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Valuing the Difference / 30 July 2015

Sue Austin, dressed formally in white with dark hair in up-do, next to Stacey Hadash, dressed in business wear with short blond bob-haircut.

Sue Austin with Stacey Hadash after the keynote speech

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Thursday 23rd July was the main event for our New York visit. Sue had been invited by Stacey Hadash, Managing Director of Global Capital Markets, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, to give the keynote speech at the annual Global Women’s Conference. This was a big deal. She would address a large group of powerful women who are real leaders in the world of global finance, the title of the talk being ‘Valuing the Difference’.

Sue delivered a 20-minute talk centred on her journey as a disabled person and how she has used an arts practice to understand and express her embodied experience.  She explained that in developing her practice through an artistic research process, “I discovered that I have the power to create new visual narratives that could redefine the way I saw both myself and others”. 

Making full use of this impressive platform, Sue was able to weave into the talk her own important steps in the learning process from medical to social model thinking:

“Many people understand the word disability to mean broken, deficient or limited in some way. But for those ‘in the know’ ‘disability’ celebrates the strength and power that is built up in and through ‘difference’…. For them, if there is any sense of limitation attached to this term, it is seen as residing in limitations in thinking. Thinking that results in the attitudinal or physical barriers which act to ‘disable’ their lives.”

In a poetic delivery, Sue went on to explain that by making video work from her wheelchair, she was literally able to see and express the world from a different perspective. Then, for those in the audience who had never come across the underwater wheelchair before, Sue explained how and why it came into being and showed the original film ‘Creating the Spectacle! Finding Freedom'.  There was a palpable sense of energy in the room, which doubled every time Sue went off-script to tell a funny anecdote. Ending on-script she told of one occasion when volunteer Guy Brasher wrote for the Freewheeling website:

“After some time I realised that when I saw someone in a wheelchair I didn’t think about what they were unable to do, 

I didn’t even wonder about WHAT THEY were able to DO,

I was wondering WHAT THEY were able to do that I couldn’t.”

Sue concluded:

“For me, his comment sums up the power of the imagery and the narratives that evolve when we take the time to explore and value our own experience, when we are able to believe in ourselves and develop the confidence and resilience to define our own narratives.”

At the conference reception, Sue and I were approached by a constant stream of attendees, men and women, wanting to respond to the keynote, offer ideas and find out more. This was the point at which we could both relax after an intense 48-hour final preparation period and begin to understand how Sue as an individual artist is able to reach people and how listening to her story can impact on their lives.