us that when we approach the space of body/art interaction as a site of multiple possibilities, new practices emerge that allow for more enriched meaning-making experiences.

What other cultural practices can be used to open up our culture, and change who and how we create and participate?

This roundtable is co-presented with Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology, and Access to Life, a project of Re•Vision: The Centre for Art and Social Justice at the University of Guelph.

Jump to Response

Elwood Jimmy
Portrait of Carmen Papalia
Carmen Papalia
Portrait of Alex Bulmer
Alex Bulmer
Vanessa Dion Fletcher
Vanessa Dion Fletcher
Portrait of Sky Stonefish
Sky Stonefish
Gloria Swain
Taeyoon Choi
Portrait of Jenelle Rouse
Jenelle Rouse


Elwood Jimmy is a learner, collaborator, writer, artist, facilitator, cultural manager, and gardener. He is originally from the Thunderchild First Nation, a Nêhiyaw community in the global north. For close to 20 years, he has played a leadership role in several art projects, collectives, and organizations locally and abroad.


The word accessibility has come to be associated with different forms of accommodations related to mobility and language. However, we very seldom question what this accessibility gives access to.  These associations are also restrictive because they privilege a modern-colonial way of being that elevates individuality.

One possible interpretation is that accessibility could just facilitate a problematic form of inclusion into a naturalized colonial habit of being. Indigenous people have argued that our senses are much more expansive when they are not grounded in the separation between humans and nature. When relationality is based on the primary sense of entanglement with all other beings, other senses and sensibilities are activated. Most importantly, the sense of responsibility and attention towards the different temporalities, rhythms, medicines, and bodies of different beings is not an intellectual choice nor an attempt at displaying virtue or heroically championing marginality, but an embodied unconscious practice that is never rewarded or used for self-promotion.

Perhaps the way accessibility has been used and talked about could be useful in raising awareness of the violences that separability engenders on non-normative bodies, but we do need to take it further and deeper. I am interested in how we turn accessibility into “acces(sen)sibility,” a practice that might take us:

  • from being unconsciously immersed in the naturalized violences of separability;
  • to consciously making space for different unintelligible sensibilities (relating beyond the need to understand and codify);
  • to (much later) being able to experience other viable ways of being that are not grounded in separation, unconsciously.

Acces(sen)sibility is not a performative self-congratulatory exercise, it should not become currency in economies of virtue and it does not happen overnight. It demands that we interrupt the satisfaction we have with the securities and the rewards we receive in the dominant system, so that we can clear the way to engage with and relate through what is unknown and unknowable, without trying to codify, translate, instrumentalize and appropriate it. Engagements and conversations about accessibility and disabilities mirror many of the problems we find when organizations attempt to include Indigenous and racialized bodies into modern-colonial spaces. Efforts to decolonize and Indigenize often address methodological and epistemological issues (i.e. ways of doing and knowing) without really tackling ontological issues (related to habits of being), where the issue of separability lies. Unless we are prepared to be differently, rather than just do or know things differently, colonial habits of being will remain unchallenged.

With 30 professional years across theatre, television, film, radio, and education, Alex Bulmer is dedicated to inclusive collaborative art practice, fuelled by a curiosity of the improbable and deeply informed by her experience of becoming blind.

Sensory Priority in Art

This provocation leads me to consider sensory priority in art and how norms often lean toward the visual. I am also intrigued by the true nature of translation and how it differs from re-imagining.

The Question of Art

Often there are references to art that are seen or are on display in galleries, exhibitions, festivals, or other cultural environments. The work associated is referred to as visual art, contemporary art, literary art, or theatre, to name a few of the prominent disciplines.

Often work is presented with the notion that the viewer, audience, or spectator is connecting through sight as the primary sense for engagement. (I exclude music from this conversation).

