A blog about universal and accessible design

Sunday, February 1, 2009

living like a refugee

Image: Vermont's Shelburne Museum's colonial jail, a small stone building with one small window and wooden stocks in front for public display of criminals. via the Shelburne Museum

I have seen a few blog posts referring to this horrid, embarrassing "Refugee Run" at the Davos summit where one can pretend to be a refugee for a day-- the flyer promises an "attack by rebels, a 'mine field', border corruption, language incapacity, black marketeering and refugee camp survival. Ooh, all in one day!! Extensive comments at Wheelchair Dancer, NYU's Aid Watch.

Why this is offensive is pretty obvious from a glance, right? You can’t simulate the feeling of being in danger, or being persecuted, threatened, humiliated, being lost and homeless, etc. But as a historian and educator schooled in material culture studies, I want to think about this in another way. This exercise reminds me of lots of “living history” and other similar spaces and performances where the bodily and environmental experience of another’s condition aims to bring greater awareness: I think of putting my legs through the stocks at the Shelburne Museum (image above) when I was a kid; standing in the dark entryways and crowded apartments at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum; walking along the cliffs at battlegrounds in Normandy, one of the only times I have felt even a shadow of what it must be like to be in a war; the elevator at the National Holocaust Museum, where the crowd and the silent moving box immediately make you think of a gas chamber or a terrifying train ride.

I have never done it, but I hear of a lot of exercises where people try out wheelchairs for the day—museum professionals, campus planners, etc—so they can get a sense of the physical barriers that people with disabilities face. Since I started studying disability issues in design, I have heard people talk or read people writing about these experiments and how it changed their awareness of their environment. I have steered clear of them, however, because it makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Who am I to act out someone else’s experience? Also, from the standpoint of really understanding what it is like to use a wheelchair, it doesn’t work—because people who use them adjust and customize them and get used to certain movements and tricks. It seems like cooking in Julia Child’s kitchen for one time only (without her present) and thinking that would teach you how to cook like her.

But then—here’s the problem. My brain tells me that we can never really feel what it is like to be in the shoes (or chairs) of others, but the truth is that I remember all of those places I mention above more clearly and viscerally than I do any particular room in, say, the Metropolitan Museum, where I have been hundreds of times and given guided tours. I definitely think they have taught me parts of their respective histories that I couldn’t get from just a book or a lecture. I don’t think any of them made me feel LIKE a ---- (colonial prisoner, immigrant, soldier, holocaust victim), but they have helped me understand sensory and experiential details of lives distant from mine. So, in re: wheelchairs, maybe I should give it a shot sometime after all.

The Davos workshop flops because it claims to let people BE refugees for the day. I do think recreating some of the experiences of refugee life might work (though really—I think there are so many possible versions of this thing called “refugee” that it’s hard to imagine this), but it would have to be done so much more sensitively and humbly—and indeed, maybe this one will be run by such wonderful, brilliant people that it will work after all. It may be that a more modest goal should be the starting-point, like just addressing housing or food issues—focusing on the material aspects instead of aiming to recreate the very state of refugee-hood.

While we try to dream up a better workshop, I leave you with some lyrics from the wonderful band Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars’ (great documentary about them here):
You left your country to seek refuge in another man’s land
You will be comforted by strange dialects
You will be fed with unusual diets
You got to sleep in a tarpaulin house which is so hot
You will sleep on a tarpaulin mat which is so cold
Living like a refugee is not easy…