A Chair is a Wheelchair

This Spring I’m pleased to say I’ll be teaching as an Associate Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University as part of their BA (Hons) programme in Education and Disability Studies. From January onwards I’m teaching Exploring Disability History. This has given me a great excuse to engage with new literature and research, alongside revisiting papers and materials. If you’ve visited this blog before, you’ll know my writing usually focuses strongly on disability, technology and accessibility issues, with some broader references to my experiences of the PhD process and Educational Technology. However, the teaching preparation has already set off various different chains of thought which I hope to explore here over the next few weeks. My first tidbit is an unpublished poem by Tanja Muster ‘A Chair is a Wheelchair’ translated from German and reproduced in ‘The ADA on the Road: Disability Rights in Germany’ by Katharina C. Heyer (University of Hawai’i). I’ve reproduced the poem below in both English and the original German.

A Chair is a Wheelchair

A chair
looking carefully
A chair is a chair is a
A judgement is a judgement is a
mis-judgment (prejudice)
A disability is a disability is a
State-sponsored measure.

Ein Stuhl ist ein Rollstuhl

Ein Stuhl
Genau besehen
Ein Stuhl is ein Stuhl ist ein
Ein Urteil ist ein Urteil ist ein
Eine Behinderung ist eine Behinderung ist eine
staatlich geforderte Massnahme.

According to Heyer:

This poem circulated in German disability circles in the fall of 1997 as an expression of outrage against Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court’s October 29 ruling that disabled students do not have a right to an integrated education and may be forced to attend a special school for disabled children (Bundesverfassungsgericht, 9 October, 1997).

I found the title particularly striking. For me ‘A Chair Is A Wheelchair’ is the most succinct expression of disability as a continuum I’ve come across. I find the poem deceptively simple.  In English, the writer very playfully sets up ‘norms’ and then inverts them alternately line by line. But with each inversion the poem progresses and deepens.  This progression moves from the cultural norm (the regular Chair becoming the irregular Wheelchair) to the legal norm (now exposing a regular and normal legislature as, in fact, failing and prejudiced) to return to the notion of disability, this time invested with normalcy, inverted and made irregular by the State.  In each case, I love how the repetition physically installs a ‘mainstream’ in the poem, whilst simultaneously moving the reader across a spectrum of perspectives.

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