Disabilities Approached through Multidisciplinary Work

May 2023
5-minute read

Work in disabilities is growing in all fields, and knowing that there is a community that cares is really impactful. One of my favorite parts about working for the Collaborative is how interactive it is and attending Zoom sessions where the conversation is about all of this and meeting different people that care about these issues has been insightful and uplifting.

The benefits of starting a conversation on disabilities are important. Taking part in a class centered on the representation of disabilities forces a readjustment to a person's preconceived notions. The positionality of the subject and the stare have long since been normalized and are more and more being challenged. The point of "normalcy" or the "other" is also up to debate and in doing this research, working with different people, and entering into a widespread discourse the effects of being perceived as different have been in constant expansion in my own understanding and life. This project has taught me to explore the diversity within art and the representation of bodies and to look at the institution as a space of growth.

This project has given me the ability to meet a multiplicity of different people in different fields from Steve Sands to Eric Freudenthal in Computer Science at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to students who work in engineering, computer science, mathematics, and psychology. I find that people in other fields work very differently and are interested and invested in answering different questions. While the background of a project might be similar, the approach and the end goal are slightly different.

Work in Dr. Freudenthal's on-campus lab.

Dr. Freudenthal’s current work aims to answer the question if the reason those that are neurodiverse struggle to perceive emotions is due to the existence of a phenomenon. If so, can he improve the perception by boosting the point of the fundamental frequency? Those that are neurodiverse are on average perceived differently than those that are neurotypical, as there is a stigma with being autistic, having ADHD, or identifying with any disorder. Whether intentional or not, there is a specific rhetoric used to describe those that are "different." Dr. Freudenthal’s work could essentially lower the barrier to communication for those who do struggle. There really is not a lot of research currently done like this; we know that those that are neurodiverse struggle to perceive and identify emotions in others, but research that is aimed at aiding this struggle has not been done.

While in art history and in our research work we look at the representation of disabilities and art done by those that identify with disabilities. The readings have shown the negative stigma of disabilities and how a culture and society create a point of "normalcy" that is physically visible and perceived through behavior. An extreme in the negative stigma in art history would be the Nazi German “The Degenerate Art” exhibition held in 1937.  While that is one example on an extreme side, society has normalized the gaze/stare towards bodies and art that are representative of the "other." In a sense, it has become so common that people no longer even fully realize the meaning of their gaze and the immediate feelings and thoughts of association. There is a level of comfort that society has created in positioning differences and categorizing what they perceive.

In the text Bodies in Commotion Disability & Performance, Rosemarie Garland Thomson argues in her essay, “Dares to Stare: Disabled Women Performance Artist & the Dynamic of Staring,” “staring constitutes disability identity by visually articulating the subject positions of ‘disabled’ and ‘able bodied’” (31). In art and performances, people stare at the subject and position the bodies that they see in categories, and the art created is often based on a lived experience. Thomson goes on to say, “Performances unmask the dynamic of staring by forcing the audience to become starers, to violate the proscription against being captivated by the desire to stare” (39-40). The stare instigates that something is different, or wrong with the subject. In this society, there is a fascination with the unknown, with a comparative displacement of bodies and persons. The artist/art and consumer are themselves a separate performance that is enacted in daily societal interactions. What is a really interesting division between the two approaches and understandings, is that on one hand you have auditory discrimination and on the other, it is a visual one. The conversations we have in both fields work very similarly in that sense.

It has been a different experience reading about the disorders I have, and the experimental effect it has on an individual’s behavior and social skills. For example, one paper traces different experiments done on children with ADHD to identify their behavioral issues and their emotion recognition skills. One of the case studies assesses that children with ADHD were shown “to be less accurate than controls in identifying their own and their partner’s emotional expressions; in addition, when presented with vignettes involving social situations, they performed worse than controls in identifying the emotions felt by the characters” (Kats-Gold, Besser, Priel 366). While many of the case studies were done on small samples that could not provide significant data and included different variables that ultimately could have affected the results reading it was still very different.

There is a difference in the rhetoric and investigative questions, but a common thread that both observe and attempt to mediate is the stigmas that come with having a disability. In her essay, “Looking Blind: Revelation of Culture’s Eye,” Tanya Titchkosky writes, “Is there not something about disability, as it lived and performed in the midst of others, within exclusionary and oppressive environments, that adds to or acts upon mainstream life and “normal” identity?” (222). This has been something that I have been thinking a lot about lately and the divide that society has created.

Working for The Humanities Collaborative has led me in parts back to the sciences but from a different point of view this time around. Dr. Freudenthal’s multi-disciplinary approach converges work on disabilities and the stigma that comes with them. It was weird entering into Dr. Freudenthal’s group at first as someone who works in and for the humanities. While those in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics investigate and answer theoretical questions very differently from those in the liberal arts there is a basis of similarity in care. Dr. Freudenthal’s vocal Fundamental Frequency Accentuation and current research all aim to better aid someone's ability to not only perceive emotional cues but to help people communicate. Working with both Dr. Sands and Dr. Eric Freudenthal has reinforced the idea that the humanities have something to offer those that work in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. While we may work differently, we start with similar questions, and the intersection of our works allows for a widening of thoughts.

Written by Jessica Gomez, Undergraduate Research Fellows

The University of Texas at El Paso, The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP

Works Cited

--Kats-Gold, I., Besser, A. & Priel, B. “The Role of Simple Emotion Recognition Skills among School Aged Boys at Risk of ADHD.” J Abnorm Child Psychol 35, 363–378 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-006-9096-x

--Thomson, Rosemarie. “Dares to Stare: Disabled Women Performance Artist & the Dynamic of Staring.” Bodies in Commotion: Disability & Performance, edited by Carrie Sandahl et al., University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2005. Print.

--Titchkosky, Tanya. “Looking Blind Revelation of Culture’s Eye.” Bodies in Commotion: Disability & Performance, edited by Carrie Sandahl et al., University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2005. Print.

Images courtesy of Jessica Gomez.


Arts, Disabilities, and Therapies

As our humanities research project progressed in 2022 and 2023, one of our current priorities was creating an online symposium that would take place on April 12, 2023. We had been putting together an engaging and informative program meant to provide valuable insight and challenge the negative misconceptions of disability and showcase how art can be a powerful tool for expression and activism.