Designing the built environment to be inclusive of all ages and abilities is a relatively recent concept. Barrier-free, back when I studied architecture, referred to building construction standards for people with a physical handicap. Currently, accessibility guidelines encompass multi-sensory accommodations for a range of physical and intellectual abilities. Yet, it is often the social barriers that are more insurmountable than the physical ones. This is especially true for people whose handicap is not always visible but no less stigmatizing. Even talking about neurological disorders and mental illness can be awkward for the neurotypical. Two round-table discussions held during the Semaine d’Accessibilité at the Musée Quai Branly Jacques Chirac were enlightening.
The fourth edition of Accessibility Week at the museum in Paris may be described as an encounter between cultural diversity and neurodiversity. One raised questions about best practices in accessibility, social awareness, acceptance and inclusion of visitors with mental illness. The other went even further towards an appreciation of the value each individual contributes to our neurodiverse society. While the various events embraced all human differences, the theme for this year’s round-table discussion was neurodivergence. The term was coined by Ralph Savarese and Nick Walker defines it in his blog Neurocosmopolitanism. That precise word was not used (the presentation was in french) but I believe that was the intention.
Society’s Perception of Mental Illness
The full description of the first presentation can be found on the museum’s website in french. Loosely translated : How do neurotypical people across world cultures view people who do not fall within their society’s norms and how do they treat them? The word folie in the title threw me off as it means “madness” However unjust, it is true that any behavior that does not conform is often perceived as crazy in the same way that people with communication disorders are often perceived as intellectually delayed. The director of Psycom revealed interesting research that confirms such attitudes. Although the study was limited to mental health in France and francophone countries of Africa, she provided pertinent data and insight.
Affair of the heart or the head?
A social anthropologist from Cameroon gave a different point of view with a video of a naked woman bathing herself at a car wash. In an urban context, the phenomenon drew crowds of onlookers. Personal hygiene in her rural village, where attitudes about nudity differ, does not elicit such attention. The term mental illness is practically non-existent in some cultures. He explained that problematic behavior is considered an affair of the heart, not the head. If the heart is considered good, the village cares for the afflicted but if it is bad, the person is excluded. It was not always clear to me which central African country he meant as he spoke of a few but overall I heard the word sociothérapie and understood “it takes a village”. This led to a discussion about how “acceptable” behavior shifts not only between cultures but over time. For example, people hearing voices and speaking back to them, nowadays, could easily pass for a cellphone conversation. Still another perspective came from french author Corine Sombrun . While making a documentary in Mongolia, a Shaman’s music put her in a trance. She learned to reproduce this state so that Canadian neurologists could study the alterations in her brain.
Art is Empowering
The second presentation was about the artistic practice of people with developmental delay and/or mental illness. Panelists representing innovative artist collectives La “S” Grand Atelier in Belgium, Espace Multimédia Gantner and Arts Convergences in France, showed work by their visual artists. Each differed slightly in their programming. Some have artists from all disciplines, others offer residencies. All stressed the importance of considering the artists first and foremost. Disability is only referred to in terms of what supports are needed for the artists to accomplish their projects.
BrutPop produces music and offers workshops to youth on the autism spectrum. The workshop at the museum this week was inspired by musical instruments from Quai Branly’s collection. Participants (ages 9 and up) were able to make their own instruments. All the artist collectives participate in cultural festivals, expose in galleries and collaborate across disciplines. They have distanced themselves from the medical model and most of the support staff or mentors are artists themselves. Asked if they considered this art therapy, all answered “non”. Art is a manner of expressing oneself and the benefits of being recognized by others for your talent has positive effects. In the case of Art Convergences, the artists are more autonomous but have mental illnesses. Nonetheless, the artists that mentor them are not therapists and are not necessarily informed about a diagnosis. A screening of short films by artists relaying their personal experience with mental illness concluded the program.
In the end, there were many more questions, by the moderators, than answers. Hopefully exchanges of best practices will continue with the same sensitivity and participation with self-advocates.