What’s Up WID: Mental Health in the Disability Community Transcripts

Bri Beck, a White woman of short stature with red-rimmed eyeglasses, a taupe cardigan, black shirt and blue jeans smiles with her right hand on her hip

Ashley Inkumsah:

Hello, everyone, and welcome to a brand new season of What’s Up WID: The World Institute on Disability podcast where we discuss what’s up in the disability community across the globe. If you’re new here, I’m your host, Ashley Inkumsah, and I’m so excited to be back for another season. And we’re going to be continuing to have thought-provoking powerful conversations with advocates and activists within the disability community. Now, mental health is a subject matter that I’ve been so happy to see being prioritized and destigmatized over the past few years, but of course like most social issues, we still have a ways to go in the realm of lifting mental health stigmas. The widespread ableism that people with disabilities encounter has created several mental health challenges. And I had a conversation with someone who has a unique expertise in this particular area.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Brianna “Bri” Beck is a disabled arts therapist who couples fine art and design with mental health counseling. In her own words, Bri is committed to utilizing the arts to show the varied beautiful and complex story of disability. And I was so honored to discuss with her the importance of mental health in the disability community, how art therapy in particular can be an impactful avenue for disabled people, and how we can work together to eliminate access barriers that take such a massive toll on the mental health of people with disabilities.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Thank you so much, Bri, for joining me for today’s episode of our What’s Up WID podcast. The first question that I always like to ask our guests before we get into the super important questions is, how are you? How are you feeling? How are you doing?

Bri Beck:

Thank you for asking that question. I’m okay. It’s been kind of a dreary week here in Chicago, lots of clouds and rain, but that’s pretty typical for March and kind of been in a little bit of a hazy brain fog this week. I think it’s just like the ups and downs of weather and just trying to manage work and personal things. But today, I’m happy to be here. I’m trying to drink lots of water today to just get my energy up. But I’m so happy to be here with you and excited for this conversation. Yeah.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely. Yeah. So Bri and I were just talking offline before we started recording that I used to live in Chicago as well. And I’ve been checking the weather there periodically… I’m now in Oklahoma city. And over the weekend, I saw like it was 81 degrees here and it was like 30 degrees in Chicago. And I was just like, “Oh my God.” I don’t miss that about Chicago. So I understand what you’re saying about it being a little bit dreary. I totally get that.

Bri Beck:

Yeah. And it’s fine if it stays one way, but it teases you. It’ll be like 75 degrees one day and then the next, like 35 and just the air pressure messes with your sinuses and it just makes you feel weird from day-to-day. Yeah, that’s just the Midwest though. It’s just very, very random weather.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Very true. And here too, we have some weather issues going on. We’re in tornado season right now. So we’ve got our own issues too, but it is very… same kind of deal. It’ll be 81 degrees and then it’ll be like 50 degrees some days. It’s been up and down. I’m happy to be here with you virtually, that we’re able to have a conversation because our conversation is anything but dreary, I must say.

Bri Beck:

Absolutely. Absolutely. I’m excited to be here.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Yeah. So let’s hop right into our question. So if you could tell us about your work as a disabled arts therapist, including what exactly art therapy is for those who might be unaware and how you got involved in this space, that would be awesome.

Bri Beck:

Yeah. So kind of been a little bit all over the place in terms of being an art therapist. And I’m currently working in two different settings at once. One setting is more of a private practice setting where I’m working one on one with individuals and see them in more of a therapeutic clinical context. Anywhere from folks presenting with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress. I love to work with people that have disabilities themselves, whether that’s through things like chronic pain, chronic illness, physical disability, invisible disabilities, mental health conditions as a disability as they define it. So I do a lot of that clinical work in both talk therapy and art therapy.

Bri Beck:

And then part-time, I work with an organization in Chicago called Access Living, which is a center for independent living and they have a wonderful department of arts and culture. So I work with a colleague of mine and she and I run the arts and culture department and we try to promote disability culture through events, speaker series. I run a virtual mental health support group, which is more of a peer support model. So it’s a good blend right now at least of both the clinical therapy work and then doing more of the community based art therapy. And so as you ask like what art therapy even is, it’s pretty open-ended. I’ll try to define it in the way that I like to, but I like to think of art therapy as just a very authentic and human expression that we all have the capacity to handle because we… Excuse me, I’m fumbling here, but we spend so much time in therapy trying to verbalize our experiences when so much of the experiences that we go through are just so hard to put into words.

