Monday, April 11, 2011

Speeches, speeches, speeches!

What have I been doing lately?  Writing speeches, speeches, and more speeches!  I wrote three in March and one in April, all on vastly different subjects.

The first one was for the AFAC (Art for All Canada) conference at Metro Hall.

Here is that speech:

Whenever people ask me how long I’ve been painting, I always smile and reply, “Ever since I could breathe.” My name is Anne Abbott, and I create my artwork by painting with my right index finger. To my knowledge, I am the only artist who strictly uses this method and no other. Because I have Cerebral Palsy, a condition that affects a person's motor skills, this is the only way I am able to paint.
I've always had a profound love for art, ever since I was a small child. As a toddler, my mother would sit me in my highchair and give me a pad of paper and a paint set, and just let me go to it! She thought it would be a good diversion for me while she was doing the housework, but it would become one of the greatest passions of my life.

My family and friends encouraged me to keep going, to develop my art. My parents especially gave me guidance, praising me, of course, and giving me ideas of what things to paint. They also gave me constructive criticism and helpful hints on how to improve my craft. It also inspired me to know that both my grandmother and great-uncle had been artists. I felt as if I was following in their footsteps.

In public school, there was a weekly art class, and that piqued my interest even further. Eagerly, I absorbed all of the different types of techniques taught to me. I was even introduced to clay, kilns, paper mache, and making collages, but although these things were fun and inspired creativity, they just didn't hold my interest as much as painting did. I suppose one reason for this would be the fact that, except for having assistance in setting up the canvases and paints, I am able to do all the work on my own, and thus, lose myself within the process of making art.

There was about an 8 year gap in receiving any kind of instruction in art. This was both liberating and restrictive. Yes, I enjoyed experimenting with colours, shading, and different styles, and I was confident in the progress of my work. And yet, I felt that I could benefit from some guidance so that I could improve my craft even more.

When I was 18, I heard about Arts Carousel, a non-profit organization whose focus was on giving people with disabilities a chance to realize their creative potential. One of the instructors offered to come to my home and give me 10 free art lessons. His name was Michael Seary, and he was good to his word about giving me the free lessons. In fact, he ended up tutoring me for ten years!

Having an instructor who was an artist himself and being able to give me so much of his time, was a real bonus! I learned a lot more about art than I ever had before. I began experimenting with oils, water colour, acrylics, different grades of paper, and found out, by trial and error, which worked best for me.

Besides teaching me techniques about how to improve my craft, my art instructor arranged for me to show my paintings, first, in a group art show at the CN Tower, and then at several other venues. He also very kindly found someone at U of T who designed a special easel which made painting a great deal easier for me, because it allowed me to be able to turn the picture around and thereby reach all of the areas of the canvas. 
Over the years, I have absorbed teachings and knowledge from many different people and many different books. However, a lot of my learning came from within myself. Because of my wild, uneven movements, painting always presented a particular challenge for me. Throughout the years, figuring out the puzzle of how to do my art became like an obsession with me. I knew I couldn’t exactly paint like other artists, and yet, I also realized that if I persisted in developing my own technique I could produce truly original and unique bodies of work. 
Up until this point, I had used a brush to do my art. However, by the time I was eighteen, because I began experiencing severe pain in my hand and arm from gripping the paintbrush so tightly, I decided to throw down my paintbrush one day and simply use my index finger to paint instead. From then on, because I was far more comfortable than I had ever been, my art started to gradually evolve. I learned that it had a certain power to it and that I could use it as a voice, to reveal the passions and frustrations I felt deep within me. 
There are times when I paint just for the joy of it, there are times when I paint because I have to pay the bills, and then there are those times when I paint because I need to put a message out to the world. 

As many of you may understand, Vincent Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo were particularly influential and inspirational to me. Both of these famous and brilliant artists provided a window into which it was possible to glimpse snippets of their personal lives. Look deeper still, you can see the workings of their minds, their feelings, their very psyches. If you look at Van Gogh's “The Bedroom at Arles” and “Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear”, his loneliness and mental health troubles become apparent at once. “Henry Ford Hospital” and “Self Portrait with Cropped Hair” are two of Frida Kahlo's masterpieces, and they're both full of raw emotion: loss, anger, and resignation.

