Category Archives: Arts

Is that any of your business?

This post was written by current student  Robin Kellner.

photo of Lindsay and Robin.
Robin Kellner winner of the Inaugural Helen Henderson Writing for Disability Activism Award with Lindsay Campbell.

Almost daily, my clients and I are stopped by curious passer-by’s who have numerous questions and who feel entitled to our personal information.

I understand that we stand out. It’s not common to see two people side by side, one telling the other about every visual and auditory stimulus in the mall, doctor’s office, or restaurant. But that is how some people who are deafblind live their lives, with someone travelling beside them providing access to everything there is to see and hear in the environment around them.

Most commonly, I am asked if my client is my parent.

A few weeks ago, my client was getting her banking done when the teller stops to ask “Are you her daughter?” When I passed the question along to my client, she snapped “No! She’s an intervenor.”

We both sighed as we left the bank, “It’s annoying. I’m not old enough to be your mother.” It’s true, not even by a long shot.

Curiosity is human nature, but I often wonder, if disability were to be removed from the situation, would people still feel inclined to ask such questions? I would never pull up a chair at a café and ask the two people sitting at the table how they know each other. By Torontonian standards, that would be socially inappropriate – not to mention that I do not give a crap how they know each other.  

It may not sound horrible to be approached with questions, but could you imagine if it happened almost every day?  Such inquiries rarely turn into thoughtful conversations promote awareness of deafblindness – they are flat out insulting.

The interview does not often end with me being asked if I am my client’s offspring. Again and again, we hear “Can she see?” or “What’s wrong with him?”

These quandaries are also always directed at me implying that the person views my client as invisible and unable to answer a question.  

I am not advocating for a society of people who never talk to one another and ask each other questions, but I encourage people to think about their questions before asking them. Speak to the person you are curious about directly, regardless of their mode of communication, language, vision, or hearing, and ask yourself: Why am I asking the question? Without the presence of visible disability, would I still feel the need to ask the question at all?

On a recent shift at the dentist, the receptionist asked if my client was my father. When I relayed the answer along to my client – who took the time to explain the role of an intervenor – the response was: “so like your daughter.”

We were speechless – but offered polite chuckles as we walked out using sighted guide. Having never been in that situation with this particular person, once we got outside, I asked him how he felt about the question. His response gave me a new perspective to the scenario – he said that he should have asked the receptionist if the dentist was her mother.

It occurred to me that such questions are not only disrespectful to the person with the embodied difference; they are also patronizing to the intervenor and diminish our roles as professionals.

The receptionist at the dental office is a skilled professional who plays an essential role in managing the office and ensuring the quality of the patients’ experience.  Intervenors are trained professionals who provide visual and auditory information to people who are deafblind, and are trained in various modes of communication, orientation and mobility, and much more. Sure, it could happen that a dentist could hire their child to work in their office, and a family member could be put in the position of intervenor if there is a need. But would you ever feel the need to ask the receptionist at a dental office how they are related to their employer? I would guess the answer to that question is likely no.

Why then, do people feel it is their right to ask me how I am related to the person beside me who is holding my arm, a white cane, or the harness of a guide dog? Is it because they are perceived to have a disability?

In reality, I could be their daughter, cousin, or I could even be their lover – but is it really any of your business?



How did I get here?

This post was written by current student Nicole Meehan.

painting with 6 colour blocks inside which are dancing stick figures

Hello, I feel like I need to say hello today to anyone who is reading this. Why? I do not know, but I feel like maybe it eases me into this important and full conversation I am going to have to have about my process in creating my final DST 99 project, Breaking Free: The Aesthetics of Madness (this is the current working title and is subject to change).

I began in the Disability Studies program in 2011 and have always wanted to have dance be involved in my 99 project, but how it is involved has changed with the many ruptures I have experienced, as my supervisor Kathryn Church calls them, especially within the last year and a half alone.  

I am a dancer, and have been since I was eleven years old. It has always been a passion of mine but how I identify as a dancer is changing. I trained as a highland dancer for fourteen years and ballet dancer for five years respectively. Both art forms can be rigid, come with expectations and high standards, along with set steps and positions to follow. I have also taught both highland and ballet for many years.

Originally I thought I would run a dance workshop for people with disabilities creating a space for them to create and express using movement.

Rupture #1

Through my ballet teacher Lisa, I was introduced to a whole new dancing world.  After a difficult competitive season and my retirement, I was asked to participate in a contemporary modern dance piece called Storm and Silence, which was being performed in the Hamilton Fringe Festival. I had never tried anything like that before but thought it was a risk I was willing to take. I was given the opportunity to begin exploring ways in which I can find my own voice within my movement and body. Using a combination of spoken word, poetry, dance and movement I found a more authentic and organic way of expression.

This coupled with my further immersion in the DST program lead me to envision my 99 to have a dance piece that combined writing pieces, with dance choreography and was performed by myself and a varying group of dancers. I thought about redefining what is and can be considered dance and who can be a dancer.

