2 Canes 2 Crips 6 Legs

An editorial essay on Disability art, healing justice, the hustle of the emerging marginalized artist.

by jes sachse

“We begin by listening. We are People of Colour, Indigenous people, disabled people, and survivors of trauma, many genders, ages and classes of people. We centre the genius and leadership of disabled and chronically ill communities, for what we know about surviving and resisting the medical industrial complex and living with fierce beauty in our sick and disabled bodies. We say no to the medical industrial complex’s model of “cure or be useless,” instead working from a place of belief in the wholeness of disability, interdependence and disabled people as inherently good as we are.”

– Healing & Health Justice Collective Organizing Principles, US Social Forum Detroit 2010

‘I have great immunities! I think it’s because I was born in a hospital,’ I say as you unlock the door of the apartment where your cat eagerly awaits our return.

‘What??’ you laugh in confusion.

 It was not what I meant. I remember fumbling with my words and eventually discarding them and hopping on your bed in playful distraction, hopelessly smitten in my first SDQ (sick and disabled queer) relationship.

I meant I was raised in a hospital. The mothership. Among others of my kind. Paranoid of cops and public transit officials trying to return me. One time wheeltrans slowly followed me for a whole block down Sorauren Avenue and I was like ‘aw shit! It’s happening!’ Turns out they were just looking for an address.

When I moved to Toronto with them big city dreams, it was from a smaller town nearby. Disability art was a new and burgeoning thing to me then, and to the Canadian scene, and I was eager to explore it. I resolved that in order to do that I needed to be around people that could grow me. I needed to know what was out there and I figured Toronto could tell me, with its rumours of other disabled queers.

This cold shoulder of a city has fulfilled its promise and then some. I’ve learned the art hustle of the emerging marginalized artist. Connection across disciplines, politics, and identities. Negotiations between steep rent and steeper poverty transformed into sweet poetry on the social media surface of me. I have made a home and it only took five years to get here.

Here for me is more literally the city’s southwest neighbourhood of Parkdale. I suppose Parkdale is as good a place as any to think about being disabled. Poverty and gentrification coming in from all sides. A place where scrappy meets yuppie in an elbow of streets just before the lake. Years learning the sidewalk dance of dodging the wheelie cart bubbies of a still very Polish Roncesvalles Village cuz no they don’t see your shared crip identities and they will RUN YOU DOWN.

The word disability has a lot of whiteness to contend with. It comes from institutions, which have an inherited colonial history: the medical industrial complex and the academic industrial complex.

I receive a lot of speaking engagements from academic institutions. The academy did not create disability art, but it did brand it. With the brand comes the decree of legitimacy. (I was once asked to give a presentation at a conference at Yale. It didn’t matter that no one paid me; it was Yale! Yaaaaale. Although when trying to board the campus shuttle, right on cue, I was asked if I was looking for the hospital shuttle).

I think I really did believe that a growing interest in disability art meant a growing care for disabled people. But that is a harsh untruth of being a marginalized artist contending with institutionalized power. With the apparent success of my own growing brand, I feel a growing emptiness. Hunger pangs that the McD’s value menu never seems to fill, despite repeated attempts at slinging toonies at the problem.

In a Canadian art context, marginalized identities ask for commodification in order to sustain an emerging artistic practice, while the work produced is often valued for only that: its marginalized quota. In the process of naming oneself over and over as marginalized artist, for funding, for work, for survival, an oppositional isolation is deeply felt. As though that is all one’s work is or is doing: marginalizing.

I can remember my first review in NOW Magazine, during my very first solo show for CONTACT Photography Festival. The images spanned the work of two years of vivid, visceral, queer and erotic digital self-portraiture; early photographic attempts at visually locating myself across my identities and communities. Although positive, the paragraph written about the series amounted to ‘These photographs show sachse just living life!’

Since that time, I have been given several platforms to speak from. And yet I still long for the missing care in my work’s curation. Disability art has in many ways revealed itself to exist to legitimize the very whitewashed disability studies academy. The disability studies academy will engage with disabled artists insofar as they prove of value to scholarship.

This problem is further perpetuated by organizational funding structures like the Ontario Art Council’s project grant specific disability art, which insists on a full disability roster (of almost circus-like variety) in order to be considered. If the entire slew of the projects participants are not disabled, the project does not qualify, which is a forced segregation having nothing to do with craft or medium.