I feel that it is very brave for artists to expose such intimate details of their lives within their art. This is something I greatly admire and strive to emulate with my own work.

Recently, I myself, have put my own personal experiences into my art. Eighteen months ago, my husband Rob passed away suddenly, and to deal with my grief, I painted what I felt. Some artist friends of mine told me that they were unable to produce any work after a traumatic event happened to them. I, on the other hand, felt an overwhelming need to paint my terrible pain and sorrow. Some people say, “Oh, this must be very therapeutic for you!” and, certainly, it is. 
However, it also goes back to the very core of my philosophy regarding my life and my art: It is important for me to expose my feeling, experiences, and ideals to the public. Certainly, other artists must feel this way, but, for me, because of my disability, I feel this far more passionately. I need people to see the person I am, the type of life I lead, and the hardships I go through on a daily basis. People like me, our lives are not represented as equally as other members of society.

In most of my self portraits, I am completely naked. To some, this might seem shocking, but it is my intent to: 1) reveal the reality of my life: (It is the norm rather than the exception to have people see me naked on a daily basis). 2) demonstrate to women in our society (either able-bodied or with disabilities) that they should not feel shame or regret when they think about their bodies, but should instead rejoice in their differences. And, 3) to make people understand that just because people have disabilities doesn’t mean that we don’t have the same feelings of sexuality as anyone else.

Having faced terrible prejudice and injustice throughout my life, I have grown sensitive to the plight of other marginalized people. Through my art, I attempt to reveal the continuous battle that people face against societal boundaries just to be able to be themselves and to be able to live the way they want.

Thank you.

It would be my great pleasure now to demonstrate to you how I paint.

And that's what I did.  I painted a picture in a white dress, and it, too, became like a canvas, a beautiful painting.

The next speech was for Trampoline Hall.  The subject was on Victorian poet Elizabeth Barret Browning.

My name is Anne Abbott, and I'm here to talk about Victorian poet Elizabeth Barret Browning.

It truly amazed me, as I mentally prepared to write about this famous poet, that no one I mentioned her name to knew who she was. I was met with a lot of quizzical looks accompanied by: “Who?” You know,” I'd say, “the woman who wrote 'How do I love thee, Let me count the ways...'” “Oh her,” they'd say, “Yeah, Elizabeth Barret Brown!” “I-N-G,” I corrected. “ Elizabeth Barret Brown-ing.”

Admittedly, I was kind of a bit smug about my knowledge of who Elizabeth Barret Browning was. I mean, I wasn't an expert or anything, but I had some basic facts on her and her life. She was a famous poet with a physical disability and an overbearing, over-protective father. As a young woman, she met another poet of notable fame. His name was Robert Browning. Even though they both knew that Elizabeth's father strongly disapproved of their relationship, they couldn't help but fall madly in love. Because her father did object so completely and utterly to their devotion, Elizabeth and Robert eloped one day, and, basically, lived “happily ever after”. Elizabeth was so happy and in love during the first few years of marriage that she wrote a book about her love for her new husband, entitled “Sonnets of the Portuguese”, in which “How Do I Love Thee” appears.

These were the things that were told to me by my teachers and family. Seeing the play “The Barrets of Wimpole St.” confirmed what I'd already learned. The play was about Elizabeth and her eleven brothers and sisters and their over-protective father who didn't want any of them to get married, especially not Elizabeth.

This play affected me a great deal. Here I was, a teenager with a disability, and it was becoming more and more apparent that our society frowns on people with disabilities and able-bodied people having romantic/intimate relationships with each other. Even my own mother suggested that I narrow my scope because, in her opinion, able-bodied men wouldn't want to “take care” of a woman with a disability! This seemed extremely unfair to me! Except for a few physical limitations, there were many things I could offer a potential mate. There's nothing wrong with people with disabilities dating other people with disabilities, but that choice should be left up to us, not to the pressures of society. And so, whenever I felt depressed over the unfairness of it all, in my mind I would hold up the story of Elizabeth and Robert as a symbol of hope..

Really good friends of mine who were able-bodied would set my other disabled friends up on dates who didn't have as involved disabilities as me and that really hurt. I didn't say anything because I knew this was just the way people thought.

