Let Our Bodies Flourish: Thoughts on Translation and the Amazing Broken Telephone Kaleidoscope

Commissioned and originally published by The Blackwood Art Gallery at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

As I write this, disability justice advocates are rallying in opposition to Bill C-7, which will amend sections of the criminal code that pertain to MAiD: medical assistance in dying. In this short reflection, I’ll discuss medical assistance in dying in relation to disability, as a way to consider forms of relating and access that are vital to ensuring mutual flourishing.

Critics of Bill C-7 say it puts disabled people at risk because of systemic and structural failures to support their lives. The lives of disabled people are routinely portrayed as difficult, depressing, or painful. A subtext, that sometimes becomes overt text, is that the hardships of some disabled lives are so extreme that the people living these lives ought to prefer death. However, as the disability scholar and activist Kelly Fritsch taught me, disability is not something that is in a person. It is a relationship between a person and a world; we are rendered disabled in different ways, and to different degrees, by the worlds we inhabit. Fritsch frames this in terms of “debility” and “capacity,” writing that these “are not absolute categories pertaining to individual bodies.” She continues that these concepts “draw attention to what bodies do.”

Bodies can and cannot do things for a wide variety of reasons, but when we render spaces inaccessible, we close off potential doings. This should be understood non-normatively. There are lots of necessary and legitimate reasons to close off certain spaces for certain people; parents’ bedrooms have doors for a reason. However, when some people are systematically excluded because of their bodily differences, inaccessibility becomes a mode of oppression.

The oppression of disabled people obviously harms those excluded. But the harms compound because, to paraphrase Deleuze’s favourite line from Spinoza, no one knows what a disabled body can do. Similar phrasing is taken up by Amanda Cachia, in her exhibition “What Can a Body Do?” [pdf] Cachia explains that Deleuze is drawing attention to the fact that “we haven’t even begun to understand the potential of our own bodies,” and that “most of us know even less about the disabled body.” When we systematically exclude certain bodies from certain spaces, whether due to inaccessible infrastructure or a lack of basic material supports, we don’t just diminish the possibilities for those individuals, we diminish the possibilities for our communities.

We can think of access as creating conditions for a flourishing of bodies doing things.

As we endeavour to expand access, Fritsch, with Aimi Hamraie, reminds us that access is always “collective, messy, experimental, frictional, and generative.” These qualities of creating access were beautifully, and compellingly performed in Kat Germain’s Visual Translation and the Amazing Broken Telephone Kaleidoscope.

The piece begins with a black screen while Germain, a visual translator for Blind audiences, describes a video of Deaf artist Jody Cripps performing a poem through what I understand to be a combination of American Sign Language and other gestures. In her introduction, Germain noted that the standard practice of visual translation is to be “as neutral as possible.” This performs the pretence that translation can be pure intermediation, leaving the translated object unchanged. Germain’s translation exceeds the description. Her voice emotes. Because at this point in the project, the viewer cannot see Cripps, I assumed the emotion in Germain’s voice conveyed attributes of the performance that would be lost in an affectless delivery. This is a key to Germain’s intention, which is to question whether her translation of a visual artwork for a Blind audience is itself a work of art.

Germain notes that she has not yet answered the question and continues to think about it. I will not be arrogant enough to offer my own answer—rather, I am taken by what I’m thinking of as the generative excess that exists in the sequence of translations performed in Germain’s project. In Germain’s introduction to the piece, she notes that the project’s title alludes to the “very visual world of the Deaf communities, and the very audio world of the Blind communities.” This attuned me, as a seeing and hearing person, to the existence of visual and aural excesses that are meaningful to Deaf and Blind people, but which may escape my understanding. By feeding Cripps’ performance through visual description for a Blind audience, there will necessarily be something lost. But there will also be something gained, as alluded to by the title’s invocation of the classic children’s game of “broken telephone.” But that excess is also highly generative. The Blind audiences that engage with Cripps’ work through Germain’s visual description will take something else from the work. Who knows what else that ‘something more’ might generate?

All of this brings me back to my own intellectual obsession: the translation of quality into quantity. Within our capitalist societies, the predominant language that is both mechanism and outcome of this translation is price. Price is relevant to the issue I raised to open this piece: providing adequate support to capacitate rather than debilitate people with disabilities. Cost will be raised as the obstacle. Politicians and bureaucrats will adopt hang-dog expressions, and speak in condescending tones, about how their heart breaks, but we just cannot afford to provide for the needs of certain people. They displace responsibility onto the cold, hard facts of economics. However, Germain’s project, and the attention that it draws to the losses and gains that occur through translation can equip us to question this invocation of prices as given.

Germain’s piece raises the obvious question of “who is translating?” By piercing the pretence of neutrality, and bringing herself into the process, we have a right to ask who she is, and what equips her to offer this translation? Although the inputs to price as a language of translation are different than the inputs to the translations in Germain’s project, similar questions should be raised when we are told that adequate care for all people would just cost too much. What is being priced? Who is doing the pricing? How are they doing the pricing? With what information and equipment are these prices being constructed?

Most disabilities that put people at risk of MAiD due to a lack of public support require some basic material resources and forms of caring labour. Canada has access to an abundance of material resources; more than enough to provide the basics of housing, clothing, food. Canada also has plenty of labour. In other words, Canada can afford to provide everyone with everything they need. That does not mean everyone is provided with the same things. Rather, it means working together to create universal access.

As Fritsch and Hamraie state, “Accessible futures require our interdependence.” The pandemic has crystallized and shone a light on perhaps the dominant fact of human societies: we need each other. That need is absolute. No one needs others more or less than someone else. Rather, we need each other differently. It is our systematic failure to provide for certain needs that turns some differences into debilitating conditions.

To account for our differences, we must perform and re-perform translations that feed into each other, with all their generative excesses and deficits. For all of our sakes, we need to centre universal access as a guiding principle. Then, if accident, disease, aging, or some other debilitating process makes our lives unbearable, we can freely choose death. This is how all of us can unleash our capacities and have the flourishing of bodies doing things that we deserve.