A Disability In Full

CrawlingBeing an artist is the sole comfortable response of my being to its existence.
–Artist’s statement, Axis Mundi Arts

I’m not protesting. I don’t really have a political agenda. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s so socially deviant — just to spend a day traveling without the aid of a mechanical device.
–Interview, the day before

 The car door opens. A young woman places her feet outside, then drops to the ground. She begins to crawl, alone, along a sidewalk.

A skateboarder rattles past, then people appear. Students. It’s a long sidewalk, a big university. She stops to rest occasionally, rearranging her legs and body into a sitting position and smiling at the passersby. Then she crawls.

It’s not an ablebodied crawl. Gretchen Schaper crawls like the para she is, doing all the work with her arms, feet splayed behind her. More students. They can’t seem to see her. There’s a groundskeeper. He can’t see her. She’s invisible, untouchable. A cyclist glides past. People flow by.

Once I got the idea of going to school like everyone else, wheelchair-free, how could I resist? The piece was an experiment and an opening for discussion — not about Gretchen crawling like a pre-toddler to college but about the unexpected, about speed, height, disability, endurance, strangers, pain and the human condition.

In crawling, I was exhibiting my disability in full.
–Honors thesis

Update

(June 2014)
Gretchen Ryan earned a second art degree in 2005 and has made a life for herself as a respected artist. Her work has shown in galleries in New York, Paris, Singapore, Brussels and Los Angeles. She is currently working on new paintings as well as portraits commissioned by Pamela Anderson of her husband’s daughters and dog, to be given as gifts.

For 10 years, NM highlighted the work of great women wheelchair users such as Ryan,  Nancy Mairs and Harriet McBryde Johnson in an annual Women’s Issue. At a time when men with SCI dominated the landscape, we wanted to connect women with true peers around the topics of body image, domestic abuse, fashion, health, self-esteem and empowerment. (You can find a collection of articles on these topics and more at www.newmobility.com/2011/05/womens-issues.) In 2008, NM editors decided that women’s concerns had been successfully integrated into the publication and that a dedicated Women’s Issue was no longer necessary. Let us know if you agree by emailing jbyzek@unitedspinal.org.

There’s a crowd now. As Gretchen crawls along an arched courtyard, the students act simultaneously as if she’s nonexistent (they glance but pretend they didn’t) and as if she’s contagious (they give her the widest possible berth).

She lowers herself down three steps, sits momentarily in the blown-in trash at the bottom, then resumes her crawl. Nobody speaks to her. Twenty minutes into this journey, nobody has spoken to her directly.

She crawls up a short ramp, through an automatic door, and into the fine arts building. She’s inside at last, but there’s no safety here. She crawls past a drinking fountain and the sound of toilets flushing. Nobody talks to her. She’s there, but she’s not.

That’s the video. This is me: This is agonizing to watch. How can anyone withstand such brutal isolation? It would help if I could hate the people streaming by, but I can’t. I’ve been there before I was disabled. I remember how I once was. I see how I may still be.

Hostile reactions? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Part of it’s who I am–I’m a girl, I’m young, I’ve got a pretty face, so I think other people could be more capable of evoking more hostile reactions. I have a sweet look, you know?
–Interview, the day before

I did feel hostility. I really did. A lot of scoffing. Like four people addressed me directly all day. It was amazing how many people pretended they didn’t see me. And a lot of, “Oh, she just wants attention.”
–Interview, the day after

She crawls into a classroom and hoists herself onto a hard plastic chair. Later, she transfers to an upholstered chair with casters. Wheels! After class, a man pushes her into the john. Then it’s back to the floor and on to another class.

At last someone calls her by name and embraces her. It’s a friend, one who uses a wheelchair. Gretchen transfers onto the wheeler’s lap and they visit the restroom together. Human contact, girl talk with someone who understands. Gretchen’s on the floor now, washing her hands at the sink above her head. She’s sitting in splashed water and wadded-up paper towels. Then she heads out the bathroom door and down the hallway.

