Defying Disability

Swimming pool painting by Nancy Meagher 78 PT

Abled Differently, the latest iteration of the RISDiversity community narratives project, highlights the work and personal stories of 20 members of the RISD community living with physical, psychological, cognitive, learning or chronic health disabilities. The new exhibition and website shed light on how these types of disabilities inform their creative practices and daily lives.

Timm Duffy 70 SC's bronze heads
Since suffering a stroke in 2002, sculptor Timm Duffy 70 SC creates bronzes using only one hand.

First launched in 2011, RISDiversity has been celebrating the extraordinary individuals who make up the RISD community, featuring portraits by photographer Adam Mastoon along with first-person narratives from each person portrayed.

“When we speak openly about disability, we honor each member of our community.”

President Rosanne Somerson

“The project offers faculty, staff, students and alumni an opportunity to use their voices to inspire others about the impact each of us can make in the world,” says Vice President for Human Resources Candace Baer. “Here at RISD we not only appreciate and value differences, we learn from them as well.”

Francisco Moreno 12 PT painting mural
Painter Francisco Moreno 12 PT works with a limited palette, a strategy he developed to cope with a form of color blindness called deuteranomaly

Curated by a team led by Mastoon and Social Equity & Inclusion Fellow Rene Payne 83 GD, Abled Differently takes the form of a digital exhibition as well as a physical one that continues through December in the first-floor exhibition space at Washington Place.

“The project celebrates the fact that so much of art is creating from an embodied and personal perspective,” notes President Rosanne Somerson. “When we speak openly about disability, we honor each member of our community and create an environment where everyone can thrive.”

“I came to RISD to create a conversation... and normalize discussions about the stigmatized topic of mental illness.”

Industrial designer Rebecca Erde MID 19

Recent grad Rebecca Erde MID 19 is among the designers highlighted in the exhibition. “I came to RISD to create a conversation, to highlight and normalize discussions about the stigmatized topic of mental illness,” she says.

Through her research and work, she’s creating commercial products like a Light Therapy Pillow that help people cope with the day-to-day symptoms of a variety of mental illnesses.

Light therapy pillow by Rebecca Erde MID 19
Light Therapy Pillow by industrial designer Rebecca Erde MID 19 comforts people living with mental illness.

Many of the artists and designers whose work is included in Abled Differently have come to view their disabilities as strengths that allow them to see the world from a unique and mindful vantage point and help them empathize with others.

New York area designer Adelaide Mackintosh MArch 18, for example, explains that “dyslexia might make it hard for me to stay focused on reading, but it has given me the ability to be present in my spatial imagination. Because of this I see being abled differently as an asset.”

3d piece by Adelaide Mackintosh MArch 18
Designer Adelaide Mackintosh MArch 18 finds that dyslexia boosts her spatial imagination.

And others note that the act of making sustains them and helps them to cope with their disabilities.

“I make art to affirm that my life is worth living,” says Jennifer Woronow 06 IL, a program analyst at the National Institutes of Health.

Painting by Katherine Cavanaugh 15 IL
Gravity, an oil on canvas painting by Katherine Cavanaugh 15 IL

And chronically ill painter Katherine Cavanaugh 15 IL, who works as a home health aide in Chicago and devotes a lot of energy to political activism, says she’s committed to making small drawings on cardboard or butcher paper, describing each portrait she completes for friends and family asboth a gesture of love... and of defiance of systemic oppression.”

Simone Solondz

October 28, 2019

Related Stories