Disability studies highlighted in new KU exhibition; activist to speak at opening reception

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A chosen book and sculpture as well as an upcoming exhibition through the University of Kansas Libraries aim to foster learning and discussion of disabled people’s experiences.

“Disability Visibility,” an anthology of essays written by disabled people, has been chosen as the KU’s 2022-23 Common Book. The Common Book program, in which one book is chosen each year, “speaks to the current moment and sparks a campus-wide conversation,” according to KU’s website

In conjunction, a new exhibition in Haricombe Gallery on the third floor of Watson Library at KU, “Expanding the Canvas of Disability,” will aim to amplify the creative work, research and experiences of disability scholars. The exhibit will include a virtual exhibition story map, learning module and project display, according to a news release.

Reyma McCoy Hyten, disability activist and a contributor to “Disability Visibility,” is scheduled to speak at the exhibit’s upcoming opening reception.

“I’m honored to be a part of the anthology and am thrilled to share my own story at the opening reception,” McCoy Hyten — also the first Black woman to serve as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner for the Administration on Disabilities — said via email.

“Disability, ultimately, is a criminal justice issue. It’s a housing justice issue. It’s the missing component of any and all conversations about justice and injustice in our society and I am compelled to do what I can to bring that to as many people’s attention as possible.” 

McCoy Hyten’s essay in the book, “Lost Causes,” addresses her experience as an autistic Black girl who was rejected by her white family, she said. Though on the surface her life seems like a “success story,” she does not celebrate facing adversity that should have never been in front of her, she explained.

“I make it clear that my story is by no means one of ‘triumph over adversity’ because my career, in effect, has been built on confronting the system that demands that the most marginalized ‘prove’ our right to exist,” McCoy Hyten said.

McCoy Hyten’s activism is centered on intersectionality, a concept first defined by scholar and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to explain the added marginalization Black women face as both Black- and women-identifying. It has since expanded to discuss and include all overlapping identities that are systematically excluded.

“For me, to operate in an intersectional manner is all about constantly looking for the most marginalized person in a space and critically assessing and prioritizing what steps need to be taken to ensure that they are able to be fully present in the space, with the ultimate goal of dismantling systems that weren’t designed in an intersectional manner and building new, intersectional ones,” McCoy Hyten said.

“If you are passionate about justice but aren’t prioritizing disability in your conversations then your conversations are incomplete.”

Dot Nary, disability activist and retired KU assistant research professor, expressed excitement to see KU expanding on its current disabilities research.

“I believe that disability studies makes a tremendous contribution because it represents cutting edge research across a variety of disciplines — including the humanities, social sciences, and health sciences, etc. As an academic and a disability rights activist, I applaud KU Libraries for sponsoring this important exhibit to highlight KU’s contributions to disability research,” Nary said via email.

The “Expanding the Canvas of Disability” exhibition will open with a cocktail reception at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22 at Watson Library 3 West, 1425 Jayhawk Blvd. in Lawrence. McCoy Hyten will begin her presentation at 6:15 p.m. with Q&A to follow.

Those interested in attending should register for either the in-person event or livestream at this link. After its debut, the exhibition will be available on the Haricombe Gallery website.

In relation to KU’s Common Book, the Spencer Museum of Art has selected an untitled “sounding sculpture” by Harry Bertoia as the KU Common Work of Art for the 2022–2023 year.

The sculpture, which was designed to be touched, seen and heard, connects to themes of access as does “Disability Visibility,” according to a news release.

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times An untitled “sounding sculpture” by Harry Bertoia is the KU Common Work of Art for the 2022–2023 year. The sculpture, which was designed to be touched, seen and heard, connects to themes of access.

The sculpture is open for viewing until May 14, 2023 at the Spencer Museum’s Jack & Lavon Brosseau Center for Learning, 1301 Mississippi St. in Lawrence. The Spencer Museum is closed on Mondays and open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays as well as noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Visit this link to dig deeper into the meanings of the sculpture, see a video of it being played and listen to the noise it makes. 

Students, faculty and staff can request a paper copy of “Disability Visibility,” edited by Alice Wong, at this link. Priority will be granted to students whose classes require the text, according to KU’s website. The Lawrence Public Library also has the book.

For more information on KU’s Common Book and upcoming events in conjunction, visit this link.

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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