I’m curious about people’s reactions. In my chair, I fit in so well because I can move as fast as a walking person. When people sit down, I’m at the same height. But on the ground–I’m interested that it’s acceptable to be at a certain height, but it’s not acceptable to be on the floor.

And I think about how many people in the world don’t have the wheelchairs we do. Technology has made it so much easier for me to be amongst able-bodied society. Sometimes people have to make do.
–Interview, the day before

She crawls across a courtyard to the Student Union and into the cafeteria. There’s a mob, and it acts as if a woman crawling on the floor with obvious difficulty is ordinary, not worthy of note. How can this be ordinary?

The camera crew gets too close, and people respond to the media event instead of the woman on the floor. But that serves its purpose. Whenever Gretchen confers with the crew, it’s a respite from isolation. When she’s busy, she can ignore other people just as they ignore her. Parallel universes.

She crawls through the food line. From the floor, she hands her money to the cashier. Omigod, is she going to eat off the floor? I hope not. I don’t want to watch that.

It takes so much strength to be in such a vulnerable position. It’s such a juxtaposition for me–I’m in really good shape and I’m healthy, but to the outside world I often appear sick and vulnerable. And without my chair, I really will be.
–Interview, the day before

I was addressing misbehavior; wheelchair girls are supposed to stay in their wheelchairs.
–Honors thesis

After lunch–at a table–she crawls outside and sits against a wall. A male student she knows makes conversation, doesn’t seem to notice that she doesn’t have her wheelchair. Then he’s distracted by someone else, and the conversation continues four feet above her and light years beyond her participation. A couple of students want to know what Gretchen’s doing, but they ask the camera crew, not her. One student reports an overheard conversation about her crawling: “Dude, that’s fucked up.”

What was so scary was the physical exposure and what those people would think of my crippled body once it was separated from its camouflaging chair. I began asking, for the first time, why I was filled with so much shame. Why I cared what they thought; why they were upset by my presence.

One impression I wanted to make was that wheelchairs are good things, not the traps they are so commonly seen as but devices of freedom. No one received that message more clearly than myself that day.
–Honors thesis

She’s crawling along the courtyard again and people are still avoiding her. There’s a guy on crutches in the distance. Nobody’s avoiding him. She stops to rest, maybe to compose herself. It’s a relief to everybody around her when she does. When she arranges her legs and sits, she looks so normal for a minute or two. Then it’s back to being someone who crawls.

She stops again, but doesn’t bother to arrange her legs, doesn’t bother to smile. She looks tired and thoroughly stressed, and maybe doesn’t think the passing crowd deserves any kind of a break. She looks like an Andrew Wyeth painting. She looks, just this once, like an alienated and bitter cripple. And who can blame her?

I have a tremendous fear of coming across as what I think people will think of as the angry wheelchair girl. People will see me angry and though I may be justified they’ll say, “See how these people are? Bitter at the world. Angry at their situations.”
–Honors thesis

I had to tune out a lot and not really pay attention to the people around me. Even in my chair I do that a lot. It’s hard to be a spectacle day after day after day.
–Interview, the day after

She crawls back into the arts building. There’s a mob at the door, but nobody opens it for her. Yet she’s back on her own turf and in her last class. In the arts building, performance is understood. Motivation can be discussed, responses reckoned. In the arts building, she comes in from the cold.

———-

Gretchen Anne Schaper

Born: 1975, Boulder, Colo.

Injured: 1992, L1 paraplegia

Residence: Los Angeles area

Interests: Art, acting, modeling, motorcycling, off-road wheelchair racing

Work: Part owner, Axis Mundi Arts

Recent accomplishments: The first wheelchair athlete ever to win a medal competing against nondisabled cyclists in a National Off-Road Bicycle Association event; bachelor of fine arts degree awarded by the University of Colorado in 1999 (“Outstanding Graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences,” Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa); multimedia exhibition at Axis Mundi Arts including paintings, videos and reproductions of her comic strip, “It’s Not What You Wear.”

Future plans: A career as a professional artist, a masters degree, a trek to the Mount Everest base camp.

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