It became about creating a performance piece that merges Dance and Disability Activism.

Rupture #2

This continued until I took Chelsea Jones’ class to learn about Writing for Disability Activism. From here I wanted to include my writing pieces about Madness, which I later titled Mad Ramblings, into the dance but was unsure how I was going to do it, so I guess it was more of a development than a rupture.

It became, “redefining what is and can be considered dance and who can be a dancer”, while expressing my experiences as a self identified Mad Person.

Rupture #3

I held the previous vision right up until I had to present my proposal to my current cohort of students. I was wondering where I might get dancers who would be interested and also have diverse styles of movement. My class was very helpful in providing many suggestions but I kept having an uneasy feeling that I was being pulled away from where I really wanted to be.

Emerging Aesthetics of Madness

Highland, ballet, contemporary, modern… all different forms of dance that have taught me something new and given me a new way of expressing myself. They have also given me the confidence to trust in my own voice. Each time I dance I bring myself to the floor, I am the common denominator, and I am the only one who can do this. It is not about following someone else’s steps but creating my own and developing my style through my life experiences. even though I am resistant to the structure of the different styles over the years, I want to acknowledge the influences they have had in creating my life dance, my madness. Each dance style has come into my life at the point that I have needed it the most and when I was ready for it.

And then it hit me, Breaking Free is to be about the Aesthetics of Madness and exploring this through dance. It is about my journey and experiences of Madness, a solo. I have noticed that many of the current representations out there are one dimensional, we just see the diagnosis. They don’t show the complexities of the madness of life. Good days and bad days, days that are all the way out to the left. They are all a part of my madness and as such are part of the whole aesthetic.

Although I would like to give you a final bang of a conclusion, I can’t, I still have 3 months to go and that is a long time for many more ruptures to come.

The Accidental Researcher: A Cautionary Tale

This was written by alumna Anne Zbitnew.

a photograph of the embroidery on a white night gown

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, a naïve first time university student had an idea that she thought would be fun and interesting as an assignment for one of her courses.  She was new and late to the academy and worked very, very hard to impress those around her with her knowledge by using the biggest and best words possible when writing her assignments.  Writing was an arduous task and she had a terrible fear of the blank page.  Assignments took days and days to complete and she felt imprisoned and tethered to her laptop as she wrote.  Befriending a thesaurus, she trusted that this new friend would guide her and give her the language credibility she sought.  The student and the thesaurus were inseparable.  They spent hours working in collaboration. The student leaned very hard on her new friend, becoming so dependent that the meaning and application of words became less important than the impact of a fancy, academic word.  The student became so tired as she was lost and tangled in a jungle of jargon and she couldn’t find her way out.  She was captive in her own mind and she had lost trust in her own voice.

The student became very passive and let another with official academic credentials speak for her.  The fun assignment for her course became a research project and, knowing nothing about research, she just followed along and became an accidental researcher.  The voice in her head had concerns but that passive voice remained silent, in that captive prison of her vulnerable mind.  She felt like a puppet attached to strings while the academic manipulator directed her in every research

move.  Working on this research project was like running on an enchanted treadmill that only went faster and higher and never stopped.   Knowing nothing about the Ethics protocol, she just answered the questions, filled out the forms and did not even try to ask for what she really wanted.  When the data was collected, she spent hours alone, trying to figure out how to analyze and organize the information and she wrote, submitted and re-submitted papers written in her fanciest language to academic journals and chapters to undergraduate textbooks with little guidance.  She wrote applications for conference presentations and spent days and days organizing and creating lovely visual lectures.  She organized transportation and accommodation for the academic and herself and was urged to do most of the speaking to audiences of other academics.  She began to imagine that she was a RESEARCHER, keeping company with other RESEARCHERS.

But the more she wrote and spoke about her project, the more she began to realize that she had betrayed herself and the artists she loved to work with and now that voice in her head just kept repeating “shame on you” … and she felt like a fraud.

I am the Accidental Researcher.  I didn’t trust myself.  For this project, I wanted to work with a group of students I knew well on an art project using iPads, which were a new and emerging technology in 2012. The students are adults with intellectual disabilities.

I had never done an ethics application before and didn’t know or even try to ask for what I really wanted.  I wanted to capture images of the artists engaging, yes with the device but also with each other.

The REB was very concerned about protecting the “vulnerable population” of adults with intellectual disabilities by insisting on privacy and anonymity so I had to blur the faces and put bars in front of participants’ eyes in every image of these artists using iPads to make art.  These disguises only served to silence rather than protect the artists.

In the room, there was a tremendous amount of connectedness and communication in the art making as well as in the social interaction and the excitement and energy can be viewed in the hundreds of images that were captured.  The bars and blur I had to add not only hid the identity but also concealed the personality of each artist, dehumanizing and reducing each person to an object.  I still feel terrible about this and even though my research was published and acclaimed, celebrated and acknowledged, I vowed to never research like this ever again.

