Challenge and conformity

K-pop, carnival, therapy, and critiques of inclusion

Dear Debriefers,

Today we've got K-pop, carnival, and therapy.

Spending a bit more time with recent disability news lets us explore cases where the mere presence of disabled people changes established norms, as well as critiques of inclusion as just superficial mimicry of normalcy.

And, before we start, today is the 11th anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. Last year I wrote about my experience working in and witnessing its wreckage in my prayer to failure.

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Disability Debrief is able to cover international disability news thanks to your support. With thanks to El, Rosemary and Shirin for new contributions.

We hear ourselves differently

South Korean pop-music (K-pop) is one of the largest music markets in the world. Attractive and addictive, the highly-manufactured genre uses multiple languages to gain fans all over the world. Alongside many oral languages, sign-languages have already been used in many songs, including International Sign in Permission to Dance from global superstars BTS.

This month saw Big Ocean, a deaf boy band, make their debut with the song Glow, a remake of a K-pop classic. The three members of the group are hard of hearing and have been learning American, Korean and International Sign Languages as part of the intense training period that K-pop groups go through. Their dance to Glow includes signing, and they already count the boss of the World Health Organisation among their fans.

As they share in interviews name Big Ocean is chosen because “we want to spread hope and positive energy like a big ocean”. Hope has a new form, as they make a genre “combining sign language and dance”. Where other groups' marketing uses dance challenges, Big Ocean offer a Korean Sign Language challenge.

At the same time as stretching what is produced in K-pop, they are working hard to conform to its norms. In their interviews they detail how they learn to dance in time using vibrations from the floor and cues from support staff. Software helps measure pitch when they sing. “Dancing is the easy part”, they say, but “singing is really difficult”:

“You can see how you dance, but singing? It’s entirely up to your hearing and your vocal muscles. There are times when we try to match our pitch but we all hear ourselves differently. Plus, the hearing aids don’t work properly when my own voice is louder than the sound from the outside because the vibrations from my voice affect how it works. So when it’s time for us to sing loudly, it’s really difficult to know when exactly to stop, because we can’t hear the outside music.”

The narrative of challenge and conformity comes from the conception of the group. K-pop groups are trained and formed by agencies. Big Ocean is formed by Parastar Entertainment, a talent agency for disabled people, trying to make the group “as approachable as possible” at the same time as presenting it as breaking stereotypes.

One reason for being approachable is that Big Ocean's messages of hope aren't just for their fans. Parastar Entertainment says that they took this initiative to form a K-pop group because they have a “need for something big and sustainable for the company’s long-term survival.”

Body, dance and beauty

Meanwhile, in Brazil, an academic paper explores the relation between Afro-Brazilian dance and disability (in Portuguese). They explore how race and disability challenge the norms of dance.

Marilza Oliveira da Silva and Carlos Eduardo Oliveira do Carmo are both scholar-artists in Bahia, Salvador, and their paper reflects on a workshop they facilitated as well as the experiences of two Rainhas, “Queens”, of dance.

One of the Rainhas they write about, Josy Brasil, is a black woman and wheelchair user, and led a samba school in Salvador's carnival in 2019. For the authors even her entry in the competition to lead the school is important:

“The presence of a wheelchair dancer in a competition like this already in itself radically deconstructs the entire formulation of body, dance and beauty in the standards that have become hegemonic in these spaces as well. Disability, in any context, denounces the fragility and fiction of normativity.” (Translation)

The authors reflect further on a workshop they participated in, bringing together Afro Brazilian dance and disability. The tensions between challenging and conforming to the norms of an artistic tradition are brought out in the movement of bodies:

“In practice, a person in a wheelchair uses their arms to perform dance movements at the same time they need to be used for movement, so they cannot follow the determined rhythm for carrying out a suggested movement. [The workshop explored adaptations ...] For example, while the person who dances in a wheelchair uses a musical tempo to perform movements and another tempo to move through space, the person who dances standing can move in the same timing as the arm movements.” (Translation)

Inclusion of convenience

The cases of inclusion in dance and music are presented as barrier breaking. But an opinion piece by Vijay K Tiwari in India challenges the “limited entry points” of inclusion. It's a take on the important question of how much inclusion is shallow and superficial.