Sadly, disability art is not inherently healing justice, as the spaces it takes up do not centre care or healing, but commodification. I have at times made bad art that speaks to non-disabled feminists before because it meant getting heard from at all; the ache for intimate artistic engagement is real and fuels the work of survival of artists working from the margins.

Thursday, March 24th, 2016. It’s late. I just left Lynx, horizontal on one of black pleather couches in the lobby of OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design), spoons(1.) low and on the phone with their Vancouver sweetie.


1. Spoon Theory

The word disability has a lot of whiteness to contend with. It comes from institutions, which have an inherited colonial history: the medical industrial complex and the academic industrial complex.

I receive a lot of speaking engagements from academic institutions. The academy did not create disability art, but it did brand it. With the brand comes the decree of legitimacy. (I was once asked to give a presentation at a conference at Yale. It didn’t matter that no one paid me; it was Yale! Yaaaaale. Although when trying to board the campus shuttle, right on cue, I was asked if I was looking for the hospital shuttle).

I think I really did believe that a growing interest in disability art meant a growing care for disabled people. But that is a harsh untruth of being a marginalized artist contending with institutionalized power. With the apparent success of my own growing brand, I feel a growing emptiness. Hunger pangs that the McD’s value menu never seems to fill, despite repeated attempts at slinging toonies at the problem.

In a Canadian art context, marginalized identities ask for commodification in order to sustain an emerging artistic practice, while the work produced is often valued for only that: its marginalized quota. In the process of naming oneself over and over as marginalized artist, for funding, for work, for survival, an oppositional isolation is deeply felt. As though that is all one’s work is or is doing: marginalizing.

I can remember my first review in NOW Magazine, during my very first solo show for CONTACT Photography Festival. The images spanned the work of two years of vivid, visceral, queer and erotic digital self-portraiture; early photographic attempts at visually locating myself across my identities and communities. Although positive, the paragraph written about the series amounted to ‘These photographs show sachse just living life!’

Since that time, I have been given several platforms to speak from. And yet I still long for the missing care in my work’s curation. Disability art has in many ways revealed itself to exist to legitimize the very whitewashed disability studies academy. The disability studies academy will engage with disabled artists insofar as they prove of value to scholarship.

This problem is further perpetuated by organizational funding structures like the Ontario Art Council’s project grant specific disability art, which insists on a full disability roster (of almost circus-like variety) in order to be considered. If the entire slew of the projects participants are not disabled, the project does not qualify, which is a forced segregation having nothing to do with craft or medium.

Sadly, disability art is not inherently healing justice, as the spaces it takes up do not centre care or healing, but commodification. I have at times made bad art that speaks to non-disabled feminists before because it meant getting heard from at all; the ache for intimate artistic engagement is real and fuels the work of survival of artists working from the margins.

Thursday, March 24th, 2016. It’s late. I just left Lynx, horizontal on one of black pleather couches in the lobby of OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design), spoons2 low and on the phone with their Vancouver sweetie.

We’d gone shopping for art materials. We were both running creative writing workshops around that time and were looking for ways to stretch our modest budgets into the nicest supplies. One hour in a stair filled supply store later and all 2 canes 2 crips 6 legs of us were TIRED. Like, need to sit down somewhere on a ticking clock kind of tired. Initially, I had offered that we go to The Rex after, due to its close crip proximity. I know the area like the back of my claw hand. Filed under: ‘A place to sit and jazz.’

Wheeltrans had messed up and wouldn’t be arriving till 10:30pm. But when we reached the bottom of the ramp Lynx, in their Capricorn rising steadfast charm, stopped and announced ‘Nope.’ Which is how we found ourselves camped in the university’s lobby instead.

‘Do you have a [phone]charger?’ they ask, a chuckling metaphor of our current energy levels.

Surprisingly I did. We find a nearby bench and corner with an outlet.

With hours to go before their ride, we seize the opportunity to hang out. Scatter their new supplies on the well-lit concrete floor for a future social media post to promote #BlackSpoonieSpeak, a workshop by Lynx Sainte-Marie, trying to sculpt the aesthetic jusssst right for Insta.

The hustle.

(It feels like this great secret that when two or more spoonies who centre care with each other come together, access needs don’t actually double but decrease, because bodies inform each other. A deep balance of limits & desired outcomes.) 