In the summer of 2014, I read a number of articles, books, papers and projects about Art-based and Arts-informed research.  And these readings connected me to more reading about Site-specific art, Place-based art, memory, remembrance and forgetting, memorializing and redress, collaboration and visual communication and visual studies.  My bibliography of readings multiplied and exploded.  I knew that for my master’s research project I would do arts-based research.  My research participants and I moved through the threshold between what has come before and what may come next as co-creators of knowledge.

The results of this research can be seen at the future home of Tangled Art Gallery, 401 Richmond St. W, Studio 122 in Toronto until December 3, 2015.

Arts-based research will:

  • Engage people in conspiratorial conversations
  • Entice outsiders into meaningful dialogues
  • Pull audiences in
  • Provoke conversations
  • Hatch conspiracies through dialogue
  • Re/create public space          

Arts-based research can create new languages, illuminate disabling contexts, expand accessibility and bridge culture and scholarship. This Accidental Researcher has learned the most valuable lesson…to let yourself be vulnerable, to ask questions because if you don’t ask, you don’t know and to trust your own active voice.  She has given herself permission to explore and experiment, to cut those puppet strings and to try find her own way.

Making Space for Intimate Citizenship

This post was written by Kirsty Liddiard, School of Education, University of Sheffield, former Ethel Louise Armstrong Post-Doctoral fellow at the School of Disability Studies.

Twitter: @kirstyliddiard1

four people stand in the centre with one alone in front and one alone behind
Hand drawn images representing connections between us.

In September I was lucky enough to venture back to Toronto (and the School of Disability Studies!) with some UK colleagues and self-advocate researchers from Speak Up Self-Advocacy Rotherham to take part in the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada-funded (SSHRC) international workshop, Making Space for Intimate Citizenship (September 2015) (hereby Making Space).

Together, Esther Ignagni (School of Disability Studies, Ryerson University), Ann Fudge-Schorrmans (School of Social Work, McMaster University), Katherine Runswick-Cole (Research Institute for Health and Social Change, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK), and myself (School of Education, University of Sheffield, UK) – with the vital support of Kim Collins (School of Disability Studies, Ryerson University) – have been planning the workshop over the past year. The aim of the workshop was simple: to bring together a disparate group of people from Canada, South Africa, Australia and the UK – academics, self-advocates, Canadian service providers, Aboriginal leaders, students, and artists – to speak about intimate citizenship in the lives of disabled people. The aim of Making Space was to share knowledge, experiences and insights related to the extent to which intimate citizenship is realized and accessed by people labelled with intellectual disabilities (hereby labelled people). In this blog, I’d like to share some reflections.

two groups of two standing together. with two people alone and off to the side
Hand drawn images representing the connections between us.

‘Intimate citizenship’ is a term coined by the British Sociologist Ken Plummer (2003). It refers to the evolving relationships between our private and public lives; the idea that the ‘personal’ matters in our lives – who we love; where we live; our sex/ualities, partnerships, and friendships; how we bear and raise our children; and the forms of intimate labour or work we carry out along the way – is increasingly contoured by, and penetrates, public life. Intimate citizenship necessarily involves negotiating body-based, psycho-emotional and social contact with others. As such, “intimate problems”, commonly understood as private, have significant public and policy implications. Those readers who have made the journey through DST501 (an introductory course on Ryerson’s BA Disability Studies) might remember learning about C. Wright Mills’ (1959) The Sociological Imagination. In this key text, Mills argues that our lived experiences can never be separated from the political, social and historical contexts in which they take place – our private troubles are public issues. This is a similar concept that once again emphasizes the interconnectedness of the “inside” and “outside” spaces of our individual and social lives.

As a public sociologist and researcher interested in disability, sex/uality and gender, my work has shown that intimate citizenship is routinely contested, controlled and contained, and thus fragile, in the lives of disabled people (see Liddiard and Slater, forthcoming). The rights of disabled people to pursue several spheres of intimate life, including sexual identity and expression, friendship, marriage and cohabitation, family life and parenthood, are enshrined in the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). These rights are important because intimate relationships establish the social networks necessary to support employment, educational success, secure housing, family stability, sexual health and wellbeing, and build resilience to deal with the deleterious effects of structural and interpersonal ableism. Barriers to intimate ties lead to social and economic costs associated with vulnerability to abuse and violence, child welfare involvement, trans-institutionalization and reliance on private and social care resources. In practice, we know little of disabled people’s experiences of intimate citizenship; little detailed exploration of people’s intimate experiences has been undertaken. Even less is known about the spaces disabled people may easily access and stake claims to their intimate citizenship, especially in austere times, and how this may shape intimate subjectivities, relations and practice. Nor do we know what new ableisms – the exclusions, disadvantages and silencing of people with impairments – or other barriers are encountered within the exercise of intimate. Importantly, our knowledge rarely includes disabled people as competent commentators on their own life conditions.

five people standing together with one person alone and to the right
Hand drawn images representing the connections between us.

