Meeting Change

After much consideration, we will be shifting from having meetings once a week to having meetings once a month. This Sunday, 1st March will be the first monthly meeting. Generally, we intend to have regular meetings the first Sunday of every month. We encourage everyone to subscribe to our Google calendar to keep up with events. We did not take this decision lightly, and we will continue to review all the technology that is utilized or could be utilized as we move forward.

We would like members to know that you are welcome to use our Second Life and IRC chat room space for informal meetings anytime. Other members have showed an interest in continuing to meet every Sunday at 1 PM Pacific informally, so we encourage all members to continue dropping in during this time for casual conversation.

Sincerely,

GimpGirl Staff

Holiday Break

Seasons Greetings!

We would like to let everyone know we will be taking a break over the holidays. The meetings on December 21, December 28, and January 4 are canceled. Our support meetings will start again in the new year on January 11, 2015. We look forward to catching up with everyone again then. In the meantime, you can still stay in touch on our Facebook group and on Twitter.

We’d like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who has supported us the past year, all our members and friends of GimpGirl. We are very proud of our community.

We’d now like to ask you, what is your highlight from 2014? What achievements are you most proud of? Do you have any new year resolutions for 2015? Let us know in the comments below!

How GimpGirl Works

How do we function as an organization? People often ask about our somewhat unique way of getting things done. GimpGirl Community has been around for almost 16 years now, but because we often operate behind closed doors most people don’t understand how this community works from an “administrative” level.

We are a relatively well-known group in certain circles, and the prevailing stereotype of relatively well-known groups such as ours is that of a well-funded, corporate nonprofit with a full staff who often presumes to know more about the people they serve than the people themselves. I promise you we are none of those things.

Financial Survival

GimpGirl has never been — and never will be — a well-funded corporate nonprofit. We have never been the recipient of any grant, and we do not have a regular source of funding aside from occasional member donations that cover the cost of incidentals like travel and computer equipment. We have always relied on “in-kind” donations of services from supporters (mostly friends of those within our “staff” circle) and individual members. They donate technical services such as server maintenance and computer repair, and various professional services such as editing articles and consulting on the best way to create healthy environments. We also partner with other organizations on services like web servers in order to save money.

Aside from our beginnings as part of a very small nonprofit (which is now defunct), and a brief partnership with another very small nonprofit, we have never been independently registered as a nonprofit. One of the main benefits of being a registered nonprofit is the ability to apply for grants and various other funding. For some organizations, a reliable money stream is essential to carrying out services. However, going down that path also means that a large percentage of human resources must be redirected to continually seeking new and better funding sources.

The U.S. 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporate structure comes with legal requirements, as well as additional provisions required by funding sources – stipulations we are not willing to accept. As women with disabilities, our lives are often subject to the whims of medical and bureaucratic institutions. Our members sometimes deal with homelessness, neglect, abandonment in life-threatening situations, and physical, sexual and emotional abuse. The organizations and bureaucracies that are in place to deal with these situations are often not set up to handle disability needs. As a collective, we have the flexibility to help our members deal with these situations in ways that we would not be able to if we incorporated as a nonprofit.

Human Resources

Even though GimpGirl technically has an internal hierarchy, we often function more like a democratic collective. The hierarchy was established to create a structure to deal with potential conflicts, and to centralize individuals who have clearance to speak for our community and coordinate volunteer efforts. Because we are a community by and for women with disabilities, it is highly beneficial to have a flexible structure that allows individuals to contribute in a way that works for them. Our volunteers not only deal with the barriers that the bureaucracy around disability causes, but they also deal with the complications that many adults deal with – jobs, children, family, relationships.

There are times when we refer to the contributors as “staff,” but we have never paid anyone any amount of money to work for this community. All “staff” hours are donated by individuals, including those who officially have titles such as myself. Our core volunteers also often collaborate with other organizations on projects related to women with disabilities and technology, but they generally do not receive monetary compensation for their efforts even when the project is funded. Volunteers are invited to conferences around the world to represent our community and to talk about the issues we confront, and when we are lucky the organizers pay for travel and accommodations. We are all volunteers working towards a common goal – not because we are paid, but because we are passionate.