Further thoughts on art and “seeing” lead me to consider how often the term “visual art” comes up in grants and calls for submissions and how seldom tactile art or audio art are mentioned. While reading a recently released call for submissions to the Unlimited Festival, the UK’s—if not the world’s—largest disability arts festival, I noted that calls for submissions referenced visual art, digital art, theatre, sculpture, spoken word, and dance, but made no reference to audio or tactile art. This left me pausing to reflect. Why? It struck me as a significant omission considering that so many of us who identify as disabled engage with art in diverse sensorial ways. Is digital art meant to represent audio art in all its forms, assuming it is entirely created with digital technology? Is sculpture the same as tactile art?


I consider how sensory hierarchy informs my primary art form, theatre. The normative definition of theatre assumes that a written script exists first and a cast of performers move through a designed set, usually “watched” by a predominantly sighted audience. This norm suggests that art is imagined with the assumption that the mind’s eye leads the creative process, and that “seeing” leads how audiences engage. I should acknowledge that the origins of the term “audience” suggests the “act of one who listens.” (Historically performance spaces were large and electricity for lighting did not exist, so a great deal more was communicated through voice and dialogue.)

Sensory Priority

I am questioning whether the norm of contemporary art and theatre is created with the top priority given to the visual sense. If this is true, and arguably, I think it is, it ultimately means that blind people need either a translation or a re-imagined artwork to engage. It also suggests that art, be it disability art or not, is perhaps not led by a diversity of the senses.

What does it mean to place one of the other senses, rather than sight, in the lead of an artistic process? I consider my recent production of May I Take Your Arm. The idea was imagined first as a series of spoken conversations, as audio recordings, as something to be listened to by an audience. The audio triggered tactile creations which then launched a performance approach which in turn inspired creative videography.

The content for May I Take Your Arm was inspired by my experience as a blind person, re-homing to an unknown place, and asking the question, “how do any of us turn space into place into home?”

The piece was received with equal enthusiasm by those who are not disabled, by blind and partially sighted people, by wheelchair users, and Deaf people. One could say it was disability art in subject, theme, and process. Was translation involved to make this multi-sensory performance art inclusive or accessible? Or something other? My understanding of access is different than inclusive process. Access suggests something additional is required when something else already exists. For example, a building is designed and constructed, without any imagination toward wheelchair users, and as such is built with stairs. Access is therefore prohibitive unless adaptations occur such as ramps and accessible washrooms. In this instance, the built space undergoes an access translation to be accessible. However, if a diversity of users are imagined at the creation stage, in fact at the stage of conception and design, what is then created is inclusive with no need for translations. In May I Take Your Arm the lead was through the imagined “listening” audience, and then re-imagined for those who engage through touch, then re-imagined for performance with voice and interdependent movement, and then re-imagined for those who are highly visual or Deaf. Was this a series of translations? Or layers of re-imaginings? What is the difference? When I consider language translation i.e. English to French, spoken to ASL or BSL, my understanding is that the most compelling translation is not simply word by word, but idea by idea or meaning by meaning, embracing context in the process. This to me seems more like a re-imagining rather than simply translation. Thoughts?

Finally, to contribute to Syrus Marcus Ware’s good question I add: what would our cultural spaces sound like, feel like, smell like, taste like, and look like when imagined and informed by diverse experience of engagement?

Gloria Swain is a multidisciplinary artist and activist whose practice also includes performance art and work as a community arts workshop facilitator. She holds a certificate in Community Arts Practice and master’s degree in Environmental Studies from York University.

It is important for creative and cultural spaces to focus on inclusivity and accessibility. While mainstream galleries and spaces are physically accessible, they are not necessarily accessible. […] Galleries should address accessibility issues because art is universal, and diversity translates through personal experiences, cultural sharing, addressing political issues and individualized creativity.

As an aging black woman artist with an invisible disability, I am not privileged with the same opportunities as non-disabled artists in mainstream art spaces. It’s not a great feeling when my work is treated differently. I realize that I’m not included in spaces because I speak of my disability through art. My work engages with political issues relevant to people with mental disabilities and illustrates my lived experiences with black mental health. I believe art spaces aren’t sure how this work will be received because of the disconnect and division between the non-disabled community and the disabled community.