To counter this, Making Space employed facilitated arts-based techniques to enhance the access to the conceptual and research discourse that typically marginalizes labelled people (and many others). This embodied our desire for labelled people to be co-producers of all activities and outcomes within Making Space. Organised around three salient dimensions of human citizenship: loving, labouring consuming, participants worked closely in smaller groups to explore our lived experiences. I was in the labouring group, led by Cheryl Zinyk, Nick Herd and Matt Rawlins from Sol Express, which used improvisational theatre techniques to explore the relationship between intimate labour/s, access, structure and citizenship. Collectively, we put together a short dramatic piece that spoke to the multiple barriers faced by labelled people upon claiming an intimate self and life in the context of the multiple dis/ableist systems they live within and through. The piece involved miming a number of “real-life” still photographs which depicted what needs to happen for (health, education, welfare, and care) systems to become more progressive, supportive spaces that listen and work to the voices, desires and ambitions of labelled people (see Matt’s drawings of our performance). As a scholar who loves to write, the notion of acting and performing ideas threw me a little at first (read: made my blood run cold…) Yet what emerged was a highly conceptual piece of work co-created by the many different people in our group (scholars, community folk, self-advocates) that was at the same time beautifully artistic. Using these techniques, and watching those of the Loving and Consuming groups, it was clear that they supported and enabled multiple ways of thinking and knowing, often far removed from academic discourse in its conventional sense. Movingly, the knowledge produced was profound, vital and lived.

two people in the centre of a circle made of 6 people. One person on the outside of the circle
Hand drawn images representing the connections between us.

Our task now is to mobilise these ideas, to work alongside self-advocates in our own countries to ethically and faithfully develop the initial learning and exploration that happened at Making Space. In sum, our aim is that this will happen through further activism, research, advocacy and community arts projects which theorise, politicize and make space for labeled people to claim rights and access to their intimate citizenship.

To learn more about Making Space and intimate citizenship, please see the Making Space for Intimate Citizenship hub. To learn more about what happened at the Making Space workshop, check out our Storify.


Plummer, K. (2003) Intimate Citizenship: Private Decision and Public Dialogues. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press

Slater, J. and Liddiard, K. (in press) “Like, pissing yourself is not a particularly attractive quality, let’s be honest”: Learning to Contain through Youth, Adulthood, Disability and Sexuality’, Sexualities (Special Issue: Pleasure and Desire).

Wright-Mills, C. (1959) The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press


I would like to say a massive thank you to all of the self-advocates for giving their time, care and focus to the project. Thanks also go to all of the exceptional volunteers that made Making Space run so smoothly. Lastly, to all at the School of Disability Studies, thank you (once again) for your customary support, consideration, warmth and love. Without doubt, the School remains the magical place I left.

All drawings by Matt Rawlins (Sol Express, 2015).

Visualizing Absence: Memorializing the histories of the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital grounds

The photographs in this post were taken by current student Anne Zbitnew. This exhibition will be at the L Space Gallery until July 3, 2015. Please go Visualizing Absence for more details.

A photograph of a room with  benches and a suitcase in the foreground. In the background are plinths and hanging dresses.

Visualizing Absence: Memorializing the histories of the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital grounds is a collaborative arts-based research response to archival images, patient records, and hidden and lost stories and memories that constitute Humber College’s historic Lakeshore grounds.

 A photograph of a black bench with an old suitcase filled with white gloves

These grounds are traditional territory of the Ojibway Anishinaabe people who have lived along the Humber waterways and travelled extensively throughout the Great Lakes region. They know this area as Adobigok, or “place of the alders.” Their name for the region is where we get our modern-day Etobicoke.

 a photograph of a wall with 18 photos and a felt and twig installation to the right

The Lakeshore grounds and new and existing buildings are situated on a corridor along the Humber River where First Nations people travelled for thousands of years.  We stand here today, where many Humber College students and their ancestors have walked (Charles, 2015).

 a photograph of a nurses uniform

Researcher and artist Anne Zbitnew, in collaboration with artists Ala Asadchaya, Alison Brenzil, Dave Clark, Stas Guzar, Susan Mentis, Lucy Pauker, and Hannah Zbitnew,  use a variety of media to publicly recover untold hidden and forgotten histories. We respect the past by recognizing our research site as Aboriginal land, and by remembering the psychiatric patients who built, lived, worked, and died here.

 A photograph of three white nightgowns embroidered together

This project follows Dr. Geoffrey Reaume (2000) and other mad historians, activists, artists and allies who tell stories in a historical context from a psychiatric patient perspective.

 a photograph of the embroidery on a white night gown

Turning the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital into a college is a fitting tribute to the patients who built this site with their unpaid labour.

 a group of people at the exhibition

Humber College is a place of education and enlightenment. By acknowledging the past, Humber recovers pieces of its own history and advances its community and cultural contributions to knowledge and awareness of contemporary Mental Heath stigma (Males, 2014).