Member Participation

The real magic in what we do happens when we bring members together. The women with disabilities that facilitate and participate in this community work together to create the space that makes everything that we do possible. Many members have never had the opportunity to talk to other women with disabilities because of barriers or a lack of people in the local community. A kind of natural co-mentorship forms when you bring people together who understand the lived experience of each other. Our members come from all over the world, and represent a wide variety of different backgrounds and levels of experience. They also have a wide range of disabilities.

Young students come to us struggling with the complications that come with being successful in college to speak to older professionals who have been where they are. Individuals in abusive situations at home come to us to speak with women who have made the transition to their own environment. Women who are pregnant come to speak with other mothers who understand how society treats mothers with disabilities. People simply wondering how to get from here to there to accomplish something they want to accomplish come to ask about accessible transportation. We all have some story or learned lesson that we can share that is meaningful to others.

Involving a wide range of women with disabilities also helps ensure that our community stays accessible to a wide range of people. Our contributors strive to create online spaces that are inclusive to all of our members, because our members make us who we are. Additionally, contributors are all people with disabilities who have their own needs. Instead of thinking about accessibility as a vague idea or a checklist, we think about accessibility as a constantly evolving collective responsibility to work together to make sure everyone can participate. We are successful because we work together with inclusivity in mind from the beginning.

Other Resources

If you have access to an academic library and would like more information about how this community functions, please check out our article in New Media and Society entitled GimpGirl grows up: Women with disabilities rethinking, redefining, and reclaiming community. Everyone can access additional information about this community on this website under the About Us tab, as well as in the numerous articles found here.

Community Liaison Katherine Mancuso and I will also be discussing how our community works today — January 27, 2014 at 6pm Pacific — at the online event Leading Accessible Online Communities. It is open to everyone!

 

— Jennifer Cole, Director, GimpGirl Community

 

We are back!

 

Okay, we never really went anywhere. Our Facebook group continues to be incredibly active, and you can always find us on Twitter. However, we did take a much lengthier than expected break from our weekly support group meetings over the summer as we transitioned from our previous site on Second Life.

CROWD LogoThanks to the Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Research on Women with Disabilities (CROWD), we now have a brand-new space to hold meetings on Second Life. CROWD is run by women with disabilities, and one of their many projects utilizes the Second Life platform to develop and carry out health promotion interventions for women with disabilities. It is a match made in heaven!

We have had many requests over our break for our meetings to continue, and we are happy to say that the wait is over! On November 3, 2013, at 1 PM Pacific, we will be holding our first support group meeting at our new location on Second Life. This meeting is for women with disabilities only. We encourage everyone to show up early to make sure that you can access the new location.

As always, if you don’t choose to (or can’t) use Second Life for whatever reason, you can always join us on our chat room. It is an IRC channel that can be accessed from our website, or by using mIRC or many other free IRC clients. The details can be found on the Chat Room page if you prefer to connect using another client.

We will be having events for the general public in the future, so stay tuned. We encourage everyone to subscribe to our Google calendar, or join one of our other communities to get notices about future events.

Have questions about how to connect? Comment below, or connect with us on any of our communities!

GimpGirl Moves to a New Sim

GimpGirl Community’s current Second Life sim will be closing as of May 11, 2013. In June, we will have a new Second Life space set up and will notify everyone when it opens! Until then, we will be taking a break after May 11 from regular scheduled meetings, so our last meeting for a few weeks will be the Hang Out Hour on May 8. We will announce the next meeting as we get closer to opening our new space on Second Life. In the meantime, you can get involved on Facebook and Twitter, or reach us on our website contact form.

A reminder to all current vendors and tenants: Our current Second Life sim will be completely shutting down as of May 11. Don’t wait until the last minute to save all of your objects! If you have anything on our parcel that is irreplaceable, please take it into your inventory as soon as possible. All vendor spaces and apartments will completely disappear on or around May 11. Please let us know if you have any questions or concerns that we can assist you with.

