Wednesday, July 29, 2009

‘We don’t need to be perfect or normal’

Envisioning New Meanings is an art exhibit that tells the stories of women with disabilities – in their own words and images.

It grew out of workshops across Ontario where participants were asked: “How can art change perceptions of disability and difference?”

“Too often, we’re seen only within the narrow confines of two common stereotypes: the tragic, pitied victim, or the spirited survivor lauded as a source of inspiration,” says Lorna Renooy, who manages the project, spearheaded by the YWCA of Peterborough, Ont.

Taryn Green, 26, participated in a week-long workshop in Sudbury, producing a digital story about herself called The Triangle Girl. It’s based on a story she wrote at age six:

There once was a girl, she was made out of triangles. When she came home her mom laughed, because she was made out of triangles. Her dad laughed too, but her sister didn’t. When she went to bed, she prayed to God to make her look like the other people. When she woke up, she looked in the mirror and she was the same as everyone else.
“I’m not sure if I felt as though I was the Triangle Girl, but I did feel connected to her difference,” Taryn says in the video. “I understood the sadness she felt when others laughed. I understood her need for a happy ending.”

I interviewed Taryn, a recent graduate of film editing at Humber College, about the message she hopes The Triangle Girl conveys. Taryn has cerebral palsy. She had an awkward gait as a child and her speech can be a bit difficult to understand.

Me: Was there a time when you wished you weren’t different – like the Triangle Girl?

Taryn Green: When I was six, I knew there was something different about me, but I had an extremely supportive family and friends and teachers. It was more when I got into junior high and early high school that I started to feel more different. That’s when the bulk of the teasing took place. I was a very happy child, but there was a whole two years as a teenager where I never smiled in photos. I called it the dark ages. One of the biggest challenges when I began working was to overcome my fear of talking on the phone. People hear me on the phone and say: ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Are you sick?’ ‘Were you sleeping?’ ‘What’s wrong with your voice?’

Me: Is it significant that your sister didn’t laugh at you in your story?

Taryn Green: My parents never laughed at me either. But my sister was louder than me and always stuck up for me. One time a boy teased me and she said: “My sister didn’t talk funny. You just don’t hear very well!” She represented the people who were there for me growing up.

Me: Later in The Triangle Girl, you talk about her in a positive way and say: “I keep rewriting her. Now I don’t want to be like everyone else.” When did you start feeling it was okay to be different?

Taryn Green: Now I see the Triangle Girl as coming back in my life because it wants to remind me of who I am – that being different is a good thing. It was at the end of high school that I started to get happier, and as a result people gravitated toward me. When confidence exudes from an individual, people sense this and are drawn to that person. I believe this will ultimately change ideas about disability and difference.

Me: How has disability shaped you in a positive way?

Taryn Green: Although there were times when I felt sorry for myself, they’re minimal compared to the times I don’t think about it at all, or am happy I have a disability. I think my personality is different because of it. I think I’m more understanding, more patient, more accepting of others. My voice may not be as strong as others, but it taught me to be a good observer and listener and value comes from that. Instead of saying ‘I have a speech impediment, no one will listen to me’ I turned it around to look at it in a new light. I want to be a documentary editor and tell people’s stories. I like to be the one behind the camera or sitting and taking it all in.

Me: How do people commonly view women with disabilities?

Taryn Green: A lot of media portrays women in general in a certain mould and I think Envisioning New Meanings tries to show that not all women fit this mould and that there are many moulds. Everyone has their own shape, their own look, or whatever it is that embodies them. Everyone has their own voice, and it’s about listening to that voice. It’s about speaking confidently and proudly of who you are, and not hiding.

Me: Were there common themes in how the women in the workshop perceive disability?

Taryn Green: We talked about changing the way we see things, changing the way we view our disability. That there are different ways of going about things, and we need to be creative about how we approach a situation. If you can run, great. If you can wheel in a wheelchair, that’s great too – that’s running. Things don’t always have to be normal or one way.”

Me: By the end of your video, you say: “I am someone who can stand proud, confident and self-aware.” What message do you hope to convey?

Taryn Green:
There is a Triangle Girl in each of us that we shouldn’t hide from, but love. We don’t need to be perfect or normal. As you get older you realize we’re all individuals and being unique is what sets us apart from everyone in a good way. It’s the quirks that make someone up that I love. But we have to embrace and love our differences before others will accept and love us for who we are.

Me: What advice would you give to parents of children with disabilities?

Taryn Green: That their children don’t need to be fixed, they need to be accepted. Encourage them to participate and take part in activities that interest them – despite the severity of their disability. Everyone has something to contribute. Challenge your child instead of holding them back. Children love to be adventurous and they’re resilient. They need to at least try things in order to gain a sense of confidence. Let children speak for themselves. And if they can’t speak, they have their own way of indicating what is valuable to them. Never forget that the strength and support of a family is powerful. It carries children through to believe in themselves as they get older and during times of doubt or sadness. You can call upon it when you need it.

Me: Why is the Envisioning New Meanings project important?

Taryn Green: The project is making the wider public listen to women who might otherwise be cast aside or spoken for. What we truly got out of this project was a voice, one that will resonate with all who view the art.

For more information on Envisioning New Meanings, e-mail