Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha gives talk for "those typically kept on the fringes of society"

Wednesday, February 20, 2019 - 10:49pm

Leah Laksmni Piepzna-Samarasinha, queer disabled femme poet, delivers a poetic keynote on advocacy and activism work at the UMMA Wednesday evening.

Leah Laksmni Piepzna-Samarasinha, queer disabled femme poet, delivers a poetic keynote on advocacy and activism work at the UMMA Wednesday evening. Buy this photo
Ruchita Iyer/Daily

Tuesday night, a group of about 40 students, staff and Ann Arbor residents gathered in the University of Michigan Museum of Art to listen to Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, a queer, disabled, non-binary femme writer, read from their book “Care Work” and address the intersection of people of color, queerness and disability.

“I saw that this was called a dialogue,” said Piepzna-Samarasinha. “But then my friend reminded me that it was just me on stage. So I thought, we should call it ‘Dreaming a disabled, queer, colored future.’”

Standing at the center of the stage, Piepzna-Samarasinha sported a half-shaved buzz cut on the left side of their head and bright blue streaks on the other side, matched with sparkly Doc Martens. They grabbed the microphone and announced the talk was for those typically kept on the fringes of society.

“This is for the kids in the back,” Lakshmi said. “This is for the sick, the medically ill, the mad, the disabled people of color, the trans folk, the poor folks — everybody who is on this campus at this exact time and place, thriving and unwelcomed.”

They began the discussion by addressing how dreaming of a future as a disabled person can be a really hard thing to do.

“What I want people to take away from today is understanding that as disabled people, chronically ill people, as people who don’t know they can call themselves the ‘d’ word yet but live in bodies that are non-normative, or not as beautiful or as normal as deemed by white male patriarchies is that we have futures,” Piepzna-Samarasinha said. “We have legacies of existence, we crypt the idea of what health is. Although you are not lucky enough to be with us now, you may be lucky to live long enough to become disabled.”

Within the current political climate, Piepzna-Samarasinha said the fear of an unknown future has heightened. Because, they noted, politics are not just an example of what people right now, but also about the future of what people can get.

“In the last two years, most people I know have lived in an extended state of a panic attack,” Piepzna-Samarasinha said. “It is thing after thing after thing. It is Kavanaugh after wall, after legalized child theft, and something I talk a lot about is how this puts us into a constant state of reaction. For me, when I’m that kind of state of anxiety it’s really hard to imagine a future, because I’m just trying to survive in the present.”

Ashley Wiseman, associate director of the Global Scholars Program, told The Daily after the talk she thought it was interesting to see how the current state of politics and a consumer culture promote ableism.

“I have really been thinking a lot more about capitalism as a supporting structure for ableism,” Wiseman said. “The more I dive into that, the more I realize you can’t really talk about ableism without talking about capitalism. That, for me, is my current wave of unlearning. I think it is very taboo to question capitalism, but if we really want to find the root of the problem … go to the root of problem.”

Piepzna-Samarasinha linked this idea to an excerpt from their book, “Care Work.” They suggested that currently disabled people are not taught that they’re supposed to have a future, and instead taught that they’re supposed to not exist.

“The sick and disabled folks are not supposed to dream, because we’re all so queer and trans and black or brown,” said Piepzna-Samarasinha. We are just supposed to be grateful that the normals allow us to live. But, I am a product of some wild, disabled, black and brown, evolutionary dreaming. I am alive because of disabled people who wildly and apologetically dreamed futures, and I am dedicated to dreaming more of sick, disabled, queer, femme futures of 2018.”

Within the conversation of promoting health and wellness, Piepzna-Samarasinha noted the common idea that in order to heal, disabled people have to be “fixed.”

“There is so much that is an ableist idea that people are either fixed or broken,” Piepzna said. “It’s either people are this perfect, able-bodied robot or they’re garbage because they’re broken. That never worked for me. I’ve know so many people that have made it to 30 and 40, and it is important to know that there is dignity in our survivor bodies.”

When asked by a student social worker on how to fix an ableist mindset through a therapist or social workers mentality on saviorism, Piepzna emphasized advocacy for patients’ rights and organized change.

“You have to infiltrate the medical system as individuals,” Piepzna said. “You have to advocate for patients’ rights. You have to change policy and change the rules, and get active consent before you do anything. It’s organized change. Figure out, as social workers, what’s going to push back the idea of “saviorhood” and create collectives that are more allies of the people they’re serving, instead of just being there to ‘help.”

LSA sophomore Elizabeth Hoornstra told The Daily she agreed with Piepzna-Samarasinha. She noted that this was an important dialogue to have, as there is a new emphasis on talking about marginalized communities, yet ableism seems to be left out of the conversation.

“People tend to live their lives through an ableist lens,” Hoornstra said. “For example, on how we talk about fixing people. We think that taking away pain is needed, but this may not be the case. It detracts from their worth in a way. We have to do a lot of learning and unlearning.”

In a similar sense, Raivynn Smith, program specialist for events and partnerships at the Spectrum Center, wanted to bring Piepzna-Samarasinha to the event so as to have not just have a collection of LGBTQ speakers, but also speakers that represent the disabled community.

“There are certain ways that health and wellness are different for the LGBTQ community,” Smith said. “We brought Leah to speak about the intersection about race and gender and disability and how that’s (shown) up in her life and in some of the work she’s done. We have 44,000 students that hold those intersections; so it's important to bring these people in so those students can see their experiences reflected.”

Finally, Piepzna-Samarasinha wanted to leave the room with a list of twenty questions to help the audience re-shape how they think about disability and those affected by long-term illness.

“I want you to think: Who are the disabled people in your lineage?” said Piepzna-Samarasinha. “What are the disabled stories in your life, your community, or your place of living? What do you know about them? What do you not know about them? What are the things we have to learn in order to love ourselves and each other well?”