GimpGirl Community’s 15th Anniversary Celebration

In February we celebrate GimpGirl Community’s 15th anniversary. We’ve come a long way since it was founded in 1998, however our mission remains the same — to support the lives of women with disabilities. We could not do this without the support of our members.

To mark this celebration we would like to ask you to submit your thoughts to us on what GimpGirl has meant to you. It could be a memory, a poem, a piece of creative writing or art work. We will showcase them on our website, Flickr, Second Life, Facebook and Twitter. We are also planning a celebration (details to come) where we will showcase some pieces and show art work in our Second Life gallery and on Flickr. We ask that these be submitted by 28th of February.

You can email your entry to us using the contact form on our website or add pictures to our Flickr group. You can also comment on this post with your memories. What is your first memory of GimpGirl? What is your favorite memory since being part of the community? We look forward to reading them!

GimpGirl Turns 14

Today marks the 14th anniversary of GimpGirl Community! We have taken many forms in the last 14 years, but our mission has always remained the same: to bring together women with disabilities in the spirit of mutual support and positivity. That single mission brings together individuals with many different disabilities from a variety of countries and backgrounds to share our commonalities.

Our community’s administrators and facilitators have always been women with disabilities who volunteer their time because they believe that our community should be strengthened from within by people who understand the lived experience of being a woman with a disability.

We have also grown through the support of many others. Indeed, it is through volunteerism, in-kind donations of services, creative management of available resources and the use of open source and free to use online tools that we have survived and flourished.

Do you have any stories, anecdotes or favorite memories of your time with GimpGirl? We would love to hear from you on your experience of the last 14 years!

Women and Virtual Spaces

This article was originally posted on Yahoo! Accessibility.

What kind of virtual world do women inhabit, and what are the implications of their increasingly diverse online activities? This is a difficult question to answer, because there is no singular “virtual world.” The Internet is a tool for people to create communities of their own, not one unitary community. While there are a lot of very big and open common spaces, it is also entirely possible to create a fairly insular community online where the participants work together to create whatever kind of virtual space they want to (Youngs). This is particularly beneficial for marginalized groups, such as women and people with disabilities (Herring et al.), who can create spaces in which a shared experience can lead to building identity and a sense of empowerment from being able to work through barriers with others who understand.

In many (maybe even most) virtual spaces, there is still quite a bit of hostility towards women and women’s issues. Discussion of women’s issues seems to draw trolling behavior (Herring et al.). When gender equality is discussed in many online spaces, it is met with disbelief and resistance, particularly in the context of developed, industrialized nations. There seems to be a general response of, “What are you whining about? You ‘feminist types’ have ruined everything.” Doubly so when you consider disability issues on top of that, as our whole group is often judged by people who don’t know us to be a leech on society, rather than considered as valuable individuals who are full members of society. This hostility, often termed ableism, is never easy to see, let alone overcome, particularly for those who are not entirely sure where they stand.

However, many women have managed to carve out relatively safe spaces in which to build community and discuss issues that are important to them, using a combination of traditional community-building practices learned from offline spaces and thoughtful use of new online opportunities and moderation tools. The implications of the spaces that are being built by women and allies are at once amazing and needed, but also highlight progress that needs to be made. Online communities have taken spaces for woman-identified people from the relatively small, hidden, local community-dependent places of the 1960s and 1970s (which Tracey L. M. Kennedy calls “consciousness-raising groups”) to a medium that reaches out internationally to where people are in order to find truly like-minded individuals to form a community with (or “feminist virtual consciousness-raising”) (Youngs). Finally, all of those issues that women have really wanted to discuss with other people for so many years are being discussed in a relatively welcoming environment.