Bri Beck:

And so the arts are just another medium to express ourselves and it’s essentially turning our pain, our trauma, our stories into something beautiful, something interesting, or just taking them outside of ourselves and putting them somewhere else that’s not inside of us and being able to look at them with new eyes. Or if we’re making music or writing, to be able to hear them or witness them in new ways. So it’s a way to narrativize our experiences to make sense of them. There’s even this idea of art as therapy where just the act of making and creating is therapeutic in and of itself and we often don’t get the chance to make in our daily lives. In our society, it seems like there are artists and non-artists whereas everyone has the capacity to be artistic even if they wouldn’t define themselves that way. So my job as an art therapist is to often just hold space and allow for making and processing our life experiences in a new way.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Yeah. And the work that you do, it’s so important because escapism, specifically art as a form of escapism, is such an important part of the disability communities lives because of all of the access barriers that exist. And I’d love to hear about your disability and how that kind of led you down the path to do the work that you now do.

Bri Beck:

Absolutely. I was diagnosed when I was about two years old with a form of dwarfism called pseudoachondroplasia. So it’s a rare form of dwarfism. So I’m a person of short stature. I have a lot of different orthopedic concerns: arthritis, difficulty walking. I’ve had joint replacements, spinal surgery. So just very much like very body centric disability. And I use a mobility scooter to get around. So for a lot of my life, I wouldn’t have necessarily defined myself as disabled in this kind of identity sense because I grew up in a very small town. I was the only person that had an apparent disability in my class when I was in school and just kind of tried to push that disability aside and be like, “No, I’m just like everybody else. I just happen to have surgeries all the time and use a wheelchair.”

Bri Beck:

And I really didn’t claim it with any sense of pride because there was no reference point for me to even see that that was a thing, that disability community and pride and culture was even a thing at all. So it took me a while to really come into my own disability identity and make art about it and find community. It wasn’t actually until I went to undergrad where I found several friends that were wheelchair users and kind of developed a sense of culture amongst ourselves with just how we interacted throughout campus and kind of helping each other out, doing things for each other, sharing our experiences of ableism, which I didn’t even know that was a thing and recognized that a lot of the experiences I was having, that they were having the exact same things that I thought were just totally bizarre and unique to me.

Bri Beck:

And then when I went to graduate school for art therapy specifically, because I majored in graphic design in undergrad and I wanted to do something with people as an artist. So I found therapy as a career and thought that would be a good next step for me. But it really wasn’t until graduate school and moving to Chicago to attend graduate school that I found this really thriving disability community here in the city and realized that disability arts and culture was this incredible movement that I didn’t even know existed. And before I even went to grad school, I was like, “I want to be an art therapist that works with disabled people because I’ve been to therapy myself. I know what that feels like. And I’ve never found myself to be represented in the field of mental health with therapists and always felt that I had to educate them on my experiences.”

Bri Beck:

And I don’t hold that against the therapists that I’ve seen because they’ve been amazing, but there’s just a profound lack of education and awareness on disability, identity, and issues in the world and specifically speaking in the field of mental health. So kind of found my way into art therapy and used my own artistic process to process my own lived experiences of disability and found a lot of healing through that just for myself and even through sharing my art with other people and having my story be heard.

Ashley Inkumsah:

And how exactly would you say that you combine fine art and design with the disability justice framework? How exactly do you approach that?

Bri Beck:

Yeah. So my fine art and design for at least the beginning as I started making art about my disability identity I guess about a decade ago, I was really just telling my own personal story of disability and how I navigate the world. I used my body as inspiration a lot, making sculptures about my body, showing the world what life looks like from my eye level by making art that was hung in a gallery at a lower level. I just really made it from my own experiences and then recognized that, “Oh, what I’m doing is so similar to what this disabled artist is doing. They’re speaking from their experience.” And it’s almost like this collection of disability art creates this common story, this common narrative that speaks to disability culture. And then that actually serves as a form of activism in and of itself just by saying like, “Hey, this is this marginalized community who is underrepresented. Here are their stories. And what do their stories say about a culture that has not yet embraced disability or has made much of society accessible in so many different ways for so many different kinds of people?”