In my twenties, I began to feel frustrated. I was a virgin. And I didn't want to be a virgin forever. Nobody seemed to understand what I was feeling, which made it even more frustrating. I mean, sex isn't just two bodies going at it, its two people connecting on many levels, and I wanted to be part of that.

My sister-in-law took me to see male strippers and that was fun but none of them wanted to have sex with me. At 29, 1987, I got on the computer and started chatting with people. I had a lot of guys come onto me and that was good! I didn't tell anyone I had a disability for fear of being rejected. But this one guy named Rob was very persistent and kept wanting to meet me so I had to tell him I had Cerebral Palsy. To my delight and surprise, it didn't matter to him because he had gotten to know the person I was. We met and fell in love and eventually got married. We were together for 22 wonderful years. We tried to have a baby and a lot of people, including my parents, were against the idea. Unfortunately I had a miscarriage.

Well, anyway, back to Elizabeth and the romance between her and Robert. From the dim recesses of my mind, I remember hearing that someone had discovered that Elizabeth's condition had been Spina Bifida, a congenital malformation in the vertebral column. I've known many people with this condition and have seen how it can affect different people in different ways, and it sounded quite plausible that Elizabeth might have had it as well, perhaps as a milder form.

I then came across this quote, and others with a similar theme that brought new information to light for me: “Although frail, she apparently had no health problems until 1821, when Dr. Coker prescribed opium for a nervous disorder.” This “nervous disorder” wasn't yet recognized by the medical science of the time, so we don't know its name. But it's quite apparent that she was in a great deal of pain. That's why she was prescribed a lot of morphine. Many years after being with Robert, bearing a son, (after having several miscarriages) and writing volumes of published poetry, one of her peers accused her of losing her edge because of her addiction, to which Elizabeth replied scathingly, “Viva opium! And may you and I live by its means!”

At the end of her life, Elizabeth was diagnosed with having an abscess on one of her lungs and her doctor increased her dose of morphine. On June 29th, 1861, Elizabeth died in Robert's arms, probably from paralysis of the breathing caused by the excessive morphine.

So, I guess I got a few things wrong about Elizabeth Barret Browning. Oh well... But I did learn some pretty interesting and cool things about her as well.

For one thing, she opposed slavery and published two poems that highlighted the barbarity of the slave trade and her support for the abolitionist cause. This is very significant because both sides of her family made their fortunes in the slave trade. Elizabeth also sought to improve other areas of social injustice: the oppression of the Italians by the Austrians, the labor of children in the mines and the mills of England, and the restrictions placed upon women

Elizabeth's book, simply named “Poems” made her one of the most popular writers in the at the time and, indeed, inspired Robert Browning to write to her, telling her how much he loved her poems. Interestingly enough, Elizabeth had produced a large amount of work and had been writing long before her future husband, Robert Browning, had set pen to paper.

I'm still not 100% sure what condition Elizabeth had, and really, does it matter? She was more than just a frail, ill woman who was rescued from her tyrannical father by this, famous poet who (literally!) swept her off her feet. She was a human being, like the rest of us, with strengths and weaknesses, highs and lows.

Honestly, I think I like and respect this Elizabeth Barret Browning more than the one dimensional character that people conjured up for me when I was a teenager. I can understand and empathize with Elizabeth. Our lives seem weirdly parallel. We both have conditions that limit our mobility and give us pain, our parents were over protective and couldn't see marriages in our futures, and even more weirdly, men named Robert fell madly in love with us. Sadly too, we both had miscarriages. Even though we both faced hardships, we both strive to make positive change in the world.

Doctors gave Elizabeth opiates when she was young and doctors gave me Valium when I was young. We both became addicted to our drugs but I was lucky enough to realize it and wean myself off. I always try hard to never ride that merry-go-round again but its hard when I get in so much pain. Pot, Percocet, Codeine: I do them all, but I try my best to juggle them and not get too dependent. Yes, I do this for my health, but just as in Elizabeth's time, there's this taboo of being addicted to drugs. You're viewed as bad and weak if you succumb to the evils of drugs.