Potential Complications

However, the ability to find people who do very much agree with you has also sometimes led to online communities and blogs being solipsistic, extremely insular and exclusionary – creating an “echo chamber” effect. Miller and Shepherd describe this as a sort of “intensification of the self” wherein identities become highly internally mediated and focused on their chosen goal or acceptance by a group. They can become something like a cult of personality wherein you are not welcome if you have different ideas, even if your desires and goals are very similar. This practice is somewhat understandable considering many people crave commonality in which to “share stories” and explore self-expression, but it may not lead to real change in the world in any direct sense (Miller and ShepherdKennedyYoungs). Also, inclusion is not easy for anyone. The Internet allows for a great deal of diversity, which can be overwhelming. It takes a great deal of consciousness, outreach and intention to be welcoming to a broad range of people, even just within the women’s community.

Conclusion

This concept of forming women-centered virtual spaces has even been formalized by organizations like BlogHer, which brings together women who blog about a wide variety of topics together at conferences every year to network, built projects, and work towards common goals. They also have a website where blog feeds of all members are integrated with networking and community tools.  Our own organization, GimpGirl, allows for women with disabilities to connect for mutual support and networking. There are also several organizations that support women in traditionally male-dominated technology fields, such as The Anita Borg Institute which focuses on connecting women in computer science through their numerous initiatives such as a yearly conference and discussion lists.

Thankfully, these virtual spaces also provide many opportunities for inclusion and outreach if the effort is made, as well as an amazing opportunity for surprisingly intimate dialogue and content friendly to women (KennedyTobias). You can network with an endless variety of people that have similar or parallel goals, and work together with them to reach larger audiences.

Know of other women-centered communities or have something to say? Feel free to comment below!

 

Sources:

Herring, Susan et al. Searching for Safety Online: Managing “Trolling” in a Feminist Forum. The Information Society, 18:371-384. 2002.

The Internet, Disability and Artistic Expression

This article was originally posted on Yahoo! Accessibility.

Feminist Art Movement

The world of art, particularly art displayed in larger professional art galleries, has long been the domain of white men. Well-known artists throughout history are almost all white men, and depictions of women are often passive and sensual rather than involved in her surroundings. The images are of women as seen through the eyes of men, rather than how they see themselves (Whitehead, 1999; Brand, 2006).

The Guerrilla Girls, a group of women who work to get women and minorities represented as artists, called the Metropolitan out for their biased representation where 97% of the work displayed was done by men, and 83% of the nude work displayed was of naked women – asking “Do Women Need to Be Naked To Get into The Met?” (Brand, 2006). Out of frustration for the lack of representation of personal experience, women started the feminist art movement in the 1970s both to get their artistic expressions seen, and also as a form of activist response to mainstream art.

Art Online

With the ever-growing popularity of the Internet, women are able to connect with other people who understand their frustrations, as well as put their own artistic expression in very public spaces. Self-expression made public can convey a great deal of meaning for the artist – especially for marginalized groups. Art is often about feeling (even more so for women, who often experience art with both sides of their brain), and for many marginalized groups, those feelings go unnoticed (BBC, 2009).

The Internet provides a medium for art that previously would previously have never seen the light of day. Artists can have their own website to represent their work, as can physical art galleries that house pieces of art that can be later viewed in person. Additionally, performance artist groups can share videos of their work, both vastly increasing who they can reach and providing a way of growing interest in their theater performances. Writers can create blogs and self-publish their work online. They can also spread the word about published pieces and talk to members of the target audience. Community can be built around art in broader ways that transcend what was previously experienced by localized art communities.

Women with Disabilities

Female artists with disabilities are no exception. As a marginalized group, they struggle with representation in the larger art world. However, in the later half of the 20th century, the disability rights movement also fostered the creation of an entire genre of art (Disability Art) that explores the experience of living with a disability (Barnes, 2008). Many modern female artists with disabilities cite both the disability rights and feminist movements as dominant inspirations in their work.

Here is just a small list of amazing women (mostly from the U.S.) who at least in part benefit from the use the Internet to spread the impact of their work: Petra Kuppers, performance artist and founder of The Olimpias project; Ju Gosling, multimedia storyteller and performance artist; Cheryl Marie Wade, writer and performer; Laura Hershey, writer and poet; Anne Finger, author; Victoria Ann Lewis, performer and writer; Riva Lehrer, painter and writer; Sunaura (Sunny) Taylor, painter; Veronica Elsea, composer and musician; Carrie Sandahl, performer and head of the UIC Program on Disability Art, Culture, and Humanities; and many of the AXIS Dance Company dancers. This is nowhere near an exhaustive list. Know of others (especially outside the U.S)? Comment below and share them!

