Perceptions of geeks and freaks

By Ruth Davenport

You may not be the freak you think you are.

On Fri., Sept. 7 and Sat., Sept. 8, local artists and academics gathered at the University of Calgary to discuss and deconstruct the societal perception of "normal."

Bodies and Texts: A Symposium on Normalcy, Disability, Mortality and Poetry was coordinated by Dr. Susan Rudy of the U of C Faculty of Humanities.

"It’s perverse the way we think of normal," said Rudy. "We put things outside the category that are completely natural for human beings to do, think about or be."

The symposium featured the director of the U of C Disability Resource Center Dr. Patricia Pardo as an opening speaker.

"We see ourselves in the DRC as change agents," explained Pardo. "We talk about our role as change agents in terms of inviting the university to continue to see itself as a more accessible and inclusive learning environment for students and staff."

Pardo also spoke of a desire to obliterate the need for a Disability Resource Centre.

"There shouldn’t be a disability resource centre," she said. "In having an eventual goal of making available everything that we do as just a matter of course, that lends itself to the argument that disability is a social construction. If we build inclusive learning environments, the requirement for a specialized learning unit like ours is eliminated."

Rudy agreed, pointing out the importance of social context in defining disability.

"Imagine you’re deaf," she said. "You feel like you have every right to be wherever you would like to be, but you walk into a lecture and you can’t understand it. So you’re made to feel abnormal because the cultural situation isn’t set up for you. If there was an interpreter present, the experience of deafness wouldn’t feel abnormal."

The keynote speakers at the symposium included Dr. Frank Davey of the University of Western Ontario and Dr. Michael Davidson of San Diego, California. Both focused on the body in "abnormal" contexts, including terminal illnesses and deafness. Both also critiqued ideas of absolutes in perceptions of "normal" and "abnormal."

"Human beings since Plato were thought to be speaking and hearing individuals," said Davidson. "All of our metaphors are based around speech and sound. When you begin to think about the deaf, you have to rethink those metaphors. What does the ‘voice of God’ mean to someone who is deaf? Are you then outside Judeo-Christian normalcy? There are some very profound implications."

The symposium was free and open to the public, made possible by generous donations from the academic community. Rudy explained that Davidson and Davey were invited to Calgary as oral examiners for two PhD students and the symposium was structured around their presence.

"I thought, if I’m bringing them all this way, let me think about what we could do for a symposium," she said. "So I applied for funding and I got a lot of support from the university, and donations from the department of English, the Faculties of Humanities and Communication and Culture. The Vice-President Academic was very supportive too."

Roughly 40-45 people attended the symposium.

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