'Self-portraits' of life with disabilities
Calvin Williams Jr., of North Versailles, is one of five young people with disabilities whose artwork is part of a show at Artspace 105 in Homestead.
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Calvin Williams Jr. loves his father and extended family, but he's not crazy about the monthly treatments he must undergo for sickle cell disease.
Those messages come through loud and clear in the photos he took as part of the art show titled "Through Our Eyes: Life as Seen By Young People With Special Needs."
The show has been on display for about three weeks at Artspace105 in Homestead. The last showing will be from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday.
Mr. Williams, 20, of North Versailles, was one of five disabled young people in the region who were asked to take part in the display, sponsored by the University, Community & Leaders for Individuals with Disabilities Center at the University of Pittsburgh.
The center is a training program affiliated with Pitt and Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and its goal is to educate leaders in the field of disabilities to improve the lives of young people with special needs.
The center embarked on what its officials call a "photo voice" project at the urging of member Jane Bernstein, a professor of English and creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University.
Ms. Bernstein is the mother of an adult mentally handicapped daughter about whom she has written two books.
Each of the young people involved in the project was assigned a trainee or fellow from the program to work with them and help them assemble their photo displays and captions.
Not surprisingly, a number of the photos featured parents and other close family members, pets and medications or medical visits.
Among Mr. Williams' photos is the picture of a hallway that he walks down at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh to get his treatments. There is also a picture of a tray with syringes.
On the caption for the hallway photo, Mr. Williams wrote:
"I have to walk all the way down to the end. I get tired and sleepy. I cannot keep my eyes open. That's how I think about this picture. Sickle cell is like this hallway. It's very long and has no end."
He also writes about how he gets through his treatments by distracting himself.
"Sometimes, I don't think about the sickle cell. I think about the neighborhood or the weather or the caseworker ... Otherwise it would take over your mind," he wrote.
Despite his troubles, Mr. Williams' photos show a happy young man who has hopes and dreams similar to those of other young men, including "finding his soul mate" and having children.
"Calvin gets up every day with a smile and deals with it every day. You would never know something is wrong with him," said his father, Calvin Williams Sr.
In addition to sickle cell disease, the younger Mr. Williams has developmental disabilities and uses a walker because of hip problems.
Rose Cotton, 7, of Penn Hills, photographed some of the activities that surround her monthly visit to Children's Hospital, where she is treated for sickle cell disease and autism. One of the photos shows Rose playing with a toy medical kit with an adult.
Her mother, Shawn Sturdivant, said Rose often plays during and after her treatments, which include monthly blood transfusions.
Rose also took photos of her pet beagle, Nancy, and a photo of her mother, looking pensive as she sits at a table with a calculator and Rose's medications in front of her.
In the caption under the photo, Rose said she believed her mother was thinking about buying new clothes or getting her nails done. But Ms. Sturdivant said her thoughts were more on keeping Rose healthy and making ends meet.
Ms. Sturdivant said she found her daughter's photos to be uplifting.
"Through those pictures I saw the beautiful home that I've made for Rose. I could see all of her toys. I never really looked at things in that context.
"I lose sight of the progress that I am making and the progress that Rose and I are making together. I try to pay bills and work and then you don't pay too much attention to your achievements," Ms. Sturdivant said.
"I work two jobs, but that's OK. We have a good life."
For Valen and Darrell Francisco, of Karns City, Butler County, the photo voice project gave them their first true glimpse inside the mind of their 6-year-old son Daren, who is deaf and autistic.
Currently, Daren is nonverbal, but his parents hope he will be a candidate for a cochlear implant and that he eventually will learn to talk. Daren now communicates through gestures, his mother said.
Daren discovered the video button on his camera and proceeded to take video shots of himself looking in the mirror, his German shepherd, Shep, his parents, his therapist and his tricycle as it rolled down a hallway.
"This has been spectacular. For him to enjoy this as much as he did and for us to get to see the world through his eyes. We got to see where his little mind was and what he was thinking," Mrs. Francisco said.
Photos of animals were prominent in the display by Donnie Baynes, 10, of Brighton Heights, who is autistic and has hemophilia. He photographed his pet rabbit, dog and guinea pig and a number of buildings and houses. He also took a photo of himself smiling into the camera.
"I like buildings because you can be inside them and they have rooms," he wrote under his photos.
The photo display by Terrell McNeely, 16, a student at Allderdice High School who has sickle cell disease, showed the contrasts of his life. In one row of photos were his medications, the large jug of water he must drink with them and pillows and blankets for when he's not feeling well.
But in another row are his hats, shoes and collection of colognes.
"I like to look nice. Hats are good for my attire," he wrote. "I picked cologne because I like to smell good."
Terrell also photographed several family members, including his mother, about whom he wrote: "My teacher and provider. She gets me through my situation."
For the show's opening, the gallery held a reception and all of the photographers and their families and staff members from the center program were invited.
Brian Britza, artistic director for Artspace105, said the gallery was packed for the opening. "We've been in existence for a long time and this is one of the most important shows we've ever had in our space. I know I was overwhelmed by the impact of this show," Mr. Britza said.
Although the show closes at Artspace105 on Saturday, center officials may try to find a permanent home somewhere, said Paula Ciliberti, a program coordinator.
First Published April 16, 2009 6:32 am