At 9:30pm, after twenty different conversations & a relocation to the black pleather couch, Lynx insists that I start home. My body has begun its nightly shut down. I’ve taken to referring to it as ‘kitten hour.’ If I don’t get on transit within kitten hour I will be too sleepy. Falling asleep in public is an unsafe thing in the world.

At the stop, it starts to rain. Streetcars crawl toward me in the great damp distance of Queen Street, their green-lit antennae making a Gatsby out of me. It aches of unfulfilled promise. As access wages, the same ancient stress on my bones so begins again the calculation of steps to home. The wince of what happens when home was other people. The funerals step onto the streetcar with you, sidle into front seat to rest; blue, sideways, a marker of loss incomplete. Pain, but also Love.


jes sachse
jes sachse is a Toronto-based poet, artist & curator obsessed with disability culture. Living across the blurred lines of whiteness, poverty, lifelong disability, genderfluidity and madness, they are currently working on their first illustrated novel, Gutter, which will portray these dilemmas through a multi-modal narrative form, reflecting at once on both a crip navigation of contemporary culture, and the permeation of traumas in spaces of invisibilized violence.

Can the Work Heal Us

grahpic of black plants with red flower buds on yellow background

By Lynx Sainte-Marie

    I still remember how it feels to dash through the hallways of my old college, high-fiving first years and shouting affirmations at my second year peers. Nine hours of lectures ahead, my chest is tight and my breathing worries me. I haven’t eaten and I’ve barely slept. But I run anyway, down the corridor and up the stairs. We’re all frantic, taking classes and attending practicums in social service agencies across the city. 

Though self-care is the unofficial byword for the program, most of us – lecturers and administrative staff included – are doing everything but taking care of ourselves. The self-care article that I write for the newspaper during that time is as well-written as it is ableist.

I remember there being so much shame attached to those words for some of us (many of us broke, racialized and crazy). Even now, years and much self-forgiveness later, I can’t help but feel that familiar pang of guilt when I think about how little I cared for my body, exhausted and trekking home in the winter three bus rides later, having spent several hours in classrooms and libraries. I graduated, tender and anxious, as if I had been cooked from the inside. And so profoundly lonely. It was then I decided to take a year off, hoping for some peace of body before I transferred to university. Ten months later, the pain came. I lay in bed for months, scared and swollen. A year passes and I watch as my circle of chosen family members dwindle. Most of them consist of care and community workers with different professional and academic backgrounds. And as hurt as I am, I realize that most of them are unable to hold themselves together, much less negotiate holding space for me.

I think of the capacity I have as a sick and disabled person and how the Medical Industrial Complex describes it as “limited.” But when we are centring disability, our limitations become endless care strategies and possibilities.

One of the most common questions I get from students is how they can get into activism like I did. I usually laugh when I am asked this, though sometimes I don’t. They paint me broadly-stroked pictures of how they would support these people whose stories they’ve mostly only read about in textbooks and scholarly journals. To them, activism means travelling to different cities and engaging in common rituals of “allyship” like awareness campaigns and protests. They didn’t hear the classmate who nervously spoke about their chronic fatigue after my lecture. Just like they don’t see the ways this work is hard on the body; that most of us find ourselves circling around the globe not for the ‘gram, but because of job scarcity. That most of us are disabled and poor and find it impossible to work 9-5s because our bodies would be too hurt, too over-stimulated, too flared, too swollen and/or too tired to co-operate for that long. To them, Activism is a big ticket item. The public gestures, co-signed by co-curricular reports and resumes. I am ashamed to say I was taught and believed similarly.

We are often told as disabled/mad/Deaf/chronically ill people that our bodies are not good enough. You can see this in the horde of us who turn to care professions and community work for solace, in the hopes that our work will be inherently healing. We believe that by supporting our future clients, we will feel less worthless, or by advocating on behalf of this-or-that person, our lives will be seen as indispensable. The long hours are just a small price to pay for the chance of “making a difference.”

 So we shove our bodies into cubicles in the hopes of recognition and praise while continuing to shame those of us too marginalized for the squeeze. All the while, the oppressive systems of our society are embedded in these spaces, feeding on our pain. We breathe their waste; capitalist, ableist soot in our lungs. It chokes us but we carry their shame as our own all the same.