 A photograph of Anne introducing the event in a crowd of visitors

To paraphrase Thomas King (2003):

Take these stories.  Do with them what you will.  Tell your friends, ignore them, forget them.  But don’t say that you would live your life differently if you had only heard these stories.  You have heard them now.

a photograph of a woman attaching a prayergram to a tree

Wednesday, May 20th, Marg ties her great aunt Grace’s prayergram.

Grace was institutionalized at the age of 19.  She wrote a letter to her mother telling
her that the doctor said she could go home if she came to get her.  The letter was
never mailed and Grace never went home.  She died 60 years later as a patient of the
Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital and is buried in an unmarked grave at the Lakeshore Psychiatric
Hospital Cemetery.

1,511 prayergrams remember all the people who are buried in the cemetery in unmarked graves.

They are tied to trees outside the LSpace Gallery.

a photographs of prayergrams blowing in the wind

Exploring Female Literary Madness

This post was written by current student Barbara Steele.

Photograph of the cover of novel "The Bell Jar"

The idea for my DST 99 independent project came from a course I had taken as an upper liberal called women’s writing.  This course briefly investigated a mad women character who was locked away in an attic. The women authors who created this mad female character were trying to break into what was considered a male profession only. It was believed that these created mad female characters were originally created to foil the female authors themselves, to overcome their own oppression of patriarchal societies in which they lived.

I became interested in wanting to explore and learn more about this mad women phenomenon using a disabilities studies lens of critical thinking.  As young women I have been passionate about feminism and the societal roles women are expected to have. In society woman have many roles mother, sister, and wife and bread winner in some cases.  I wanted to research the effects on women who have been given a mad diagnosis. Would their madness be societal based or a product of their nature within the selected literary works?  I was interested in wanting to understand what is so popular about mad women.

In today’s society there are many women authors are who held to the same standard as men when it comes to creating great literary works.  Since women authors are seem as equals I was curious as to why women still feel the desire to create these mad women characters.  What does this say about our society? Have we become obsessed with female madness? These are some of the questions that sparked my research journey.

For this research process I decided to read some literary works that entail mad female characters and watched the movies that coincided with the book.  The titles I have chosen to use were Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kasen and The bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

Reading literary works allows the audience to receive an inside perspective as to the characters inner thoughts are revealed, the author is the who describes a scene through writing but it is up to the reader to use their imagination while reading the work.  In a movie the audience only is able to see what they observe on the screen.  The director is the one who filters what is seen and how.  The director is automatically giving the audience a pre-determined way of thinking about a certain film regarding a female character who been affected with madness.

Using both the literary works and their entitled movies I was able to create more critical interpretations of what female madness represents in literary works and film interpretations.  Two titles I have used were set in late 1800’s and the other two works are from 1950’s.   Themes that have been reoccurring are the use and context of language, the negative effects of labeling, the stigma attached to having a mental disability as well as many others that will be discussed in my paper. Although these findings seem grim there has been improvements in the person’s quality of life and supports used for an individual with mental illness.

This is a brief description of my research project which will be completed in April 2015.

Creative writing, meet academia

This post was written by current student, Emma Burston.

Sketch of a coffee cup sitting on the desk of a home office.
Sketched representation of the office in a group home. A coffee cup sitting on the desk takes on object narration in a fictional story used to generate discussion around the triumphs and frustrations of life in supportive housing.


I think I lost the will and drive to write somewhere along my academic journey in the undertow of research methods and annotated bibliographies. The content remained interesting and the zest for learning remained strong but writing became the chore. I became more of an academic machine than a participant. Write a paper, edit the draft, submit it, hope to never need to read it again, sigh a glorious sigh of relief. These steps are not particularly complementary to an upcoming thesis project. You can imagine my angst.

Exercise #2: Reddit /r/WritingPrompts

Today’s was: You’re trying to talk someone down who genuinely thinks that he/she is Superman/woman.

Something clicked when I began to explore the notion of creative writing again. Describing something you love or abhor, from the point of view of another, with feeling. A professor encouraged me to write about what I wanted, to share my ideas, and to explore them. A strategic pairing of Writing for Disability Activism and my independent thesis project was a happy marriage of plentiful intersections. Exposure to a plethora of writing styles and mediums shaped my voice and styles of writing, delving into a reading list with inspired content broadened my understanding, and an appreciation for the learning that occurs among interdisciplinary experiences developed.

Our time together in a cohesive classroom reinforced the importance of cross disciplinary reaches; a recurring theme in disability studies. As students our experiences and titles span across many professional environments. Our educators are varied in their accomplishments and focus. Our professional end goal objectives and interests greatly vary. Intra-disability studies is a full network of interdisciplinary works, many of whose main goal is to educate across systems to promote understanding, where there may have previously been a lackthereof. This notion would soon become my muse for merging creative writing and interdisciplinary learning objectives, propelling new learners in the disability studies realm, to carry their understanding across their own disciplines.

Exercise #3: Write for 3 minutes straight. No stopping, no erasing, just go.