There are also several websites and organizations that support the work of artists with disabilities online (such as VSANational Institute of Art and DisabilitiesNational Arts and Disability CenterDisability Art and Culture Project, and one page mentions like The Amazing Art of Disabled Artists, among others). Know of other organizations or collections (especially outside the U.S)? Again, comment below and share them with others!

GimpGirl Community supports female artists with disabilities through our virtual art gallery (see pictures below). On our Second Life parcel, a co-created space, we have an art gallery to showcase the artwork of our members, who are often marginalized as women, disabled, poor, minority, etc. Their works convey a great deal of feeling – physical pain, heartache, frustration, joy, power, friendship, and knowing.

For many of the artists, these pictures had never been seen by anyone outside of their family or roommates. When they put them in our gallery, other women who experience similar feelings had immediate connections with what the feeling was. The artist was there, being real and vulnerable and connecting with other people who understood. It is an incredibly powerful thing, to feel that connection over something you never thought you would share with anyone. Technology allows people to come together in this way, supporting expression, healing and connection.

Sources:

Barnes, C. (2008). Behinderung und Dritte Welt (Journal for Disability and International Development). 19 Jargang, Ausgabe 1. 4 -13.

Brand, P. (2006). Feminist Art Epistemologies: Understanding Feminist Art. Hypatia, 21:3.

Original Cyborgs: Disability and Technology on Yahoo Accessibility

This article was originally posted on Yahoo! Accessibility.

The Exploration of the Cyborg

Unless you are a feminist, geek or academic, you have likely not come across the Cyborg Manifesto. It was written back in 1985 as an exploration of how the boundaries between human, animal and machine are blurring, as well as the implications of that breakdown of barriers (particularly in regards to feminist theory). Dr. Donna Haraway was one of the first academics to really comment on the vast diversity there is within the feminist community. She points out:

Sandoval emphasizes the lack of any essential criterion for identifying who is a woman of colour. She notes that the definition of the group has been by conscious appropriation of negation. For example, a Chicana or US black woman has not been able to speak as a woman or as a black person or as a Chicano. Thus, she was at the bottom of a cascade of negative identities, left out of even the privileged oppressed authorial categories called ‘women and blacks’, who claimed to make the important revolutions. The category ‘woman’ negated all non-white women; ‘black’ negated all non-black people, as well as all black women. But there was also no ‘she’, no singularity, but a sea of differences among US women who have affirmed their historical identity as US women of colour. This identity marks out a self-consciously constructed space that cannot affirm the capacity to act on the basis of natural identification, but only on the basis of conscious coalition, of affinity, of political kinship. …

She talks about how class and race affect the experience of being a woman, as well as how it can negatively affect the woman’s ability to participate in the larger feminist discourse. Amber Case further explains the traditional definition of a cyborg as “an organism ‘to which exogenous components have been added for the purpose of adapting to new environments’” (from a 1960 paper on space travel). While reading this and other papers that have attempted to extrapolate further on “the cyborg myth” it often strikes me that they are missing a really obvious connection when discussing various intersections; many people with disabilities have been cyborgs (under Dr. Haraway’s definition) since long before “technology” or the concept of a cyborg was even a popular discussion. There is some rare exceptions, such as this piece on Frida Kahlo and a brief mention in the Cyborg Manifesto itself (as pointed out by Theresa Senft):

Here, she makes what is her only real reference to prosthetics and disability in her entire essay, in a discussion of Anne McCaffrey’s 1969 novel, The Ship Who Sang. The novel death a severely handicapped [sic] girl whose brain was connected to complex machinery, in which machines serve as “prosthetic devices, intimate components, friendly selves.” Haraway wonders aloud, “Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?”

Indeed, those of us with disabilities and chronic health issues would be hard pressed to separate ourselves from technology. Our lives are intrinsically linked with technology, and our identity is often defined by it.