I question whether mainstream spaces and curators are hesitant to include disability art because they have difficulty translating in their own words. I believe this to be part of the reason it’s difficult to show disability arts in some spaces. It makes some people uncomfortable.  But art is supposed to make the viewer feel something and disability art always seem to break down barriers. Challenging stereotypes and calling attention to the strong black woman narrative, which is normally ignored or erased in mainstream spaces, is a political act for me as an activist disabled artist. I have yet to witness a space showing trained artists and disabled artists within the same contexts. Artists with disabilities remain underrepresented in these spaces.

Sometimes using art to break down barriers can be problematic because galleries aren’t supportive of disability arts and fear public reaction. While knowing the history of the artist adds to the understanding of the work, it can also narrow the viewers focus and force negative interpretation through disturbing lens. For example, I overheard a young white male call one of my paintings, in my ‘Mad Room’ exhibit, crazy art. I’m not sure how that experience made me feel because I continue creating mad art. Disability art gets stigmatized because many times the focus is on disability and not the work.

It is important for creative and cultural spaces to focus on inclusivity and accessibility. While mainstream galleries and spaces are physically accessible, they are not necessarily accessible. I’ve visited spaces that aren’t wheelchair accessible, not equipped with audio descriptions, close captioning, large font on wall texts and art aren’t hung for folks in wheelchairs. There was no one with mobility disabilities in this space. Galleries should address accessibility issues because art is universal, and diversity translates through personal experiences, cultural sharing, addressing political issues and individualized creativity.

Disability culture is diverse in impairments, race, gender, class and sexuality and mainstream creative and cultural spaces can help in translating disability culture:

  • Provide creative and supportive environments for artistic and personal development
  • Provide professional and financial support that promotes and encourages disabled artists
  • Offer financial support. (Disability funding can create separation because people see it as disability arts being created just for people with disabilities)
  • Look at what resources are needed and identify obstacles to receiving support
  • Develop relationships between galleries and disabled artists
  • Create knowledge sharing between disabled artists and curators
  • Hire disabled staff and curators that will bring disabled artists and community into the space

I continue to struggle to have my work taken seriously by mainstream galleries and other artists. I understand there is more work to be done to ensure equal opportunities and full accessibility for disabled, non-academic and outsider artists, but the first step in translation (for me) is for people to see my ability (as an artist) and not my disability (as someone with a mental disability).

Taeyoon Choi is an artist, educator, and activist based in New York and Seoul. His art practice involves performance, electronics, drawings, and installations that form the basis for storytelling in public spaces.

Translators of culture have the same responsibility as translator of languages. They need to preserve the integrity of original text, while making the new text accessible to the intended audience. Translators, between the worlds of Disability Arts and the rest of the worlds, have a commitment to the community, a collection of individuals.

I did not stumble into Disability Arts. I inserted myself into it. Nothing like that happens serendipitously. Entering a new world is always a result of deliberation and intention. Until a few years ago, I was cautious of engaging with Disability Arts, mostly because I didn’t want to impose my creativity onto a community I don’t identify with. I respected “Nothing about us, without us” and I did nothing. I wasn’t unaware of disability; I grew up with disabled people near me, but I did not learn to understand disability as a political identity, let alone an art form.

It was by invitation of friends who identify as disabled, Deaf, and/or impaired that I felt I had permission to enter the world of Disability Arts. For the past few years, I collaborated with artists who identify as disabled, family and community of artists who identify as disabled, and arts professional who work with them. In 2016, I organized Uncertainty School, a summer camp for disabled artists to learn computer programming and contemporary art, in Seoul. The project was an attempt to translate between three worlds: my world of teaching computation to artists at the School for Poetic Computation in New York City, Disability activists and artist communities in South Korea, and the community of contemporary artists and curators at the Mediacity Seoul Biennale. I thought code could be a good medium to bring people together, because it can be a language that does not discriminate.

My role was often times literal translation, translating international artists’ lectures from English to Korean. I also worked with interpreters to translate JavaScript into Sign Language and other visual, spatial metaphors that make sense to Disabled students. Most importantly, my translation was mediating between various cultures—Korea and the rest of the world, technology and art, disabled and normative senses of body and ability, Able art and contemporary art, those who hold pride in their disability identity and those who wish not to be pigeonholed into disability identity.