I had a friend named Aaron who went into rehab for alcohol addiction and it was really warped how some of the other patients treated him. They implied that his situation was worse than theirs because he had a disability. Its wrong and humiliating to tell someone their life is worse than anybody else's. They also implied that it was good that he had assistants to help with his daily life because, they said, Aaron could simply tell his people to stop giving him drinks. This suggestion is shocking to me because this action would ultimately take away Aaron's freedom of choice! And, I can't see that anybody else within that group would be willing to have such restrictions put upon them!

It is my belief our society would be a whole lot better if people were less judgmental and open to idea that everybody has something to contribute to the world, even love.

Thank you.

Ottawa was where I gave my next speech  Lenny, Aleisha, and I rode on Via Rail, First Class, and enjoyed all of the perks: free food and as much booze as you want.  If this sounds like gluttony as its worst, then let me just say that I feel justified in taking full advantage of Via's generosity, because they have only one wheelchair seating area on the whole train, and the bathroom is not accessible.

The actual conference I  was speaking at was on police brutality. It was, to say the very least, eye-opening and disturbing. On the first day, there was a panel of four people who all talked about how cops had killed members of their families, and had got away with it by covering it up.

Here's my speech:

On July 21, 2010, my friend and employee Lenny used a megaphone to read the speech I had written out of the office window of the Liberal Party Headquarters. Our peers down below, from both OCAP and DAMN 2025, cheered as we denounced the McGuinty government for cutting the Special Diet and the hypocrisy of the government's recent ridiculous spending spree. Nine other people were with us in that tiny office space, and one person hung a banner out the window. Nothing else was either touched or moved.

The action should have only taken 15 minutes, maybe 20 at the most, and then we were supposed to just leave. Unfortunately, as Lenny neared the end of my speech, a bunch of cops burst into the room and dragged Lenny into the hall. Soon, all 11 people, including myself, were unceremoniously corralled into the outer room.

Most people were cuffed and reprimanded by police, although they didn't inform people until much later with what they were being charged. They did try to tell us that people from the Liberal Headquarters had told us to leave, but I sure never heard them. In fact, they had been very helpful to get us inside.

I was told to go sit by a wall. Two people from my group were in front of me, and everyone else was behind me. As if I were invisible or inconsequential, the cops ignored me, and questioned and yelled at everyone else in the room. Eventually, one cop came over asked me if he could look in the bag on the back of my chair for identification, and I shook my head and pointed to my money pouch around my waist. Fortunately, he understood, but I was anxious to get Lenny back with me so that I could communicate more freely and precisely. My two friends in front of me helped me convey this to the cop. I could hear Lenny behind me telling some other cops that it was against Human Rights to keep my communication assistant away from me. I also told them that I needed Lenny with me for other kinds of assistance that day, because I had no one else scheduled to come to my apartment that evening. At that point, the cop actually said to me, "No problem, we'll call an ambulance for you and send you to the hospital." I almost exploded in fury and indignation! I rapidly spelled out on my communication board: "No no no no no! I'm fine! I'm not sick!" I wished I could have conveyed to him exactly how triggering the mere mention of a trip to the hospital was for me! Hospitals are not safe places for people with disabilities. Like prison, you're treated as if you have no rights and no brains with which to think.

Forty-five minutes had passed by this time. I could hear one cop yelling at Lenny and saying it was disgusting how I had been coerced into participating in the action. Lenny defended himself by saying that he had only been doing what I asked him to do, but the cop wouldn't listen. Finally, Lenny was by my side, and I spoke up and said that I had written that speech and asked Lenny to read it. I added proudly, "I am not a pawn!" Why was it so beyond belief for the cops that I might have self-determination and want to stand up for my rights, especially since I would, in all probability, be losing a huge chunk of my monthly income?

It was then that I was charged with trespassing, as was Lenny. We were the only two who didn't also get charged with mischief and have to do a night in jail. I guess because it was too much work for them to find us an accessible paddy wagon and cell. Oddly, sometimes our ableist society sometimes to work in our favour.

As I say, my speech was about the right to keep the much needed Special Diet money that was about to be cut from ODSP and OW recipients. During the G20, I marched with my peers in solidarity for this right and many more, so that we can live life with dignity and freedom.

The cops took no notice of the honour of our stance. No, instead they saw it as a chance to display their grotesque brute strength over the people they're supposed to “serve and protect”.