Disability and Technology

I will use myself as a working example to further comment on. I am writing this article on my laptop, using speech to text technology (Dragon Dictate) to type my thoughts for me while I talk to my computer. I’m sitting upright in my adjustable hospital-style bed, supported by an almost entirely metal spine that was implanted to keep my spine from collapsing. My laptop is on a rolling metal table to keep it from putting pressure on my legs. I am literally surrounded by technology to lift me out of bed, help me do necessary personal activities, and to help me take part in my household as a wife and individual. When I leave this house, you see me in my power wheelchair, or perhaps using my adapted minivan or the ramp on the light rail. I am alive because medical technology was developed to treat blood clots. I exist because I have an almost symbiotic relationship with technology.

Obviously everyone is different and has different experiences. I have a fairly severe physical disability, but many people with various disabilities and chronic health issues have long had this type of relationship with technology (medical, adaptive, etc.). Some people with disabilities also have deep relationships with animals, through using guide dogs and other types of assistance animals that are integral to their lives. In many westernized parts of the world, one could almost say that this level of relationship with technology is part of being defined as someone with a disability. It allows us to exist, and to be independent and integrated (for some value of) into society. At the same time, it is also a primary identifier for why we are seen as different.

The EDGElab at Ryerson University is researching the design and use of adaptive technologies made from common materials, mostly cardboard. A study conducted by Alison Gaston (2011) focused on the creation of a ‘corner chair’ that allowed the child to be free from a medical device and being held by a parent, to allow her to play in the sand (Henderson, 2011). The goal was to increase the child’s autonomy, in the hopes that other children would ‘play’ with the child, rather than, as had been the case up to this point, their ignoring the child or seeing her as an infant. With the introduction of the cardboard chair, the child was almost immediately accepted into the peer group. The other children adapted their own play to include the child despite her severe disabilities when the technology she used was replaced.

There is evidence of various types of adaptive technology back as far as the sixth century, if we take the wheelchair as an easy example. Likely, they were primarily used by nobility and upper-class until at least the 19th or 20th centuries. It’s hard to know, though, because documenting the lives of people with disabilities was rarely a priority in history, except in purely medical terms, and until more recently society hid us away in institutions or rooms only family visited. Technology was often developed on a case-by-case basis (as most technology was until closer to the Industrial Revolution) by family members or friends who wanted to create something they thought would help. Adaptive technology is still not as highly available in impoverished parts of the world.

Conclusion

Yet, when we think of deep integration with technology, disability is rarely thought of unless it is a direct focus. There are technologies being developed such as wheelchairs that are controlled by thoughtrobotic exoskeletons being developed primarily for people with spinal cord injuries to allow them to walk, and stair climbing wheelchairs. They are still clunky and imprecise (or ridiculously expensive and not covered by insurance), but perhaps indicative of future adaptive technology. The “cyborg chic” technologies such as “Skinput” style keyboards and wearable computer technology often are not accessible or designed with an eye to Universal Design concepts.

Even though I, and many other women with disabilities, have often been nicknamed and thought of ourselves as “The Bionic Woman,” we are rarely asked how this integration of personhood and technology affects us (for better or worse). Perhaps a wider integration – a further movement toward the cyborg – will make our relationship with technology seem less different, less alien. Perhaps it is a move towards a “singularity” where people will see past the integration with technology to the person beneath it.

To some degree, the Internet has already achieved that singularity, making us without physical body or gender unless we share those identities. It has some ability to normalize differences and facilitate human connection without preconceived notions or judgment based on appearances. It has also brought together far-flung communities in “conscious coalitions” where people who live at the intersection of feminism and race/class/ability can co-create common identities and social movements. It will be interesting to see how the definitions of different, human, disabled and woman develop as we inevitably move towards a deeper integration with technology.

– Jennifer Cole, Director

 

Sources:

Gaston, Alison (2011). Using Adaptive Designs to Promote Social Interaction. Inclusive Early Learning Environment: One Child’s Story.