Filmmaker Lee Kil Bora said, “What used to be difference, became discrimination as I grew up” when describing growing up with parents who are Deaf. The act of translation is like folding a paper, it leaves traces of seams, sometimes scars. Translating, like folding, breaks things sometimes, and causes misunderstandings and mistranslations, unintended consequences of creating “access” which in the end takes away disabled peoples’ agency and ability. As with most biennials and large cultural events, the project had an endpoint, a final event with screening of a video documentation. End is not a bad thing; it can be a celebration of the time shared. But it’s difficult to keep engaging with a community in a sustainable method over time. Biennials and art festivals have tendencies to produce high energy for a limited period of time, and extreme exhaustion and withdrawal kick in after the event’s completion. I felt certain guilt of ending the project, leaving a community that I just entered. With physical distance between Korea and New York, I drifted away from them, saying hi once in a while over the Internet. My interest also changed from exploring the poetics of computation, to exploring decentralization of data and distribution of protocols. In the same way I was invited to the Disability Art worlds, I continue to invite my friends into my world. Recently, I’ve collaborated with Shannon Finnegan, Stephanie Gray on Distributed Web of Care project and with Chancey Fleet on a variety of projects such as an essay Artificial Advancement.

Last week, I was back in South Korea to give a workshop. I emailed the participants from the Uncertainty School and I made visits to a few of them. Some of them were in hospitals, others were working in studios. I met one artist, who was hospitalized at the time, and his mother. It was great to see them and spend some time together. She sent me a poem after the meeting.

세상의 완고한 경계에 서성이다가

때론 벌거벗은듯 거친 바람도 맞아가며


때론 지속적으로 도열하는 외로움으로

그저 만지작거리다 마는

손때 묻은 미련한 매듭을

가끔 이렇게 풀어서 스윽 이어지게 해주는 사람.

오랜 세월

지구 반대편

일부러 말하지 않았어도

비번처럼 간직한 내밀한 상처를 공유하는 사람들

음..심장수술 흔적 자아 랄까요. 🙂

예술이 참 좋은거네요.

아픔을 함께 할 수 있다는 것만으로도.

Wandering around the definitive boundaries of the world

Sometimes facing rough wind as if I’m stripped away


Or sustained outburst of loneliness

Just toying around with and stopping

Hand-worn, dull knots

Person who untangle them, connect them like this.

Long time

On the other side of the earth

Don’t have to tell it obviously

Those who share the scars they hold, like a secret password

Hmm. perhaps it’s the scar of a heart operation, the self 🙂

Art is a really good thing.

Just that, we can share our pain.

Translators interpret original text and recreate them in a new language. Translators of culture have the same responsibility as translator of languages. They need to preserve the integrity of original text, while making the new text accessible to the intended audience. Translators, between the worlds of Disability Arts and the rest of the worlds, have a commitment to the community, a collection of individuals. They need to try their best to avoid misrepresentation of individuals and overexposing disability as a subject matter. In translation, I’m learning the community’s complex and dynamic identities and needs, and that the Disability Arts community is a collection of the most resilient, understanding and caring people I met.

Born in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish territory in 1981, Carmen Papalia is an artist who uses organizing strategies and improvisation to address his access to public space, the art institution, and visual culture.

On Disrupting Barriers in the Area of Accessibility

My 2015 work Open Access defines accessibility as I understand it—as a measure of agency informed by the social, cultural, and political conditions in a given context.

A gallery view of Carmen Papalia's exhibit titled Open Access

When we talk about access to the art world and the systems that support it, we are talking about a field that is marginalizing by design. It privileges individualism, professionalism, expertise in a particular area; and success— for the privileged few who have access—relies on where they have shown their work and who they know. For those with access, opportunity begets opportunity; while artists who are marginalized stay at the margins.