I brought forward an idea that would have stayed quiet in the corners of my mind when I enrolled in Writing for Disability Activism. There, a piece of writing surfaced-the narrative of one person of support exploring the triumphs and irritations of life in a residential group home from the perspective of an observant coffee cup. It was not simply met with encouragement from my peers and professor but it was aided along the way with beneficial moments of sharing and feedback, editing sessions, and comfortable open discussion. The story grew with my classmates’ experiences and input, shaped through the empowering effects of a supportive academic environment on a creative writing process. I received colourful feedback from my peers as they sifted through creative content to bring out themes of disability hierarchy, models of care, and many other personally poignant themes present in the world of front line support work.

Exercise #4: Review what you’ve written and insert emotion: irritation, anger, joy, boredom, etc.

It’s absurd to imagine removing the emotion from an everyday understanding of experience, so why do we intend to remove it from our writing? As authors we’re encouraged to write ourselves out of the essay, and as researches we are urged  to remain objective in our observations. Amongst my exploration around art based methods for research I’ve discovered a certain knowledge that creative mediums evoke an understanding of complex human concepts. Within disability studies we take up themes of embodiment, experience, and dis/ableism; content with a heavy need for empathetic understanding. In my work with fiction as a method for interdisciplinary learning I intend to celebrate emotional content, using accessible and plain language to create a piece of writing that spans wider than the confines of the typical academic journal. Without the pairing of a brilliantly conducted Writing for Disability Activism course and an independent thesis opportunity fully sparked by the former, these aspirations would never have made it to paper or computer screen. I’m elated to say that it’s the writing that excites me; process, action, and analysis inclusive. The chips in my paint have been ignored, my cats claws are razor sharp, and my dirty tea cup collection has doubled.

Mad People’s History

This post was written by current student, Marsha Ryan.

Three buttons which read "Mad Positive in the Academy"

I’m sitting in Out of This World Café next to CAMH, and I’d like to pause for a moment and share with you guys a wonderful experience called Mad People’s History. It’s a course that I took last semester at Ryerson University. There was a HUGE number of people wishing to pursue this course, so our professor – Danielle Landry – had to split up the class into three subgroups. I was thrilled to see such a number of students too because the more people are engaged in our communities, the better! I have to express my kudos to Danielle for keeping up with hot debates on the discussion board and actually responding to the posts. She’s definitely extremely passionate about teaching, sharing experiences, and inspiring us to go further and beyond.

I think it is remarkable that the course was created by a person with lived experience, it gives you a totally new perception of all the theory and practice covered in class. The course content got me deep down into learning straight away because it was stunning, unforgettable, and inspirational! The assignments are driven to engage students into the mad community, with all its joys and issues. I’ve never seen such a diversity of audio, video and webcasts before! You can either study while you commute to work or while you’re chopping veggies for your dinner. Imagine the big guru, David Raville, talking on your big screen in the living room! All the documents are downloadable and accessible for your convenience at any point of your day! Mad People’s History takes real issues and talks about them in a very human way.

I love the funny bits of sarcasm thrown in for good measure amongst the academic information.  For me the history was sometimes uncomfortable and yet fascinating!  It never ceases to amaze me how cruel humans can be to one another.  The first part of the course may be emotionally difficult for some people, but I believe it’s important to know where we’ve been to see where we’re going. This learning experience is foundational!

Writing a book review, going out on a field trip plunges you into the world you’re learning in class/online. The field trip was a wow experience for me – now I’m going to be involved in some capacity with the mad/survivor community in Toronto and the GTA. I met some really great people during my field trip: they are highly driven and motivated to bring change into daily troubles of mad people; all of them are doing a lot of really interesting things in the areas like art, politics, advocacy, retail, customer service, social security, entertainment, etc.

I urge students to take Mad People’s History, in any format, for it frames the development of breaking through a stigma against mad people throughout the centuries and illustrates how strong we can be. As the journey unfolds, you hear all of the horrific stories involved in the history. It is important to note these things, and talk about how ridiculous they were, and break down the societal views of individuals with mental health histories. There are a lot of success stories that transform a mad person’s image from being demonized and instilling fear to just another guy living around the corner, the guy who has equal rights and is socially included into our community.

This course has such a good balance between academic and humanity, through the readings, modules, and assignments. I will miss it and for this reason I decided to get involved with a couple of my favorite mad-driven organizations that are described in my assignment.

This is a life-changing experience guys, so please feel free to feel and share it!

How not to hide from humanity (Sorry Martha Nussbaum)

This post was written by Allan MacNeil graduate of the Disability Studies program.

Allan MacNeil at his clown show, "The exorcism of Rob Ford"

Photograph of Allan MacNeil and a woman holding hand puppets

“In nature a repulsive caterpillar turns into a lovely butterfly, but with human beings, it is the other way around: a lovely butterfly turns into a repulsive caterpillar.” Anton Chekhov.

