A conversation on how we understand identity and what we owe each other.

by Cypress Chernik

It’s never been easy to navigate the intricate maze that is human interaction. Few people can say with confidence that they are entirely comfortable with the idea that, at all times, we find ourselves subject to the perception of others. While our understanding of identity expands, the desire to be understood beyond physical appearance is ever-present. “Intersectionality” is now a part of our everyday vocabulary because in our expansion of identity, we attempt to include and identify every aspect of individual history that might push people to the margins of society. But what does it mean when intersectionality isn’t a concrete and tangible Venn diagram? Labels may help us better accommodate people from all walks of life, but they are a double-edged sword that can lead institutions and communities to exclude those who don’t conform to their idea of “non-conformity”. 

Aria Lorenz, a speaker at the 2024 Catalyst TEDx conference, advocates for the rights of disabled youth–even those who don’t present themselves in the way disability is expected to appear. As someone who has had a disability since adolescence but doesn’t necessarily look the part, she talks about the isolating experiences that she has had in spaces that were not welcoming to her. While she hopes her message is not misconstrued to discount visual representation, Lorenz invites us to pay attention to the issues within activism and the people who fall through the cracks; “When we talk about diversity and initiatives like that, it’s very focused on the visual.” 

Unless you are directly affected by a disability, you don’t realise the bureaucratic difficulties of receiving accommodations. Lorenz discusses her surprise at the extent to which opportunities are placed further out of reach; “So like, what does it mean when you have to get accommodations? What does that look like? When family doctors take two weeks to write a doctor’s note, and every course is asking for a doctor’s note. And every page of a doctor’s note is $25. So now you’re spending hundreds of dollars for a doctor’s note to excuse a few absences. So things like that, I just had no idea.” 

The visual component of disability places even more difficulty on the people who don’t “seem” disabled enough, or in the right way. Intersectionality in general is fluid and uncertain; people who are mixed race and queer often don’t present their intersections outright–it’s a matter of taking minorities at their word. And while we have gotten better at recognising when a particular group is struggling and how the academic community can better support its needs, there is still a long way to go. Lorenz believes that it starts with trust. She talks about how the burden is often placed on people who are disabled to prove their disability and their genuine need for accommodations; she questions institutions and organisations on why this has to be the case. In the current progressive society, what kind of proof do we demand from the people around us? 

As individuals, we may not have a lot of power to sway the decisions of the institutions that we belong to, and many have no desire to. But this doesn’t mean that something doesn’t need to shift in the way we perceive identity. Most people have likely had isolating experiences, and all people have been misunderstood at some point. As visual beings, we will not detach ourselves from relying on visual cues. Still, Lorenz believes we are capable of doing better for each other, particularly for those of us who are affected by disabilities and marginalisation. “We’re going to make judgments based on visuals; that’s inevitable, but we shouldn’t let that block us from seeing people for who people really are.”

Aria Lorenz will deliver an in-person talk at TedxUofT’s annual conference on Jan. 28, 2024, discussing the perspectives that are ignored when identity is seen as solely about visual perception.

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