Bri Beck:

And as I grew more and more integrated or just met more people in the disability community, I learned about disability justice as a framework, which I will say is created by a group of people in the Bay Area, Sins Invalid, who are a performance art collective of BIPOC, queer, disabled folks. So I want to make sure I name that and say that these disability justice principles and framework are not created by me, but I’m certainly inspired by them and know that there are also identities that I hold as a white cis heterosexual woman within the disability community. And I think a lot about how I hold privilege being disabled at the same time amongst the community.

Bri Beck:

But some of the things that I’ve really been inspired by Sins Invalid and by disability justice is this idea of interdependency especially that we move and we work together collaboratively. That we each have a unique gift to give and we each often have our own needs and we can highlight each other’s gifts and give to one another and meet each other’s needs in these very unique ways. So this idea that we’re not these islands that capitalism promotes us to feel like we need to be. We don’t have to be hyper independent. We can rely on each other. We can be vulnerable. We can ask for help. We can ask for rest. So those things are… Interdependency is definitely a theme that I’m trying to explore not only in my own work, but really in my work as an art therapist and as a community artist because it feels like it’s more collaborative. It’s more of a collaborative process.

Bri Beck:

And I’m also thinking a lot about sustainability as a therapist, helping people whether they identify as disabled or not to not get caught up in this need to constantly be productive and to not think of themselves as only worthy because of what they produce and helping them to recognize their wholeness and their worth, which is another principle of disability justice.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Yeah. The first question that we ask someone sometimes when we approach them is, what do you do for a living?

Bri Beck:

Exactly.

Ashley Inkumsah:

And there’s so much emphasis and the lens in which you’re viewed and defined is so based on what you produce and what you can contribute. And it’s really important to separate ourselves from that destructive, I believe, destructive mindset and recognize ourselves as people who are worthy of rest, especially disabled people. So important that it’s okay and it’s been stigmatized. There’s a stigma of like being lazy or being whatever the case may be. And it’s just so important to give yourself that time to say, “Okay, I need to take care of me.” And self-care too. The idea of self-care is also something else that capitalism has kind of mystified in a way. Self-care is I’m going to buy myself a face mask from, I don’t know, Sephora.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Also just to clarify, my face mask, I don’t mean a COVID pandemic mask. I mean like Sephora cucumber, rose scented serum that you put on your face while you’re in the bathtub to so called take care of yourself. That’s what I mean, just wanted to clarify that. But that’s not self-care. Self-care is knowing when to set boundaries and knowing when to just love yourself. And it’s of course hard to have that confidence and that inner self-love when structurally, there’s so much ableism that makes you feel otherwise. And we’ll get to that more later. But why do you think that art specifically is such an important medium for the disability community? Because I can think of the fact that access wise physically, with all the accessibility barriers that so many disabled people face on a day-to-day basis, it’s so important, like I said earlier, to have that escapism. So why do you think though that it’s such an important medium for the disability community?

Bri Beck:

Totally. And it’s such a good question. I’m really glad you asked it because it’s making me think a lot about like, why is it that art is such a huge part of disability culture and really any culture? But when I think about marginalized communities, there is so much wisdom there and there’s so much lived experience of oppression and trauma. And I think if you think back at any point in human history or any difficult periods that humanity has gone through, even just think about the pandemic, what kind of art has come from that because of that need to express, that need to just emote an experience and to use art as a way to process and heal and connect? And like I said earlier, the arts are so… They’re so human. Being artistic and creative is in our wiring.

Bri Beck:

And humans were doing drawings on cave walls before written language was even a thing. And we dance and we sing and it’s this expression of the heart that we just have innately inside of us. And that often is really pulled out of us by a very rigid education system, capitalism, again, this need to be productive. And I think disabled people have just really used art as a way to just share the experience and their stories because it can be so immersive, right? I can make a piece of art that depicts my experiences visually that people can look at and be like, “Okay, I feel that. I feel those colors. I feel that emotion. I get this in a way that if I were to just kind of sit down and tell a story, that might… if I did so in a creative way, might have resonated,” but it’s just so much more powerful and emotive when you involve these artistic elements.