Clowning, Jeu and Boufoon are forms of theatre for the 98% and acts as a rediscovery of how to speak your truth, play mentally and physically and chip away psycho-social rigidity with in society. However, rigidity is still often found in fluff or precious theatres sought out by by 2% of society. Cliche, mask, rigidity and arrogance of power are taught to medical professionals. My experiences in theatre and psychotherapeutic education have lead to stripping away cliche layers and masks. My experience includes working with social service providers with clients having to go through the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) etc.

My love of personal clown was reborn after graduating from Ryerson University, School of Disability Studies. I also graduated from George Brown College and Psychotherapy with the Gestalt Institute of Toronto. These disciplines have a unique way of leaving you with a raised consciousness and removal of societal cliche layers and masks.

Last year I had cancer, before I went for chemotherapy I was very tired. This per-cancer condition ended my case manager position. Chemotherapy sessions were successful and ended in August 2013 at PMH. Since then I take work where I can get it. I have also taught acting, clown, scene study, improv, mask and Commedia del Arte in Toronto. In May 2014 I performed at the Toronto Festival of Clowns. I volunteered as a facilitator/Instructor with Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto. If you want to really get past your cliche layer and remove a mask, explore your personal clown. My experiences includes annual educational counseling and psychotherapy. Motivational Interviewing, CAMH. Harm Reduction, CAMH. Methadone Maintenance Therapy Counselling, CAMH. My experiences and education have lead to a stripping away of the cliche layers and masks. CAMH Outreach, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Graduate four year Psychotherapy Training, Gestalt Institute of Toronto, 2001-2005 Graduate four year B. A. Ryerson University School of Disability Studies, Toronto. 2005-2009. Graduate two year Diploma, Mental Health & Addictions, George Brown College. 1995-1997. Annual educational Counseling/Psychotherapy Training. Motivational Interviewing Training, CAMH. Harm Reduction Training, CAMH. Methadone Maintenance Therapy Counsellor Training, CAMH.

My experiences and education have lead to a stripping away of cliche layers and masks. I have also been immersed in theatre for close to 30 years. I have investigated the process of physical theatre and has experience as director, teaching acting, mime, mask, Commedia dell’ Arte, personal clown, monologues, scene study, audition classes, movement and improvisation. Studied theatre  in the European Traditional Mime/Clown Lecoq pedagogy. Suzuki Method Actor Training with Marcos Martinez – California. Neutral Mask Workshop with Paolo Coletto-Chicago School of Physical Theatre. Native/European Clown/Mask Workshop with Richard Pochinko. Circus Academy Circus Arts, Toronto Clown, Buffoon, Vaudeville, Slapstick and Commedia dell Arte. Actors Ensemble Workshop with Ravi Jain of Why Not Theatre and Adam Paolozza of TheatreRUN Toronto. Mike Petersen, Mouth Puppet Workshop at Puppet Mongers, Toronto. Ryerson University Theatre Act Two Studio, Boston Arts Group Acting Training, Boston,  Ron Jenkins Mask, Boston, Trent Arterberry, Mime Boston New England Mime Theatre Mime and Mask, Boston. Canadian Mime Theatre School Mask, Clown, and Commedia dell Arte. Jeu and Boufoon Workshop with Adam Lazarus. Directorial credits include: Bonjour La Bonjour, Hedda Gabler, And Never Said a Word, Doctor’s Dilemma, Man, In the Jungle of Cities, Antigone, Caucasian Chalk Circle, Mother Courage and her Children, The Jewish Wife, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, On the Harmfulness of Tobacco, Doctor Faustus, No Exit, The Wall, Death of a Salesman, Glen Garry Glen Ross, Macbeth, Betrayal, Come and Go, Act Without Words 11, America Hurrarh, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, and The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.

Find your own uniqueness through your personal clown experience. Discover personal awareness of being present with your personal clown and how your clown interacts with the other and how the other interacts with you. Personal personal growth and development experiences and education includes my experience with Ryerson University, School of Disability Studies, Case Management, Psychotherapy and Personal Clown, have all been part of a process and stripping away cliche and masks perpetrated in society.

Mad Studies – what it is and why you should care

This post was written by Lucy Costa. It was originally printed in the CS/info Centre Bulletin. The CS/Info Centre is an information resource centre providing assistance and referral to Consumer/Survivors and others in the Greater Toronto area (Canada). All staff and volunteers are consumer/survivors of mental health and/or addiction systems. They have been providing support and publishing the bulletin since 1992.

Lucy Costa, Jijian Voronka and Kathryn Church sit at a table underneath a large projection screen.
Lucy Costa, Jijian Voronka, and Kathryn Church presenting ‘Symposium: Making Mad Studies in Canada: process, practice, and contestations’ at Lancaster University in the UK.

From September 9th – 11th, 2014 Lancaster University in the UK held a Disability Studies conference with a stream that focussed specifically on Mad Studies. This is very important and it signifies a step forward in our history, community organising and hope for a more inclusive future especially for our next generation. Canada has some classes that do teach, “Mad Peoples History” but we need more commitment for an educational structure that supports learning, exploration and critical thinking in universities, colleges, and learning centres of all kinds. Given that for the last four decades lip service has been paid to inclusion, participation and rights for consumers/psychiatric survivors, it is reasonable to request that a morsel of funding be given to develop this area of study so we can build on the great work of our previous consumer/survivor leaders, and mentors.

