Jim Ferris

Ferris is a recognised poet and an acclaimed teacher of disability studies. He had corrective treatment when younger as one of his legs began to grow faster than the other. His famous work is Poet of Cripples, which deals with his experience and suffering in the hands of the medical specialists who were intent on fixing or ‘normalising’ him.

Let me be a poet of cripples,
of hollow men and boys groping
to be whole, of girls limping toward
womanhood and women reaching back,
all slipping and falling toward the cavern
we carry within, our hidden void,
a place for each to become full, whole,
room of our own, space to grow in ways
unimaginable to the straight
and the narrow, the small and similar,
the poor, normal ones who do not know
their poverty. Look with care, look deep.
Know that you are a cripple too.
I sing for cripples; I sing for you.

His reference here to hollow men I read as the ‘hollow men’ of Eliot, who some critics have interpreted as Eliot’s view of the soldiers who returned from the trenches of the Western Front: emptied, stuffed, shell-shocked, mutilated. Somehow the poem is a celebration of difference, of disability; it is a cry of freedom. Freedom is a recurring theme in disabled artists’ work. Freedom of choice, freedom of expression; I guess in a world which has been planned and constructed with the idea of able-bodiedness, freedom is a dream of those for whom daily life is equivalent to an obstacle course. Unfortunately, many of the links to articles and websites dealing with Ferris are dead links.

I finally managed to find an article by Ferris, ‘Uncovery to Recovery: Reclaiming One Man’s Body on a Nude Photo Shoot’, where he attempts to recover his manhood through a nude photo session. Although I’m not so much interested in the content of the article, which seems to be more of a personal exploration of his own notions of himself as physical and sexual being, there are a couple of interesting points that Ferris brings up. The first is the linguistic problem of how to refer to disabled people in a way which is inclusive but not offensive:

The instabilities of ablebodiedness/disabledness have led some to employ the neologism “other-abled.”This remediates the implication of “less-than” status with the suggestion of alienation, which may be unavoidable given that we generally describe physical impairment in terms of some putative, more or less “perfect” norm that few meet. Impairment suggests a damaged or worsened condition, again reifying that putative norm—as does “physically limited.” “Physically challenged” suggests that life challenges the bodies of some, while not challenging the bodies of others, a position that is ultimately insupportable. “Physically different” is another phrase sometimes used; while not as awkward as “other-abled,” it too posits some ideal range, or at least some norm, from which we differ. It doesn’t suggest that differing is bad—as in dis-ability—but as anyone who has attended junior high school in this culture knows, being different is dangerous.”

The problem here lies in the fact that whether a body is more or less ‘able’ depends on cultural factors rather than the body itself. Ferris does not deny the need to label what he calls the largest minority group in the US, but on the contrary recognises this labelling as prerequisite to the members of that group being able to ‘recover themselves’ rather than being ‘passively rehabilitated’ from the margins of society. As such, Ferris settles for the term ‘people with disabilities’:

I made this decision not because the phrase avoids the problems hinted at above, but because it is not uncommonly accepted, and is far preferable, at least to me as a man sometimes so labeled, than some other commonly deployed terms, such as “handicapped” or “crippled,” which still can cut like the surgeon’s scalpel.”

As such, Ferris already makes clear that his language is not polemical on the same level as activists like Wade and the Wry Crips theatre group (who appropriate derogatory terms such as ‘cripple’ or ‘freak’ and employ them in their discourse).

One of the most important points Ferris makes is that he admits to spending a long time in denial of his disability, struggling against the label in a bid to be accepted as a ‘normal’ person. As such, the nude photo shoot he describes was a way of ‘coming out’ to himself, accepting his disability and the fact that his problems are not unique. I think that the issue here is that people with disabilities try so hard to be accepted by those without disabilities that they begin to adopt a role of ‘normalcy’ (as far as possible) so that the disability does not become the sole focus of the relationship: “A person with a disability often must struggle to be seen and treated as a full person, and not just as a disability or an object of pity. The choice to allow and even direct light on that part of me cuts against deeply ingrained strategies for being in the world that I have employed for many years.” Being naked, with nothing to hide behind, exposed Ferris’s disability to the scrutiny that he managed to avoid for so many years, although he sees it as a liberating experience, albeit a painful one: “To place images of my body willingly and publicly into an aesthetic frame is a powerful contradiction to years of shame and hiding.” He feels empowered, finally able to take control of the looking process after years of having people stare uninvited. Although I can understand and appreciate Ferris’s point, I’m not sure that this is a process that many are willing to undergo. The fact that he did it is inspiration enough, and goes some way to explaining to me the reason why so much activist disability photography focuses on the nude body and on sexuality – this is the recovery process that Ferris speaks of.

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