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Downtown discussions get real about "crip life"

LaughFest used humor to open up conversation on differences, disability and the upcoming DisArt Festival.

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Christopher Smit interacts with attendees

Christopher Smit interacts with attendees /Tiffany Szakal

Laughfest DisArt Panel

Laughfest DisArt Panel /Tiffany Szakal

The B.O.B hosts Laughfest DisArt Panel

The B.O.B hosts Laughfest DisArt Panel /Tiffany Szakal

During LaughFest, over 40 people joined in the upper room of the B.O.B. to engage with Christopher Smit of DisArt Festival, Tommy Allen with Rapid Growth Media and Toni Bal, an independent writer. They paneled a discussion called "Crip Life in GR," about living with disability in Grand Rapids. The discussion was both a comedic outlet and build up for DisArt Festival, which will feature exhibits of disability arts in downtown Grand Rapids from April 10-25.

Smit, Allen and Bal made jokes about the difficulties of everyday life. Bal recounted a story about falling out of her wheelchair.

“You guys, I never rode a bike. I was collecting road rash," she says. "I was a sidewalk warrior.”

Unguarded, they shared stories of triumph and embarrassment about the complexities of trying to maneuver downtown and what they had to do to compensate for design built for the “temporarily able-bodied folks.”

They also tackled questions the panelists are asked by those able-bodied folks.

“We live in a faith community so the one question I get asked a lot is, ‘Aren’t you excited to get to Heaven?’” Smit told to the crowd, “because I’ll get to walk. Well, no. I’d have to die first. I’m not too excited about that.” 

All laughs aside, this is one of many inappropriate or ill-timed questions they are asked on a regular basis by well-meaning Rapidians. It’s not a lack of compassion but a lack of conversation on the topic that leads to misunderstanding. Opening up the discussion through ArtPrize, Laughfest and now DisArt, Smit along with Allen and Bal hope to integrate understanding of life with disabilities into the community to show both differences and similarities to move forward together.

Despite the ADA requirement for commercial spaces to be built and conform with barrier-free entries, much of Grand Rapids still has obstacles to move in and around for persons with disabilities. Steps to entry ways, cramped shopping quarters, small bathrooms and heavy doors end up excluding an entire population of Rapidians downtown. Even the B.O.B, which hosted the event and has a ramp and zero-step entry, was difficult to enter in a wheelchair because of the heavy wooden doors that had to be opened by hand.

For people living with a disability, daily life is a creative invention of ways to accommodate for a lack of accommodation.

“Neil Marcus said that disability is not some grave struggle, right, that actually disability is art. Disability is an ingenious way of life,” referenced Smit. Nearly every story and anecdote told to the crowd had an aspect of creativity. From working with a child to reach the top of a pantry to using the restroom at the mall, these panelists had to work with their circumstances to find new ways of solving problems unknown to others.

The next step for GR is the 15 day DisArt Festival offering an inside glimpse at disability through art, exhibition and educational forums. Panel discussions, comedy and art often have a way of saying what is either unknown or ignored.

Smit, Allen and Bal made jokes about and acknowledged their difficulties of getting around Grand Rapids with hope for more conversation (and action) in the future.

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