Bri Beck:

I also think with art, there’s no one way to do it. You can approach art from so many different angles. It can be visual. It can be musical. It can be movement. And as disabled people, we navigate the world in all of these different ways. So I think the arts are a very natural place for disabled people to go because it allows for so much creativity and flexibility. Arts are also very collaborative in nature and disability culture and community is all about collaboration and relying on one another. And yeah, there’s just so many different perspectives that can be brought to the arts. So I just think it’s this really beautiful safe place, but safe in the way that it’s not… it still allows for risk. It still allows for tension and challenging, but it’s definitely a lovely place to put so much that we carry inside.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Yeah, it’s so true because people with disabilities are not a monolith. And I think art allows us to see that the disability community is such a rich tapestry of different lived experiences. And it also allows us to compare and see that there are so many shared experiences within the disability community at the same time. So yeah, it’s super important in that regard. And I also think about like all of the amazing disabled influencers and content creators who are reclaiming the narrative. For so long, we’ve been accustomed to seeing such inaccurate depictions of people with disabilities in the media and influencers and creators and artists are all saying, “No, we’re going to show you what it actually is like in real life to be disabled.” And I love to see that. It’s just amazing to see.

Bri Beck:

Yes, yes. We don’t have as much gatekeeping anymore to who’s allowed on screens and who’s allowed to be represented in our media. So it’s been a huge shift. And even in the last five years or so, I feel like the exposure of disabled people and culture has just really exponentially grown. That’s really exciting.

Ashley Inkumsah:

And it’s really awesome to see the Oscars. Obviously, everyone’s talking about Oscars right now.

Bri Beck:

Yes, yes, yes.

Ashley Inkumsah:

What has been forgotten in that is Best Picture. Seeing CODA win Best Picture is revolutionary and it really is a step in the right direction and seeing that, and I’m seeing a lot of commercials on TV too with disability representation. So there has been strides that have been made, but still a lot more work to be done and amazing to see disabled artists taking the lead and saying, “Well, we’re going to show you what it’s really like.” So it’s just awesome.

Bri Beck:

It is. It’s really exciting. I think there’s going to be a lot more progress in the next decade or so.

Ashley Inkumsah:

You can only hope.

Bri Beck:

Yes, yes.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Yes. And I know a lot of your work focuses on dissecting the medical model of disability as well as a social model of disability. So for our listeners who might not know what those two models are, if you can discuss… if you can define what the medical and the social model of disability is and discuss kind of like the mental toll that the lack of accessibility creates for disabled people on an everyday basis.

Bri Beck:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). So the medical model of disability is really the dominant framework that society as a whole considers disability. It’s the model that I thought about disability for for a lot of my life where disability is conceived of as an ailment or an individual problem, an individual condition. Whether that’s a disease, a genetic condition, an injury, something that happens to a person that then often sends them to the medical system to be cured. And it’s this idea that one is always better if they were not living with this disability, this condition, et cetera. The social model sees disability from an opposite way where disability is seen as something that is created by society’s lack of accessibility. So I am somebody that uses a mobility scooter, but if I come across a set of stairs, I’m not able to access a building or an apartment because of that set of stairs.

Bri Beck:

However, if that entrance had a ramp, or if that entrance had an elevator, I would be able to access it. Therefore, my disability isn’t really an issue or my body, the way that I move throughout the world isn’t an issue. So medicalization or the medical model puts the problem on an individual. The social model puts the problem on society and the way that it’s built. And that goes down to everything from infrastructure, to the education system, how we teach, how we expect people to behave because it’s not just about physical access, it’s about educational access and even the way that we expect productivity for people that may not have as much ability to have mental energy. There’s just so many ways that ableism is so present in the way that society is designed.