I realize that police violence is the norm, unfortunately; rather than the exception, especially when it comes to the poor, the marginalized, and the disabled. It's just that, during the G20, this fact became startlingly, unnervingly, obvious. With millions of dollars in government funding and support, cops felt like they could do anything with the power they'd been given. They've always had power over the public, and have, too often, abused that privilege, but, during this time this fact seemed to be magnified 100 times.

With my own eyes, I saw one cop pull a deaf man from the crowd for no apparent reason and detain him, keeping him from his ASL interpreter for hours. Everyone has heard the horrific stories of the G20, where police terrorized the public in their quest to find the “bad activists”, but also targeting the most vulnerable people. Tearing off a prosthetic leg from a prone man and then dragging him across concrete – disgusting! But the brutality continued even after the G20 had ended. In BC, a young woman with CP simply brushed by 2 cops as she walked down the street. They tackled her to the ground, thus breaking her wrist.

Cops are trained to harass and perpetrate violence against people who look or act different from the “norm”. Certainly, poor, marginalized people, and people with disabilities fit this description.

On a larger scale, our immigration system is an excellent example of this type of negative profiling. Poor and disabled people from other countries are seen as a drain on resources, with no kind of discernible worth at all. It is because of this shameful attitude that it is so easy for our government to refuse these people entry into the country, or send them back to horrific conditions, and sometimes even death. This practice must be stopped! No one is valueless, no one is illegal, and everyone deserves a shot at a better life!

To end, I will tell you that Lenny and I are still waiting for the trespassing case against us to finally go to court; it keeps getting pushed back. Now they say it will take place in the summer. I am sure this delaying tactic is designed to wear us down by postponing it over and over again, but it only makes me more resolute to fight and to show how rampant ableism is within the police and judicial system.

It's so utterly disgusting to me how cops view people with disabilities. We are either seen as being extremely guileless and helpless, or as being an easy target for harassment and persecution.. Unless we put a stop to this, the police will always target poor and disabled people. We must work together to stop police violence! We must work together to stop the further funneling of funds to the police force. There are a billion better ways to use that money!

Thank you.

My last speech was at the "Raise the Rates" demonstration on April 1st. We read some of our speeches outside of the Sheraton Hotel, where Dwight Duncan and his cronies were inside having a big expensive banquet to celebrate all the money they were saving by cutting poor people off the special diet.  We then marched up University to Bay Street and stood in front of the Department of Social Services, where we read more speeches.
Here's my speech from that day:

The provincial budget, which was delivered by Dwight Duncan on March 29, 2011, did absolutely nothing for poor people in Ontario who rely upon the already ridiculously meager amounts from ODSP and OW.
Food prices are skyrocketing, and energy and transportation costs keep rising. The budget’s 1% increase to OW and ODSP is both insulting and demeaning! We need more to live, thrive, and feed our families on than a mere one percent! What a slap in the face!
But there is another injustice I want to talk about today, and that is the cutting of the Special Diet money. Back in December, 2010, just before Christmas, the government magnanimously announced that it would “save” the Special Diet. Yeah, right! What they meant was they'd cut the much needed program and have everybody on ODSP and OW re-apply. The cunning bastards knew what they were doing! They knew that this would cause major difficulties for people, which would, inevitably, slow down the system while weeding out some of the applicants – applicants who still need and deserve that money in order to survive! The list of qualifications was also shortened, another measure to ensure that only a very few could receive the Special Diet again. Not only do they want us to wade through miles of red tape, the government wants to take our right to privacy away by saying that ODSP and OW can look into our medical records if they want.
Dwight Duncan and our government as a whole, do not respect the poor people of this country. They treat us as if we are scum that they scrape off from the bottom of their shoes. But we are people, just like anyone else in this country, and, as such, we deserve to have the same rights. The right to have enough money so that we don't have to be forced to choose between paying rent and eating. The right to have enough money to buy nutritious food so that we can remain healthy and thrive. Most important, we deserve the right to receive enough respect from our government to be assured that the money, which is vital to our very existence, will never be suddenly cut.
Thank you.

Have I finally finished all of my speaking engagements? For now yes, but in May I'll be giving a talk to medical students.  As Rob used to say, "For someone who's non-verbal, you sure do talk a lot!"

1 comment:

Jen Wilson said...

Amazing speeches Anne!!