OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) — The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law 32 years ago, prohibiting discrimination and paving the way for people with disabilities to have the same opportunities as everyone else.
July is Disability Pride month and we’ve been celebrating all month long on ABC7 News, highlighting the joys and challenges of the disability community. A couple of artists from the Bay Area are shining a spotlight on invisible disabilities in a digital art show.
Inside of the Werkshack in Uptown Oakland, artist Rachel Ungerer starts a new painting.
“I kind of let the painting take on a bit of a life of its own,” said Ungerer, a disabled artist from the East Bay.
Behind each stroke of Ungerer’s paintbrush is both power and pain.
Ungerer is disabled and it’s a title she proudly claims, though not one more person would attach to her.
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“Disability is not a dirty word,” she said. “I identify as someone with an invisible disability. I use that language because I think it’s accurate for how the world treats me.”
Ungerer’s invisible disability is a chronic pain condition that affects her hands — a diagnosis she received several years ago that affects her art and everyday life.
“People see me on the bus, and I need to sit in a chair on the bus because I can’t hold my weight up with my hands — I will literally fall on my face — but they try to get me kicked off the bus because they assume that I am somebody who’s taken up the space somebody else deserves without even taking the time to talk to me or asked me about it. They’re not trying to learn,” she said.
But for those who are willing to learn, Ungerer is willing to teach through her art by raising awareness for folks with invisible disabilities like herself.
“I paint a lot about the intersection between queerness and disability because I am a queer person with an invisible disability. I find it really interesting to consider intimacy as kind of the point of connection between those two different identities,” she said.
In the years since her diagnosis, Ungerer has had to retrain herself on how to use her hands again to paint.
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She said she now paints faster and takes extended breaks to recuperate from the intense pain.
For Disability Pride Month, Ungerer curated a digital art show titled “Power in Pride” for the online disability community, Diversability.
The online art show features works from disabled artists from across the country — like the photography series “Feeling Hospital Blue” by Isra Amsdr, which shows the despair of a woman in a hijab, clutching to an IV pole and bag of medicine.
Other works include a paper-mache sculpture by Jeffrey Memeroff, which symbolized the fragility of the human condition and a multimedia piece named “Warning Label,” which puts real faces to neurodivergent mental health disabilities that often go undiscussed.
“It’s actually been cathartic and heartening for me to do the piece,” said Oakland-based artist Marnika Shelton, who created “Warning Label.”
Shelton was recently diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, and for her, this artwork had an urgent meaning.
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“It’s easy to see when someone’s got something physical on the outside and people still judge them for it, or consider them different,” Shelton said. “It’s a lot harder to see when people are living in a world that doesn’t appreciate and honor their neurodivergencies.”
Therapist Konjit Page, PhD, with Oakland-based Deeper Than Color, said able-bodied people should lead with empathy and forego assumptions to create a more welcoming world for folks with disabilities.
“We cannot possibly know what’s going on for a person behind their face. A person can be smiling, a person can be chit chatty, but we don’t know what they struggled with to even get there to that point,” Page said.
“People should be open and remain humble. If somebody takes the time to share their invisible disability, that took a lot of courage.”
This was a message that resonated with Ungerer.
“Claiming disability, it gets to be part of your identity instead of this stigma that we don’t talk about. Because it’s shameful. It’s not shameful. It’s just honest,” she said.
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