Poetry helps to spread disability awareness

Sean Corrado | October 1, 2012    

Jennifer Bartlett began the poetry reading slowly, working her way up a small set of stairs to…

“Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability” uses poetry to garner disability awareness.

Jennifer Bartlett began the poetry reading slowly, working her way up a small set of stairs to the podium. Her limbs shook slightly as she balanced herself at the microphone with aid from surrounding audience members. After graciously welcoming the audience, she ended her time on stage with a selection from her work in an anthology: “I am all motion and / this motion is neither weak nor hideous / this motion is simply my own.”

Bartlett, who was born with cerebral palsy, is co-editor of the new poetry anthology, “Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability.” The groundbreaking collection speaks of experiences through a disability perspective and raises awareness of how others should perceive disability.

Ellen Smith, a lecturer in Pitt’s English department, organized a two-day event taking place at various locations on Pitt’s campus to present the main ideas from the new anthology. She hoped a poetry reading at the O’Hara Student Center and a roundtable discussion in Pitt’s Humanities Center would provide a diverse approach to poetry and some new knowledge on disabilities.

“People think that a disability is something that you are born with and needs to be fixed,” Smith said. “The proper experiences of disability need to be represented.”

After passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, disability poetry jumped out into the writing world. But Michael Norton, another co-editor of the anthology, noted that poetry did not originally focus on the direct encounters of disability. In fact, the work shied away from revealing how the true experiences of a disabled person play out.

Now, “Beauty is a Verb” takes an extra step to show its audience how disability works and how these authors have personal missions to correct issues that disabled individuals can face.

Bartlett, who admits she speaks more clearly when she is reading poetry, has taken time to teach poetry classes to people with cognitive or physical disabilities at United Cerebral Palsy of New York City. She said that the students there, all of whom had no experience of a disabled person in a position of authority, were able to really connect with her.

“I had [helped] students with a hidden disability, like visual impairments and dyslexia, to feel more comfortable with themselves,” Bartlett said at the roundtable discussion.

Like Bartlett, Smith has also experienced disability in a classroom setting.

Smith has a situational hearing impairment in which her auditory skills diminish depending on the environment she is in and the tone of voice of a speaker. Her writings are also collected in “Beauty is a Verb,” and they represent the first time Smith has written openly about her own disability.

“We need to be more open about any disability and become more aware of certain disabilities when we encounter a person,” she said, describing how both those with and without disabilities need to let each other know in order for more people to address these issues.

But Bartlett and Smith said there is a lack of disability awareness at times.

“I found out there was a focus on awareness for transgender and age while teaching,” Bartlett said. “That surprised me because there are many more disabled people out there [than transgendered people].”

Katherine Seelman, associate dean of Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, said there are more than 60 million people in the United States living with a disability. Lynette Van Slyke from the Office of Disability Services says Pitt has more than 600 disabled people.

According to recent UCLA studies, more than 8 million people consider themselves gay, lesbian or bisexual. In the same study, another million people are listed as transgender.

Although the number of people with disabilities is more than six times larger than the population of the LGBTQ community, LGBTQ awareness — fighting for employment issues among other causes — has garnered a significant following in recent years. But people with disabilities still find themselves at disadvantages in employment and education.

Smith and many of the other writers and editors of the anthology agree that the negligence to fix some of these issues is psychological.

“I think the fear comes from our own deepest fears about our bodies,” Smith said. “Something can go wrong at any minute, and your life can change.”

That something went wrong for 2010 Pitt graduate Jonathan Duvall.

In 2007, Duvall participated in a sledding event at the Petersen Events Center, where he injured his spinal cord. The accident left him in a wheelchair and at a loss about how to get around campus.

Duvall later organized a group of students with disabilities to come together and help each other learn about what is accessible on campus. Today, he still wants to address issues on campus and in all of Pittsburgh for people with disabilities.

“Beauty is a Verb” hopes to win some support for issues surrounding disability across the country through powerful, emotional writing. The anthology was named to the American Library Association’s 2012 Notable Books List and is going through its second printing.

“Our mission is to get these writings read and to get people to know who these writers are and what experiences they can share,” Norton said. “There is still a long way before disability poetry gets the attention that it deserves.”

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