Bri Beck:

And so when I think about this lack of accessibility, especially as a therapist and as a person too that lives with it, there is an emotional toll and some things I can think of off the top of my head are there can be a sense of isolation, a sense that you are not considered or not thought of. It can lead to a sense of even hyper-vigilance, I’ll say, this kind of need to always be on and thinking 10 steps ahead to make sure that you can navigate the world or that if you’re invited to go have dinner with a friend, you have to think like, “Well, is the restaurant accessible? And if the entrance is accessible, is the bathroom accessible? Will there be enough space in the restaurant for me to drive my scooter around without people having to move their chairs? And will it create a scene kind of thing?”

Bri Beck:

So there is this sense of always being kind of on or 2 steps ahead or even 10 steps ahead. And so much of just being in your head can really lead to sometimes being an anxious person and being anxious can lead to feeling depressed. There’s also just even things like medical trauma that people with disabilities or disabled people, that they endure. I mentioned earlier that I had a lot of big orthopedic surgeries and it wasn’t until I was much older that I understood how body trauma can lead to mental health concerns and the way that our bodies hold onto trauma. And just the lack of care that the medical profession can have with disabled people can be definitely traumatizing. So I do work with people that have medical trauma and it’s a big thing. And I think that the mental health side of disability is often neglected and it’s something that I’m really exploring in my work as a therapist and have a long way to go. But it’s sort certainly where my interest lies because I think it’s just highly unexplored right now.

Ashley Inkumsah:

We started to talk about the idea that there’s so much messaging from society of how to be confident and you should just be confident and self-love yourself until you’re happy, but it’s like I just always think that no matter how much you love yourself, it’s like if society and structural elements are not made to benefit you, it almost doesn’t matter sometimes even if you love yourself so much. So my question for you is how do you think that disabled people can commit to bettering their own mental hygiene even though these access barriers exist and how can art therapy help in that journey?

Bri Beck:

Totally. It’s a great question, and I’m so glad that you highlighted this. No matter how much you love yourself, you’re always going to be surrounded by messages that like, “You’re not represented. You’re not thought of. That the world isn’t made for you.” And so there does have to be a lot more intentionality, I think, behind making sure that we have this good mental health hygiene that you named, being very intentional about our mental wellness and making that a big priority in our lives. So I would encourage anyone, this is everyone in the world, but especially disabled people or anybody that faces marginalization or lack of representation, lack of access, to really be intentional about finding your people, finding your community. Who are those people in your life that you can call on and just talk to about whatever’s on your mind? And how are you going to be that for them? Find your people, find your tribe.

Bri Beck:

I also encourage everyone to just be really intentional about their wellness routine. If you don’t have one, try to create one. It’s easier said than done, but being intentional about like, how much water are you drinking a day? How much sleep are you getting? How mindful are you being in your daily life? How are you staying grounded and present in your body? And I will offer a caveat to that, that sometimes being in your body as a disabled person is not that easy, but how do you try to find balance and presence and find happy movement in your day, find joy in being in your body? Of course, I said earlier, getting enough rest, getting those eight hours of sleep or more a night or whatever you need as much as possible, setting boundaries, being able to say no and preserving your energy as disabled people, especially if you’re making work and doing things, disabled people are asked a lot to give their perspective and kind of speak for the community.

Bri Beck:

So be mindful of how my much that you’re being asked to share your story and know that it’s okay to say no sometimes and protect yourself and just focus on your strengths. Find out what your strengths are and try to just hone in on those and find your lane. Disability and so many social justice movements, and they’re all interconnected, but it can really feel so overwhelming that there’s so much to be done. And I know I can find myself in that space of like, “There’s so much I could do. I can put my energy here. I can put my energy here.” But I find that when I spread myself too thin, I become burnt out and exhausted, and I don’t have enough energy for me or for really being of much use to anyone else.

Bri Beck:

So recognizing your strengths and knowing it’s okay for you to really pour your energy into one or two things that you really care about and focus on that and know that that’s enough. And of course with art, find a way to tell your story even if that’s just to yourself. Journal about it, take photos of your daily life, draw, sing. And if you feel comfortable, find a group of people to show it to and know that what you create is beautiful and authentic and it’s worth other people’s time and attention.