What is Mad Studies?
Mad Studies is an area of education, scholarship, and analysis about the experiences, history, culture, political organising, narratives, writings and most importantly, the PEOPLE who identify as: Mad; psychiatric survivors; consumers; service users; mentally ill; patients, neuro-diverse; inmates; disabled -to name a few of the “identity labels” our community may choose to use. Mad Studies has grown out of the long history of consumer/survivor movements organised both locally and internationally. The methods, and approaches for research are drawn from other educational fields such as women’s studies, queer studies, critical race studies, legal studies, ethnography, auto-ethnography (again, just to name a few). But, Mad Studies, right here, right now is breaking new ground. Together, we can cultivate our own theories/ models/ concepts/ principles/ hypotheses/ and values about how we understand ourselves, or our experiences in relationship to mental health system(s), research and politics. No one person, or school, or group owns Mad Studies or defines its borders. As explained in the book, Mad Matters, Mad Studies is a, “project of inquiry, knowledge production and political action”.[1] Presently, (and as discussed at the Lancaster conference) we need more action. All we have available as a “progressive” theory to us now is the “recovery model.” Yup, the recovery model is important but it’s not enough to understand who we are, or what is needed especially in the current budget-cuts climate that favours business plans and wealthy professionals’ opinions. More to the point, “recovery” has been co-opted by the mental health system. The money that is being invested into the system right now ain’t about recovery, it’s about efficiencies and outcomes and dishing out services cheaper and faster. There will be some people who will inevitably criticise or feel threatened by the idea of “Mad Studies,” but the reality is that there is huge potential for trailblazing and innovative ideas. Think of what a difference feminist studies made in the lives of women, or what queer studies has done for the LGBTQ community or critical race studies to our understanding of how race and law intersect. Why shouldn’t we have a Mad Studies??

Why should you care about Mad Studies?
1. What you don’t know, actually can hurt you.

When you do not have the words, to name something that is oppressive, illegal or destructive then you do not have the knowledge or power to change it. Words matter. Ideas matters. Truth matters. Mad Studies is about getting to truths, asking more questions and finding more words. Education is knowledge, and knowledge empowers us.

2. We have something valuable to teach other areas of study:

And here, I don’t mean that we should be invited to a committee to review or offer feedback on already developed project. I also do not mean sending consumer/ survivors off by themselves so that they can tell their individual story or become a token poster child in projects with complex, deeply entrenched structural problems. I mean, that we are capable of teaching and offering deeper analysis that integrates critical thinking into what is going on, and how things are done. United we stand, divided we fall. We would have a lot to offer the study of art, law, social work or ethics. For example, perhaps all projects that have to do with mental health should meet with some ethical standards as developed by the consumer/survivor community. I bet we could offer a lot to businesses that wanted to learn more about creating a “psychosis friendly” kind of place. I bet we could teach people who organise rallies and forums how to be more inclusive. I bet we could even teach astronaut Chris Hadfield a thing or two.

3.Flip the micro-scope

Perhaps it’s time to flip the scope. Let’s stop studying mentally ill people and start studying sane people, normals, well-adjusted, balanced and secure people. What do their brains look like? Why do they get the kinds of haircuts that they do? How do they behave in workplaces, at cottages in the banks? What’s it like to be really rich and debt free? Let’s not talk about this newly popularised notion of, “patients as teachers” and instead, discuss, “psychiatrists as bad learners.” Flip the questions. Question the questioners. How many times have you been asked to participate or give your feedback on how to make the system better? Flip the scope— maybe it’s time we stop answering those questions and have Mad Studies develop our own questions and research agendas.

4. We Are Not Alone

Way back in the 1940s, a group of ex-patients founded, We Are Not Alone (W.A.N.A) in order to remind people of just that point. It was an early support group and yes, it’s part of our Mad Studies history like many other things we can hopefully house in a Mad Studies museum one day. We have evidence of our organsing, art, writing, thinking and endeavours to make the world a better place. For example look at the or the Survivors’ histories website, or the first support group in Vancouver called the Mental Patients Association:

5. Mad Studies is about you!

Finally, and this may be the most important point; your ideas matter. It’s not about how much school you’ve had, or credentials and it’s not about your pocket book. It’s about joining conversations. If you don’t share your thoughts, opinions and knowledge, then you impact nothing and no one. And hey, the next generation of consumer/survivors are going to push us forward BIG TIME. There are some very serious issues and debates impacting the lives of service users and we have to help each other to speak up. We need to be thoughtful, smarter and more strategic about what we say and what we do. That will require everyone. It requires you.

[1] Brenda LaFrancois, Robert Menzies and Geoff Reaume (eds.) Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies (Toronto: Canadian Scholar’s Press, 2013) at pg. 13.