Disability activist Dessa Cosma came to the University of Michigan Museum of Art on Sunday to discuss the Japanese artist Mari Katayama, whose work is currently on display in the Irving Stenn Jr. Family Gallery at the UMMA until Jan. 26. About a dozen audience members attended the event to listen and participate in the conversation.
Mari Katayama visited the University back in October as part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series held at the Michigan Theater. During the two-hour presentation, Katayama, who was born with a developmental condition and had both her legs amputated at nine years old, reflected on how she used her body as an inspiration for her art.
“I’m objectifying my own body and using it as a material,” Katayama said in October.
Dessa Cosma is the founder and executive director of Detroit Disability Power, a membership organization dedicated to raising awareness and understanding of people with disabilities. On the closing weekend of Katayama’s exhibition at the UMMA, Cosma reacted to the multi-media work and offered her perspective as a person with disabilities.
Cosma began the conversation by exploring what disability means.
“Disability is not a particularly static thing,” Cosma said. “There’s not really a solid definition. It’s culturally determined to a large degree and people have really different understandings of who is in the group of disabled people.”
According to the World Bank, approximately one billion people — about 15 percent of the world’s population — have some type of disability. But Cosma said the real percentage could be far higher.
“Due to stigma, the more realistic estimate is probably between 30 and 40 percent,” Cosma added.
Cosma continued to explain her own work and goals as a leader of Detroit Disability Power. The organization hosts many events in Detroit and the surrounding area, such as Community Care Circles, which allow those affected by disabilities to share their stories. Cosma highlighted her commitment to acknowledging the intersection of disability with other social justice issues such as race, class and gender.
“Disability is a normal and natural part of human diversity — it always has been and always will be,” Cosma said. “If we don’t start thinking about it that way then we’re going to continue to create a society that marginalizes us.”
Cosma linked this idea back to Katayama’s artwork. Whereas Katayama’s disability inspired her to create art, Cosma’s disability drove her to become an advocate for social justice.
“When Mari spoke at the theater a few months ago, she said that her body is her material for her art,” Cosma said. “For me, my body is my material for my politics. It’s material for my action and for my motivation to do my life’s work, which is to dismantle systemic oppression.”
In the last part of the discussion, Cosma opened up to questions from the audience. Leanne Chadwick, director of philanthropy at the National Wildlife Federation, asked Cosma how community members can support people with disabilities.
In response, Cosma discussed the need to develop meaningful connections with people.
“To me, it’s about building relationships with people with disabilities,” Cosma responded. “It’s not just about tokenism or representation — it’s people with disabilities in positions of power leading the work.”
Cosma concluded by thanking the audience and encouraging them to attend more events organized by Detroit Disability Power.
After the event, Public Policy graduate student Aloka Narayanan said what the point that resonated with her most was that there is a need for more people with disabilities in positions of leadership.
“One of the main things that I’ll take away from this is the idea of empowering individuals with disabilities and not just doing the things that others ask us to do when they come up as issues,” Narayanan said. “We need to take proactive stances so that individuals with disabilities can really start to take an active role in the University.”