Photographs Show How A Lack Of Masking Is Pushing Those With Disabilities Out Of The Public Sphere
CHICAGO — Artist Terri Hudson jumped at the chance to be a part of photographer Megan E. Doherty’s latest work, “Compromised” — over a dozen portraits of people who are immunocompromised trying to live their lives amid the ongoing pandemic.
Hudson, an actor, visual artist and songwriter, has a disability and is immunocompromised. The Loop resident was born with spina bifida, a condition where the spinal column doesn’t form properly, but has other things going on with her body to the extent that she calls herself a “bit of a medical mystery” at the moment.
Although she has a lot of the autoimmune issues that run in her family, she doesn’t actually have an autoimmune diagnosis.
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“I’m kind of an autoimmune warning instead of an autoimmune watch, if you will, because I’ve got all the ingredients but not enough to diagnose for any specific condition,” she said. “And I’m also borderline prediabetic and I have high blood pressure. When you put all that together, that’s a lot of conditions that we’ve been told COVID-19 will make this worse.”
The Atlanta native says she doesn’t need her body to be worse in five new, different ways if she were to contract COVID-19, so she’s doing everything she can to prevent that. She was cautious before the pandemic, but is even more vigilant now.
“I feel like if I contract COVID, that will absolutely kick something, if not everything, into gear, because we’ve seen people who don’t have all of the medical history that I have suddenly have cardiac problems, suddenly develop diabetes, et cetera, et cetera, after a bout of COVID,” said the 49-year-old.
Hudson’s precarious health condition is why she chose to be a portraiture participant. Doherty’s work is funded by a $15,000 grant from Getty Images and Verizon, an endeavor aimed at closing the representation gap when it comes to disability stories and voices.
Doherty’s work centers on people who have been pushed further to society’s periphery by removing the protection of indoor masking — those who have lost their right to participate in public life. Doherty said she was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis in 2015. She said her project’s title gestures to how governmental bodies compromised to sacrifice the health and lives of people in the disability community for the sake of profit and convenience.
“Essentially, I have been forced to shield in my home,” Doherty said. “This is an opportunity for me to leverage my skill as a photographer to call attention to how disabled and immunocompromised people are being marginalized by the pandemic and policy and how that’s still going on. We’ve essentially been forced out of public life, so I had to try to find a way to do photography again from my home.”
To protect her health and that of the people posing for portraits, Doherty uses an app that transmits a live feed from the participant’s space to hers in Rogers Park. Doherty has to see the participants live in order to direct them. She gets her high resolution portrait from the app recording. Doherty has done 11 remote portraits of immunocompromised or immunosuppressed Americans of different ages from California, New York, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado and, of course, Chicago.
Each portrait is accompanied by words from the participants — essays, letters, etc. — in their own handwriting about how they have been impacted by COVID-19, how they’ve been forced out of public life and what that has done to them emotionally, professionally, socially and economically. Doherty plans to pair each portrait and letter with recent numbers on COVID-19 cases and deaths in the project.
“Everyone is choosing to do their letter a little differently,” Doherty said. “One person made a drawing, another filled the whole page with words and phrases, some people are writing a lot, some are writing a little. But it’s a variance on the theme of feeling deeply betrayed by their government, the CDC, and by their communities. Because even if people in your own community know that you are vulnerable and immunocompromised, they still will not wear a mask when they go to the pharmacy, they still will not wear a mask when they go to the grocery store. It’s a profound reckoning with just how willing people are to prioritize their own convenience over the actual lives of other human beings.”
Doherty said when people look back at the pandemic 50 years from now, art like hers will be an important contribution to the historical record — much like the art as activism that came out of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Doherty was one of a handful of creatives who won a portion of the $40,000 grant from Getty Images focusing on sharing the experiences of the disability community. Claudia Marks, senior manager of new creator strategy at Getty Images, said Doherty was chosen because her work is “intimate and powerful in a way that allows the viewer to be welcomed into her world and her community.”
“Her imagery centers on the interconnectedness of those around her and not always in relation to her existence as a disabled individual — but more about the transformation and possibility that exists within those connections,” Marks said.
Doherty has done photographic projects in the Back of the Yards neighborhood and in Hyde Park. She also did a 2021 fellowship at Disability Lead, a Chicago-based leadership institute committed to cultivating a deeper bench of leaders with disabilities.
Doherty’s world is having to stay home except for medical appointments. She wears an Elastomeric P100 mask everywhere because she has a debilitating infection associated with chronic illness that has severely limited her functioning and she doesn’t need it to be limited any further. COVID-19 and long COVID is just something that she and others like her cannot risk.
“When I think about disability activism in the ’70s and ’80s — everything leading up to the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act — they were out in public spaces, they were occupying public buildings and doing demonstrations on Capitol steps,” Doherty said. “How can you stand up and be counted if you’re forced to stay home?”
Once completed, Doherty wants the work to be published editorially and accessible. She envisions the portraits being viewed in an outdoor setting, forcing a confrontation between people who have disabilities and are segregated from public life and non-disabled people who are unwittingly participating in making that a reality.
Advocacy and activism are inherent in this artistic effort.
“This is something that I hope will be used as part of the broader pandemic advocacy effort,” she said. “Anybody who wants to use it or point to it for those purposes, I welcome that. And for non-disabled community members to maybe stop and think about how it’s not OK to segregate disabled people out of public life. We have a right to exist in the same world that you do.”
Doherty’s activism extends to the narrative about the pandemic: the idea that it’s over, that people are tired of hearing about it. But Doherty says with the CDC citing 26% of the U.S. population having some type of disability, people with disabilities are not sick of hearing about the pandemic and not sick of masking. That’s why she’s lending her voice.
She says every social justice issue is also a disability issue, including having more journalists with disabilities in newsrooms.
Cara Reedy, director and founder of the Disabled Journalists Association, is leading the charge on that by conducting a summer survey and fall symposium for more information surrounding disability in the media, from coverage to training. The Loyola University graduate has dwarfism and has spent the last three years doing journalism training on disability for newsrooms. Disability Lead is calling for the industry to proactively seek out, hire, support and promote media professionals with disabilities. Once DJA launches, Reedy wants its social media to teach others about understanding disability issues from a journalistic lens.
Hudson is happy a friend informed her of Doherty’s “Compromised” work. Early on in her acting career, Hudson tried to keep her disability a secret. She said she was afraid of admitting that she needed help or asking for any kind of accommodation because she would be labeled difficult. She said it took her finding other actors with disabilities out in the world and seeing the spaces that they were carving to speak up. She said it was irresponsible of her to not speak up.
“People are like, ‘If you’re that sick, stay in your house and never go anywhere.’ Or they picture immunocompromised people as already living in a hospital or a clean room somewhere and not interacting with the daily world,” Hudson said. “Before COVID, most people didn’t know I was immunocompromised because the stakes weren’t as high and it wasn’t as dangerous for me to exist out in the world.”
In her letter, Hudson admits she’s been low-boil angry for three years, given that the lack of space for people with disabilities in public life was already a problem and the pandemic just magnified it.
“Stopping masking was the problem,” Hudson said. “I don’t know how to tell you that you should care about other people. … We are here. We are part of communities. We are part of families, our lives matter. We have a right to participate in public life and that right is being restricted right now; it’s honestly being restricted out of callousness and it’s not OK.”
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