 I’ve spent the last several years presenting, performing, facilitating, lecturing and consulting in spaces all over this colonized land commonly known as Canada. Recently, my focus has been healing justice and disability justice, challenging individuals and organizations to move away from self-care as an absolute rule – which puts the onus of care on the individual – towards a community care practice and politic. Healing justice takes much of its teachings from disability justice: borne of sick and disabled, queer, trans, gender non-conforming, Black, Indigenous, People of Colour communities (BIPOC); prioritizing the bodies, leadership and genius of the most marginalized. Both of these intersectionality-centred frameworks ask questions like, how can we move towards liberation together? Or are we not only giving, but asking our communities for what we need and holding them accountable? Communities that heal together resist better together. And sustainability is key. The imperialist white supremacist capitalist cishetereopatriarchy knows it runs more efficiently when we’re separated, out-numbered and alone.

 What these oppressive systems teach us about the kind of support we should value is poisonous and insidious. It means that people are reluctant to see the everyday, practical things they do as care work. As if, like building muscle, when you’re not wincing from the tearing of tissue, you’re probably not doing it right. Disabled activists who organize online feel the brunt of these ableist narratives everyday, even if our arthritic fingers hurt with every hashtag. BIPOC care and cultural workers, particularly those of us with multiple intersections of oppression, are paid less than our white/white-passing/lighter-skinned peers, and are often asked to work for free or not asked at all. Many of us struggle to take care of ourselves, while those of us with more privilege and resources are taught that the people we should be supporting are out there somewhere. So we volunteer at crisis lines four hours a week while the emotional labour we engage in with loved ones is scarce. We work with disabled youth, yet the struggles of our chronically ill friends go unnoticed. Couple this with all the self-care we should be doing but aren’t because the world needs saving, and it’s no wonder so many of us deal with burnout and compassion fatigue.

 But the ways we can and do take care of ourselves and each other, with whatever we have at our disposal, are valuable. Now when I think about the care I want to cultivate with others, I think of the range of things we are able to do for ourselves with the support of our folks. I think about celebrating our self-determination and striving for interdependency. I think of the time they moved carefully beside me down the street, without questions and accusations, watching me as I cautiously took my first neighbourhood walk in a year. And that crowdfunder he, she and they created on my behalf for the medical device I currently use for my pain. Or when we promised to check in with one another and spoke about boundary-setting as intentional pathways to each other’s hearts. I think of the capacity I have as a sick and disabled person and how the Medical Industrial Complex describes it as “limited.” But when we are centring disability, our limitations become endless care strategies and possibilities. We’re powerful on our own, no doubt, but working together, all of us as multi-issue people with complex bodies, histories, relationships to this land and stories, holding our most marginalized while still getting the care that we need, that is the kind of care I believe will set us free.

 When I ask the class what they think of when I say community care, they say soup kitchens. Soup kitchens and food banks and shelters. I tell them to think more “micro”, to not rely on the buildings around them for support. Offices close. Access needs shift and change, particularly after business hours – especially after 5pm on Sundays (“Besides, the buildings weren’t made for most of us, anyway.”) Who do we consider our communities? What can care in our spaces look like outside of our professions and non-profit agencies? Who is healing our healers and how are we supporting each other’s self-worth? Can our work heal us and what would that healing look like? They speak about their busyness, supervisory hours and learning contract deadlines; barely seeing their families. I think about the ones who haven’t spoken; the ones who might never tell their friends and teachers they are struggling to keep up. The ones who might never see the ableist parts they play in the very systems they are seeking to change; in the relationships with the marginalized people they will leave behind. And I breathe deep.

 Postscript: I owe so much of my current knowledge of disability justice and healing justice to the wisdom and genius of Black, Indigenous, women, femmes and non-binary people of colour I’ve encountered URL and IRL, including but not limited to Spectra Speaks, Esther Armah, adrienne maree brown, Yashna Maya Padamsee, Mia Mingus, Ciel Sainte-Marie, melannie monoceros, Jassie Justice and Danielle Stevens. May our brilliance always light the way through the darkness.


Lynx Sainte-Marie
Lynx Sainte-Marie, Afro+Goth Poet, is a multimedium artist, activist, educator of the Jamaican diaspora, with ancestral roots indigenous to Africa and the British Isles. A disabled/chronically ill, non-binary/genderfluid person, they currently reside in what’s commonly known as the Greater Toronto Area, stolen land of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Huron-Wendat, Mississaugas of New Credit, Petun and Seneca peoples. They identify within queer and trans, femme, boi, gender non-conforming, crip and spoonie communities, as well as a survivor of abuse and intergenerational trauma.