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Activist addresses living with disability in a global context

October 25, 2019

Sitting in a lounge chair onstage in Kresge Auditorium Monday night with a stack of books on the table next to him, author and activist Kenny Fries took the audience on a global tour of living life with a disability.

In his talk, Fries discussed with members of the Bowdoin community the challenges in confronting perceptions of disability around the world. The talk, entitled “Disability Everywhere: Writing the Body Different at Home and Abroad,” was the second in a series of lectures hosted at Bowdoin this year about disability and accessibility—a topic often missing from conversations about inclusivity.

Fries explained that as a gay, Jewish and disabled man, he grapples with the complexities of identity daily, a balancing act that guides much of his writing. His lecture centered on the intersection of his experiences with the changing discussion of disability and inclusion.

Fries’s work, including three memoirs and three collections of poems, follows his own travels around the world, from his birthplace in Brooklyn, New York to Germany and Japan. During his lecture, he explained how traveling and living abroad is often complicated for an individual with a disability, but also provided insight into the perception of disability in other cultures.

Citing an excerpt from his 2017 book “In the Province of the Gods,” Fries recalled arriving as a foreigner in Japan and acclimating to customs, such as the expectation of removing one’s shoes before entering a home. Fries lives with a physical disability that limits his mobility and requires wearing specially designed orthopedic shoes. His shoes are bulky and difficult to remove quickly, so this expectation was difficult to fulfill. When he first visited the country in 2002, Fries noticed that people with disabilities were not a visible or outspoken group there. But, in the years since, he has noted that Japanese society has become more inclusive. In Germany, too, social norms are shifting towards inclusivity and accessibility.

At the end of the lecture, audience members had the opportunity to ask questions, spurring a conversation about Fries’s most recent work.  Entitled “Stumbling Over History: Disability and the Holocaust,” it focuses on Nazi Germany’s Aktion T4 program that targeted individuals with disabilities.

The talk elicited numerous responses from audience members, many of whom had Bowdoin’s interactions with  accessibility and inclusivity at the front of their minds. Thais Carrillo ’23, who attended the talk, expressed hope that events like Fries’s lecture would pave the way to more conversations about topics surrounding disability.

“I wish that there were more forums to talk about [disability] because there really [aren’t],” said Carrillo. “Going back to orientation, we talked about socioeconomic diversity and racial diversity, but accessibility isn’t something that’s mentioned really ever.”

Nor, as Fries noted, is disability always depicted respectfully in literature. That’s why Fries developed the pioneering literary theory known as the Fries Test, which outlines certain criteria that a disabled character must meet in order to portray disability accurately.

“[The work] needs to have more than one disabled character,” said Fries. “The disabled characters need to have their own narrative purposes other than the education and profit of a non-disabled character,” he added later.  ”Also, the character’s disability should not be eradicated by curing or killing.”

Assistant Professor of English Alex Marzano-Lesnevich was the primary architect in bringing Fries to campus. One of their goals in doing so was to encourage attendees to  view disability through a social rather than medical lens. Thinking about disability in this way can be somewhat radical they said.

“I always think that the definition of success in an event is whether people have a passionate response to it,” said Marzano-Lesnevich. “And it seemed like it resonated with a number of people there.”

The event was sponsored by the Harold and Iris Chandler Lectureship Fund, and co-sponsored by the English department; Asian studies department; Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program and the Student Accessibility Office.


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