Ashley Inkumsah:

And obviously knowing that the onus isn’t on disabled people to have to adapt to society and find these coping mechanisms. So how would you say that non-disabled people and businesses and governments, how can they take responsibility for either intentionally or unintentionally? Because sometimes people are perpetrators of ableism and they don’t even realize that they’re doing it. So we’re going to give them grace that sometimes it can be unintentional, but how do businesses, corporations, non-disabled people, how do they work together to eliminate these stigmas and access barriers? How do you think they can do that?

Bri Beck:

Yeah, that’s a big question. I have an idea. I’m not saying this is the way, but my first thought about that is I think there needs to be, first of all, a mindset shift before any action can be taken because even with diversity and inclusion efforts, I think there’s still a… I think at least in the category of disability and this could be related to other identities as well, but disability is seen as a binary where it’s an us versus them or this person’s disabled, I’m not. Kind of this separation where we need to be… I’m speaking as the we as like maybe a corporation or a government. We need to help disabled people. We need to include them. We need to make things more accessible, which is absolutely true. But how can we go from that to recognizing that disability is a spectrum and we’re all on it in one way or another and that changes throughout the lifetime?

Bri Beck:

As we age, we become more disabled. If we are sick and have to take off work, we’re disabled that day. If we get into an injury or get into an accident and have an injury, if we’re feeling really depressed or we’re grieving something, disability is a human experience. And I think we need to think about disability as a very human thing that will touch us all and kind of challenge this capitalism and this way of life that we have where we have to be so productive all the time and only certain people are allowed at the table, or you have to achieve certain milestones to make it into places of leadership. There just needs to be a big mindset shift about what disability means instead of thinking of disability as a binary, just thought of it as a very human experience, then we could really challenge the way that society is designed right now.

Bri Beck:

That we have to be a certain level of able body or mentally stable, whatever that means. That there’s these achievements that we have to reach in order to be worthy of being productive or being a leader, or of going to work, or making a certain salary. And I think we would do a lot better by just making the world, or just even the workplace for one thing more accessible by just allowing for more grace and time off and rest and making sure that there’s flexibility in how we work. If we need to work from home, if we need to go into the office, and just asking for access needs more of a commonplace thing, checking in with every single employee or every single person in an organization about what their needs are and trying to just create a culture of community and of interdependency. And I don’t think that would make people take advantage of it. I think that would make people want to be a part of something bigger and go to work and be a part of a collective and be proud to do that. And I think it would really enhance everybody’s own mental and emotional wellbeing. So I think just that mindset shift would go a really long way.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Yeah. And I’ve said this in previous episodes before of our podcast that if we’ve learned anything in this past couple of years of being in the pandemic is that these access and needs are so important. And there’s so much of a wanting, a yearning to so called go back to normal. And I think that what we really need to do is to take what we have learned over these past couple of years and apply it to our society all year round in terms of accessibility for the disability community. So we all have a lot of work to do for sure. We’re not going to resolve obviously all of these issues. Unfortunately, I wish we could eradicate it all in this episode of this podcast. But like we said earlier, there’s still a lot of work to do, but I think that our conversation was definitely a step in so many right directions in moving the needle forward within disability justice and specifically within from a mental health standpoint and an arts therapy standpoint. So it was really an honor to have a conversation with you. And I had so much fun chatting with you and just picking your brain and thinking out loud with you. So thank you so much for being a guest today.

Bri Beck:

Thank you so much, Ashley. This is an awesome conversation. It’s great to talk with somebody that is into the same things that I am and just is able to kind of brainstorm aloud with me. And I appreciate you just going with where my head was going and letting me just think out loud, but this was really exciting and I’m really glad I got to do this with you. Thank you.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Yes, the pleasure is all mine. Trust me.

Bri Beck:

Thank you.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Bri was such an incredible person to chat with. Her unique expertise of having the lived experience as a person with a disability and being so well versed on mental health as a whole, it really made her a fantastic person to have this conversation with. Thank you to Bri for being such an awesome and brilliant person to chat with. What an amazing guest to kick off the second season of our podcast with. You’re so, so appreciated, Bri, and I would love to have you back on another episode. Thank you to all of you at home for tuning into today’s episode and I look forward to having you back for the next episode of What’s Up WID. You can find transcripts, American sign language interpretations, and past episodes of our podcast on our website at www.wid.org/whats-up-wid. Thank you again and stay tuned for our next episode.

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