Tiwari acknowledges the development of disability rights, but sees that it is based on “two impulses”, of “barrier removal and social recognition”. Those sound great to me, but he points out that they are a route to “mimic” normalcy, and only available to some. He sees how these efforts are in the context of market forces and state initiatives and “often get misappropriated by the nationalist narrative of inclusion and accommodation.”

Tiwari pushes back against the “uncritical celebration” of inclusion and the disability movement's “apolitical middle-class articulation of disability rights”. He argues that disability discourse has a “limited imagination of accommodation and benign inclusion”, and that only a minority of disabled people can benefit from it:

“While we celebrate limited entry points given to a segment of the disabled population, like accessibility in cinema halls, it will do us good to remember that such accommodations are only available to the non-controversial, mainstream, ‘good’ disabled citizens of this democracy, whereas the same is indubitably denied, not only to those who are less privileged in the socio-economic structures, but also to those who are political dissenters or critical voices of our society.”

The student we think they should be

An argument for how inclusion needs to push back against existing moulds comes from Christina Cipriano's article on education for neurodivergent learners in the United States. She brings together her own expertise as an academic in education as well as the advocacy she's had to do for her own daughter in the school system. A system that needs to change:

“Neurodivergent students do not need to learn how to learn differently to have the chance to succeed in our nation’s public schools — our nation’s public schools need to learn how to educate differently so all students have the opportunity to succeed.”

And this is the shift that's needed:

“Setting neurodivergent students up to succeed begins by accepting them as they are, and not comparing them to the student we may think they should be. The picture of what ‘good learning’ looks like in classrooms has a long legacy of upholding ableist, neuronormative patterns of behavior. Sitting in a chair, still, with both feet down on the floor, looking forward, and not fidgeting, does not equate to how much a student is learning. Neither does finishing all the problems in a designated time frame or being able to fit your thinking into a little box at the bottom of a worksheet or exam.”

“I don't need to hide behind my profession.”

Going back to India, Debrief contributor Anna Maria has written on Queerbeat to explore practices of access intimacy in therapy. It's an article that gives another example of how the presence of disabled people can shift the norms of a profession. It features Anindita, a therapist bringing her own identities into her practice:

“I don't need to hide behind my profession. I can own my disabled and queer identities while being a psychotherapist.”

As a result of owning her own identities and access needs, Anindita's relation with her clients changes. Clients can express their own access needs and the approach to scheduling, communication and accommodating each other is developed. It's a result of shifting the boundaries on which parts of their own lives that therapists are expected to speak about.

Anindita sums up the intention of her new way of practicing therapy:

“As a disabled person you already feel a lot of shame about not showing up in the world as an ableist society expects you to. I want therapy to be the last place where they feel that way.”

A before and after

And to close out today, a couple of quotes I've appreciated in recent reading and watching, about the things we go through as people:

Shadow Partner. Alice Wong marks her 50th birthday with “mixed emotions” and poignant reflections on how close she feels to death, her “intimate shadow partner”. Her Muscular Dystrophy means she's grown up with “a very clear sense my time was limited”:

“Right now, as my body is at its lowest point, I am at the height of my powers. I have never been more happy, free, and resolute on what I want to do.”

A before and after. Youtuber Footless Jo pushes back against the idea her experience of losing a leg is “so drastically different than the experience of an average person on the planet”:

“The loss, the grief of going through something like this, for a lot of people, the trauma of it. It is not that different. When you're talking about impact on a human, what actually makes us human, losing a sibling, going through a severe trauma, the list goes on. There are horrific things that we often go through as people that fundamentally change us, that we feel like pieces of us have been cut off, that we will never be the same, that there was a before and an after to this one moment. And that piece is very common to our human experiences. So, no, I am not an incomplete person because a part of my body is gone.”

Let me know how your human experiences relate to recent disability news,


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With thanks to friend and K-pop fan Ai Lin who helped me understand Big Ocean. And of course thanks to Girls' Generation smash-hit Gee for introducing me to the genre.

Thanks, as ever, to the individuals and organisations whose support makes the Debrief possible.