On Being the Only Cripple at the Arts Colony

planet of the blind

Over a number of years I’ve had the fortune to be housed and fed at places that are devoted to promoting the arts and one should acknowledge fortune is a neutral word for anything that occurs is a matter of luck for good or ill. I’m not the bite the hand that feeds me type. My work has been assisted greatly by residencies at arts colonies both well known and up and coming places. This past summer I spent four and a half weeks at The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, a beautiful and legendary place for artists of all kinds. It was my fourth visit to the colony and I will never say a bad thing about the work of MacDowell or its extraordinary-staff.

But something happened to me while I was housed at MacDowell that’s left me pondering what it means to be a disabled artist. Frankly I felt more and more alone. I was the blind guy with the lovely dog. The important conversations were about diversity and while these dinner dialogues were good, I found whenever I suggested the disabled are intersectional figures where issues of identity and human rights are concerned I was treated as a quaint and colorful tinker who makes quirky shoes.

Now being lonesome at an arts colony is an interesting thing. After all you’re not there to be a gadfly and getting your work done in a quiet and nurturing space is what the whole thing is about. I got work done. I wrote in my woodland cabin. I took thoughtful walks with my dog.

I felt like a curiosity rather than a figure of acceptance. I was the only disabled artist there. I’m often the only disabled person in a whole variety of settings. Why was this summer at MacDowell different?

The casual ableism of the other artists was part of the problem. Blindness and deafness and intellectual disability turned up frequently as pejorative terms in casual conversations. I lost my temper one evening explaining to a young writer that the “r” word isn’t acceptable when talking about people with intellectual disabilities.

What was different is my age. I’m too old for ableist nonsense and too tired to care that I’m the outlier.

But wouldn’t it be nice of the best arts colonies actually had disability months? Frankly I could use dome creative and progressive conversation about embodiment and imagination.

And yes, a few ripping good laughs.

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

5 thoughts on “On Being the Only Cripple at the Arts Colony”

  1. I also have found that accessibility is often not thought through enough for conferences and residencies.


  2. I loved Macdowell and would love to go back but it would be lovely, I think, to not be the only person with a visible disability. Maybe a group of us should apply at the same time and see what happens?


  3. This makes me wonder how people’s way of noticing, being noticed, and connecting with others at, say, a conference or workshop, is mainly visual. Vision dependent people wouldn’t tend to put out other types of signals of invitation to connect, and so someone like you would be more isolated, at least outside of structured activities where words and sounds become a powerful medium of communication. I am curious, how much do you “put on a face” or intentionally present an image in the hopes of being approached by others within eyeshot of you? How can seeing folks like me be more well-rounded in their efforts to be open to connection to people who aren’t with someone who can introduce them? How can organizers facilitate this and assist us all? We can’t just depend on whistling and pheromones, or having a lovely dog…


  4. How about making every month disability month? Yes, I’ve been at MacDowell, and been grateful for the warmth and support I received there AND it would have been great if there had been another disabled person there. Or two or three. Or even four. So how about every month?


  5. I have fond memories of a number of residencies at MacDowell, mostly in the ’90s; and it’s true, there were very few disabled people when I was there. It must indeed be very hard to feel so alone there, and especially at a place where you’re among creative artists who all imagine themselves as outliers. A disability month sounds like a good idea.


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