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Queer writer Kenny Fries on disability [24 March, 2010]

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Kenny Fries.  Photo courtesy of Riva Lehrer

Kenny Fries is a well-known gay writer and poet whose works have addressed the intersection of disability rights and queer identity.  The author of the memoirs The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theoryand Body, Remember: A Memoir was in Chicago as part of a visit that included workshops at UIC followed by a presentation at Access Living March 19.

Fries (pronounced Frees) read from The History of My Shoes and then addressed questions from the audience.  Born with a congenital condition of his feet that requires him to walk with specially constructed orthopedic shoes, Fries has written extensively about the relationship between disabled bodies and the environment they must often struggle in and against.

He is an intrepid traveler, determined that his physical condition will not prove to be a disability in his experience of the world.  In general, built environments present challenges to the disabled.  However, as the excerpts that Fries read from clearly showed, sometimes the literally rough terrain of the natural environment can prove to be more adaptable.  In his first excerpt, Fries recounted a hiking trip he took in Maine’s Acadia National Park with his then-partner, the able-bodied Ian (who also provided the illustrations to the book).

The two trekked upwards using only metal rungs inserted into a cliff and, to their surprise, Fries’ smaller feet and top-heavy body proved to be perfect for executing the difficult climb while Ian found the going much rougher, and had to be coaxed and helped back down.  Fries used the passage to illustrate a key point in his and the work of contemporary disability theorists: disability is not an inherent quality of a body being “wrong” but is instead entirely defined by the environment in which a body finds itself suited or unsuited to its surroundings.  In this case, Ian found his body to be too big and unwieldy.

Fries went on to read other sections from the book that addressed the theory of evolution, focusing on Alfred Russell Wallace, the British naturalist whose work on natural selection came about at the same as Darwin’s and may even have pre-empted it.  Musing over Wallace’s discovery of a rare king bird-of-paradise, Fries pointed out the inherent contradiction that the scientist was keenly aware of: the bird would become extinct the more its stunning beauty was seen by other species.  In other excerpts, he pointed out instances of species that would shift their colors to adapt and survive in environments but then die away when the adaptations were no longer necessary.  Refuting the more simplistic and popular appropriations of evolutionary theory and of Darwin in particular, Fries said that “survival of the fittest is only part of the story.”

During the discussion session, audience members asked about the author’s experience traveling the world as a disabled man.  Fries said that his travels grew largely out of a determination to see as much as he could, and that such trips could be handled with a little bit of forethought and planning; he especially recommended the organization Mobility International, a disability-rights group that also helps people with disabilities coordinate travel plans across the world.

Fries has most recently been in Japan on a Creative Capital Foundation grant and is working on a creative non-fiction work entitled Genkan: Entries into Japan.  Several members of the audience wondered what it was like to be a person with a disability in a culture that traditionally has not made disabled people visible.  Fries said that attitudes in Japan were changing.  Chuckling, he also said he often wondered how it was that he was never bumped into even on the most crowded streets of Japan but that someone inevitably walked into him on the most deserted streets of Toronto (where he lives with his husband, Mike).  He also added, “In Japan, I was thrilled that I was treated as a foreigner before I was treated as a disabled person.  When I come back to the U.S., I’m instantly treated as a disabled person.”

Asked when he first became aware of his identity as a disabled person, Fries said that it was not until his early 20s: “Growing up in Brooklyn, I was among the first generation to be mainstreamed in public school.  I didn’t come into contact with disabled people until later.”  He became aware of the difference in Japan, where people with disabilities are still segregated from the mainstream population.  According to him, while that has definite disadvantages, it also means that disabled people in Japan have an “odd sense of a life in disability” which can be empowering in a sense.

Fries concluded with the observation that, ultimately, disability is not a desirable category or a particularly meaningful one since it is really defined by the circumstances of a society that makes it easier for the able-bodied to get around: “We have to have [the category] because we have certain needs.  But who decides who is disabled?  It’s best to do away with it eventually.  But that’s not possible in this society.”

Originally published in Windy City Times, 24 March 2010

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