Conference experiences – disability, comics and literature

I spent this past weekend back in Berlin. I had been meaning to visit some friends, but I also wanted to attend a conference called ‘PathoGraphics – Stories of Illness/ Disability in Literature and Comics.’ It was a mixture of being fascinating and way over my head. Needless to say, I really enjoyed it. I originally went because I had done some research on storytelling and refugees with disabilities. I wanted to see how others told stories of disability and illness through writing and comics. One presenter put it so clearly, “Disability is a category of experience equal to race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and to not talk about it is to disregard a major factor that makes us who we are,” – Dr. Elizabeth Grubgeld.

One interesting point that many of the pieces discussed was this concept of living with disability, rather than overcoming or conquering it. For example, many comics expressed daily life of living with a physical or mental disability.  “The Spiral Cage” by Al Davison was discussed as a very powerful graphic novel of his own autobiography. He was born with spina bilfda and he draws his life through unique images that explain how he did many things that doctors said he wouldn’t be able to do (see below).

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One presenter also talked about a memoir written by an immigrant woman with a mental health illness. The piece addressees the concept of double discrimination. The woman is not only an immigrant, but also needs support for her illness. She reflects on how hard it is to integrate into a new country and on top of that, have additional challenges. While writing my thesis on refugees with disabilities in Berlin, I also learned that items such as accessing proper health care for extreme disabilities can be nearly impossible as an immigrant. In the future I’d like to find a way to share more of my interviewee’s stories to construct an better understanding of the lives of refugees with disabilities.

I absolutely loved the conference’s purpose, which was to analyze an under discussed topic. I can’t remember who, but a presenter said, “People tend to think about disability in one of two ways: it’s tragic or it’s so inspiring – and neither perspective is useful.” By bringing light to the topic via storytelling and comics, it utilizes one method to help dispel reductive thinking. I believe this concept of storytelling allows those who experience illness and disability an opportunity to share their experiences through all forms of creativity.

As I mentioned, many of the presenters had years of experience in studying these type of works and I was a newbie, but hopefully I could provide a few thoughts to spark thinking on another side of disability topics.

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