On September 29, 2018, I hosted a panel about meaningful participation in Vancouver’s cultural sector for creative practitioners who experience multiple systemic barriers. The event included community-based artists who shared their experiences maintaining a practice in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood with little support, and representatives from a number of organizations that offer frontline cultural services in the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown—including representatives from All Bodies Dance, the Downtown Eastside Centre for the Arts, Gallery Gachet, and WePress Community Arts Space, among others. In addition to the welcoming atmosphere, there were interpreters practicing queer ASL, a graphic recorder who illustrated the dialogue as it unfolded, and an audio describer who brought voice to the visual dimensions of the space. The aim of the event was to show in dialogue and practice that accessibility is an ongoing exchange with one’s community; a dedicated, long-term practice of holding space for a diversity of emergent and complex needs in the midst of systemic barriers and traditions of cultural violence.

The event was funded by the Creative City Strategy, an initiative of Vancouver’s cultural department that funded a total of 10 consultation-style events through an open call to those working with organizations that serve communities that are underrepresented in the wider arts landscape. I read that the Creative City Strategy, under the banner of “equity,” was interested in addressing “accessibility, inclusion, representation, and reconciliation” in an effort  to inform a new cultural plan—a document that would guide the distribution of resources in Vancouver’s cultural sector over the next ten years. Since I could not apply for the funding as an independent artist, I partnered with Other Sights for Artists’ Projects—a Vancouver-based curatorial collective—and was one of the lucky few whose proposal was funded. I was the only recipient who identified as someone who was disabled, and the event that I proposed was the only engagement in the series that addressed access to the arts for creative practitioners living and working in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, a resilient community where residents experience social and cultural marginalization, limited access to safe and affordable housing, and trauma as the result of violence, abuse, racism, and the ongoing effects of colonization.

The opportunity to report back to Vancouver’s cultural department felt like a rare chance to gather with other creative practitioners who are marginalized and articulate what accessibility and meaningful inclusion means to a group with little to no representation within local cultural platforms. From my conversations with Tom Finkelpearl, commissioner at the New York Department of Cultural Affairs and former director at the Queens Museum, I learned that disabled constituents had the least representation within the cultural sector of any other minority group, a finding from a study that  informed “Create NYC,” New York’s first cultural plan, which referenced strategic initiatives in line with accessibility and disability inclusion.

In addition to highlighting a community’s limited access to platforms where they could claim visibility, represent themselves, and direct their narratives to the wider public, the study foregrounded how easily a community’s limited influence can nurture a culture of exclusion that can thrive alongside policy that aims to ensure equity. However, this trend of limited access for those with atypical bodies, minds, and behaviour is not specific to the cultural sector alone; it is pervasive, one of the many reverberations from a tradition of ableism. Knowing that the events funded by the Creative City Strategy would in some way inform Vancouver’s own cultural plan, I wanted to represent the deep-rooted barriers to access that those at the margins face when accessing cultural resources, and show just how vast the gap between those who have access and those who don’t is when the effects of ableism and its intersections with other forms of oppression guide one’s approach to accessibility.

My 2015 work Open Access defines accessibility as I understand it—as a measure of agency informed by the social, cultural, and political conditions in a given context. Lately, as I have been thinking about access to cultural platforms for those who experience systemic barriers, I have been considering the following paragraph from the Open Access framework:

“Open Access disrupts the disabling conditions that limit one’s agency and potential to thrive. It reimagines normalcy as a continuum of embodiments, identities, realities, and learning styles, and operates under the tenet that interdependence is central to a radical restructuring of power.”

Vanessa Dion Fletcher is a Lenape and Potawatomi neurodiverse Artist. She graduated from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2016 with an MFA in performance. She has exhibited across Canada and the US, at Art Mur Montreal, Eastern Edge Gallery Newfoundland, The Queer Arts Festival Vancouver, and Satellite Art show Miami.

Translation Notes

For my contribution to the roundtable, I have taken Eliza’s text and translated it into Lenape, using my limited Lenape language skills and a Lenape English dictionary. This translation becomes a creative act: translating, responding, questioning, reaching.

Vanessa Dion Fletcher's annotated vresion of Eliza Chandler's introduction

Sky Stonefish is an Anishinaabe jingle dress dancer, photographer and beadworker. Sky is a trailblazer in many arenas: from her modelling for Shandra Spears Bombay to her activism confronting discrimination and tearing down barriers.

