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…


Susan Surface said...
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Susan Surface said...

I agree with you that to some extent, some kind of "empathetic" engagement is helpful. In the case of being a designer, I think it can definitely help us be more aware of what certain physical implications really mean for users. For example, using a wheelchair for a few hours or a day won't give anyone the experience of what it is "really" like to be a wheelchair user. But it might give new meaning to whether a 10' turning radius is truly comfortable, or whether it is a meager, if manageable, dimension for a corner. Of course we should just listen to people's input on the topic whenever possible, and not to assume that there are no disabled people who are designers (though not in any programs I have attended).

The problem I have with things like the Davos Refugee Theme-Park Ride is that it implies that people in positions of power or privilege need to hear from "one of themselves" to confirm that yes, in fact, the situation really is that bad, and aren't willing to trust the voices of people who experience them. Or that they need to "understand" how it feels before committing to supporting certain people and trying to enact social change, as if they possibly could understand.

I'm reminded of things like that person who dressed up as black and wrote about being treated poorly, as if this were necessary to understanding the problems of racism in the USA - as opposed to simply listening to actual black people. There are also those makeover experiments where people are dressed up in fat suits and learn the "shocking" truth that, yes in fact, fat people are treated poorly in our culture. Which is something that plenty of actual fat people have been saying for a while.

stephanie said...

Interesting post that for me is asking the question: how do we write history and what do we think we can produce through writing it?

Obviously no one experience can be exactly reproduced for others. It's not just customization of wheelchairs that would make the experience different. Added to that there is the fact that the experience of being in a wheelchair probably varies greatly among the diverse group of people who use them. Being in a wheelchair (or on crutches) in someplace like Sierra Leone I would assume is entirely different than being in one in Canada. Being disabled in the 15th century was probably totally different than it would be today. (When was the wheelchair actually "invented" anyway?)

Yet if we thought that the only valuable way to gain knowledge about something was to gain the same knowledge that the person who originally experienced it had, we wouldn't write history, no?

Basically I am just re-articulating what you are already saying here. Perhaps no one is actually saying that by cooking in Julia Child's kitchen, they will learn to cook like her. But maybe they will have the opportunity to experience the difference that using a copper pan for an omelet makes. (Or doesn't!) Likewise, people can try using a wheelchair for a day and say that it has totally changed their awareness of their environment without saying that they know exactly what it must be like for everyone who uses a wheelchair on a daily basis.

As you imply at the end of this, being responsible is often simply a matter of qualifying your knowledge claims.

PS did you consider quoting the Tom Petty song?

Bess said...

ha-- definitely no Tom Petty here! That is refugee as metaphor, right?

thanks both of you for your insightful comments. I think, as both of you say, it is probably most important when you set out on an experience like this (especially if you are designing it for pedagogy of some sort) to know your audience and know your goals. I find in a lot of material culture demonstrations/teachings, including my own, if you just have the object and no goal, it flops. It's too easy to have props in teaching and forget what the actual lesson is supposed to be. And in the case of "experiencing" disability, of course no one can really experience anyone else's abilities or disabilities for that matter-- but you can observe the realities of past or present lives with a set goal of understanding or inclusion. More stuff to think about, thanks...