A painting on canvas featuring blue, red, yellow, and green curvy lines
A beaded necklace with three bone beads resting on dark leather.

Jenelle Rouse is a self-taught Deaf artist working in movement and dance, passionately living her dream as a kindergarten teacher in London, Ontario. In 2006, she became involved in Picasso Pro, an organization dedicated to facilitating opportunities for artists with disabilities and Deaf artists in performing and media arts, and performed in live artworks since 2010: Talking Movement (dancer); Withered Tree; (choreographer and dancer); and Perceptions; (choreographer and dancer).

Interpretation Dance

Although the majority of society sees deafness (or being Deaf, to be precise) as a disability, I see being Deaf as an invisibility.  For example, when you see me for the first time, you would never think that I am deaf until I open my mouth or use my hands to make a comment.  Instead of communicating with people using spoken languages or auditory-centric cultural practices, I connect through body movements which are part of my artistic language.  Dance and emotions are also part of that language. from Jenelle and Shelly on Vimeo.

My first visit to a gallery was with my visual arts class in high school. It was the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). The venue was very spacious and open but I experienced various kinds of barriers like language, visual connection and cues to move onto the next gallery rooms (transitions); I was a bit “lost in translation.” There were no television sets with opened/closed captions which meant I had to rely on a full-time interpreter.  The interpreter did her best to communicate to me what was communicated by my teacher and peers.  The conversation was all a blur, they were talking too fast, back and forth without any consideration of my presence or my need for translation.  It was very difficult for me to follow conversations, especially with only one interpreter.  It was chaos.  I decided to break free from this confusion and convinced my teacher to let me explore the gallery on my own.  Once I was on my own, I found myself learning so much by closely inspecting each of the artists’ creations.

While pondering my language (American Sign Language [ASL]) and Deaf community practices, I like to emphasize that the Deaf community has a rich arts culture with much knowledge and expertise, but limited opportunity because of the many accessibility barriers that we face.  My high school trip experience is one example.  Being Deaf is being part of culture, especially when sign language is involved.

This photo depicts Jennelle Rouse smiling, holding a tablet device in one hand and pointing to it with the other
Jenelle Rouse smiling, holding a tablet device in one hand and pointing to it with the other

Although the majority of society sees deafness (or being Deaf, to be precise) as a disability, I see being Deaf as an invisibility.  For example, when you see me for the first time, you would never think that I am deaf until I open my mouth or use my hands to make a comment.  Instead of communicating with people using spoken languages or auditory-centric cultural practices, I connect through body movements which are part of my artistic language.  Dance and emotions are also part of that language.

In thinking about Syrus Marcus Ware’s question, “what would our institutions look like if we got rid of this normative way of thinking” (2014), I am reminded of my visit to the incredible Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba. There I had access to all kinds of artworks, artefacts, materials, and films through an iPod, offered by the museum, that provided a video of a person using ASL. With ASL I explored and followed different exhibitions throughout the museum with ease. I felt a sense of freedom.

Multi-Lens is an ad-hoc project of mine that aims to expose a variety of audiences to the Deaf experience, as compared to the experience of living in the mainstream hearing world. We do this primarily through movement and visual art. My experience with Multi-Lens as well as my experience at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights informs my belief that our arts-related institutions can reflect us individually and collectively. Our actions, our choices, our world views, and our responses can shape what institutions look like.

My ideal art institution would look like this: A uniquely designed gallery with high-ceilings and loose curtains dividing open-concept rooms in which we could explore making invisible barriers visible.

This is an image of a gallery space with a string installation and a person jumping into the air in the background

These rooms would encourage audiences to be interactive and engage in whatever the room has to offer (painting, building, dancing or something else). People would be encouraged to break rules and move around and to engage creatively with obstacles. Each room would represent different kinds of experiences, identities, communities and, of course, cultures.

Though many of us do agree that words are powerful, art through body movement and dance without music, sounds, or language are considerably powerful too.  Stillness or even silence forces us to perceive and/or identify subtle details of movement engrossed with emotions that we might not have noticed if we were to rely on hearing.

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