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‘Empathy is good for everyone’

Cerebral palsy no obstacle for Adelman in seeking Ph.D.

Posted: June 18, 2018 5:05 p.m.
Updated: June 19, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Martin L. Cahn/C-I

David Adelman shows off and explains an interactive website he developed as part of his thesis for his Masters of Media Arts degree, which he earned from the University of South Carolina (USC) in May. His website takes visitors through a series of scenarios based on his living with cerebral palsy. Adelman, who graduated from Camden High School in 2008, is preparing to attend the University of Texas-Dallas where he will seek a Ph.D. in arts, technology and emerging communication.

David Adelman might be one of the smartest people in Camden. He also happens to have lived with cerebral palsy -- and the way people have treated him because of it -- his entire life.

Adelman, 28, graduated from Camden High School (CHS) in 2008. Now, 10 years later, he’s about to move to Dallas, Texas to seek his Ph.D. in arts, technology and emerging communication. In fact, that’s the name of the school he’ll be attending: The University of Texas-Dallas’ (UT-D) School of Arts, Technology and Emerging Communication, or ATEC.

The acronym is not lost on Adelman.

“I think it’s powerfully ironic, since our ATEC is an alternative school for trades and this school focuses on arts, technology and communication,” he said.

Between graduating from CHS and preparing for life at UT-D’s ATEC, Adelman earned degrees from the University of South Carolina (USC): a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Master’s degree in Media Arts.

For the next couple of months, Adelman will continue to live with his mother, Patricia Adelman-Burleigh, in their Camden home. They moved here, with Adelman’s late father, Peter, when Adelman was 3 years old, from Baltimore, Md.

“My dad was in the Army and, when he retired, we moved here so he could work at Camden Military Academy,” Adelman said. “He had graduated from there and taught there for a number of years.”

Adelman has used a wheelchair to get around since he moved here, and considers himself a wheelchair user, not wheelchair bound. The distinction is important to him.

“Cerebral palsy is a spectrum disease. There are students with CP who are far better off than I am and far worse off,” he said.

Unfortunately, according to Adelman, people -- especially adults -- have a tendency to group people with cerebral palsy into one category.

“They think that what works for one person (with cerebral palsy) will for all of us,” Adelman said. “However, we have individuated experiences.”

In many cases as he grew up, some school officials and teachers assumed that living with “cerebral” palsy means your mental capacity is diminished.

“Medical clinics have proven cerebral palsy is only a physical disease, not a mental one,” Adelman said.

Sometimes, he had to deal with aides or other adults who assumed he needed to be treated a certain way because of cerebral palsy, including one instance when he was young when someone wanted to make him wear diapers far after the point of needing them.

Luckily, Adelman had a number of “fantastic” teachers. He specifically cited English teacher Janet Williams, for being a “positive, motivating” force leading him to pursue his Bachelor’s degree.

“She’s also one of the reasons I applied to graduate school,” he said.

Adelman said he always loved to read. It was one of the things he could do, admittedly retreating into his own mind.

“I always loved to read, and I also dealt with adults more, so I ended up developing an advanced vocabulary. Language was one means to show that I’m not just disabled, but that I have a brain,” he said.

He admitted he was “a jerk” as a kid as a way to get back at those treating him as though mentally challenged.

“I’d start quoting Nietzsche at them; I learned to use language defensively,” Adelman said.

Even when graduation from CHS came around, there were those who thought he should take advantage of staying in high school until 21.

“‘You know, you don’t have to graduate,’” Adelman recounted someone saying. “Some people set such a low standard, and it becomes feedback loop.”

He graduated when he was supposed to and went on to get the English degree at USC. Adelman then got very interested in new media -- the internet, websites, video and multimedia.

“I became interested in showing what it’s like to be disabled, and language only went so far,” he said.

Ultimately, he came up with a two-part master’s thesis. One part is a 27-page written paper on how what he calls “disabilities art” explicitly engages the disability. The second part is an interactive website that puts that into practice. It’s part autobiography, part choose-your-path. Entering the site almost immediately puts you into scenarios based on Adelman’s actual experiences where you can choose one of two or more options of how to respond.

In an early example, you are a disabled student at recess at school. Do you choose to try to make new friends, or do you retreat to the “bastion of your own mind?”

“It gives visitors a chance to experience my point of view specifically,” Adelman explained.

In defending his thesis, he noted that disability activists are fond of saying everyone, at some point or another, or perhaps for their entire lives are “temporarily able bodied.” However, the common perception of disability is a medical model whereby scientists attempt to “fix” the disabled person. So, his thesis set out to accomplish three things: briefly sketch out that view of disability in popular media; consider a counter discourse by disabled artists “whose work make disability corporeal and sensuous, thereby expanding the audience’s capacity for productive empathetic understanding; and present Adelman’s creative project -- the website -- which he titled “Poesis/Prothesis: An Interactive, Experimental, Document of Disability.”

“Empathy is good for everyone,” he said, but emphasized that he and others who live with disabilities are not seeking pity.

Also during his work on his master’s, Adelman became a graduate teaching assistant, something he was a bit wary of at first.

“I asked them, ‘Are you sure I can do this?’ The response was, ‘I don’t see why not,’” he said. “A number of people came up to me later and said they didn’t think they could succeed at higher education until they saw me.”

In one room of the house he shares with his mother, Adelman works on a laptop computer connected to a 27-inch 4K monitor. The laptop and screen are mounted in such a way as to take advantage of the angle at which he sits in his char. His hands work well enough to use a touchpad to control what’s happening. When he needs to write something, he uses speech recognition software. Otherwise, the room is filled with hundreds of books that include science fiction and fantasy, textbooks, classic literature, contemporary fiction and much more. The collection is part his, part his fathers, along with ones left by his three older brothers, Avram, Isaac and Jacob.

It is here where Adelman created his website and a piece of video art called “Elegy, Ability and Glitch.”

“You visually manipulate the images so it looks like it’s been broken, like a DVD when it skips,” he explained. “It’s incredibly interesting to visualize my disability to an audience. You take something broken and find its utility -- that is a powerful thing.”

The video earned first place at a USC School of Visual Arts and Design show, and was juried at ArtFields, a nine-day art competition in Lake City which, this year, was held in April.

Combining the manipulated, or glitched, images with poetic narration, Adelman created what he called “confrontational art.”

In his artist’s statement for the piece at ArtFields, he wrote, “This is a narrative that allows for inspiration and bravery, but not for the lived reality of pain or of ugliness. But what is ugliness? Or for that matter, bravery and pleasure? In this video piece, I work to transcend that and easy distinctions between these concepts. I glitch the visuals on screen to ‘break’ the visible body, not just to mark that body as disabled, but to allow the viewers space to think about bodies in general, and their bodies, specifically, in a more engaged manner.”

In part, it is this kind of thinking that attracted him to UT-D and its ATEC, rather than continue at USC closer to home.
“(ATEC) tries to push theory and art together, and I’ve been pushed to thinking of those two things in tandem,” Adelman said.

He said he could have pursued some of the same work through USC’s Ph.D. English/rhetoric program, which actually accepted his doctoral candidacy before UT-D. However, he’d been warned that pursuing yet a third degree at the same school might not be the best thing to do if he wants to continue to work in academia.

Not to mention UT-D offered him twice as much money as USC.

“It’s somewhat terrifying,” Adelman said of his pending move. “I’m going to have to give up much of the support I have here moving half-way across the country. But UT-Dallas has been incredibly supportive.”

He visited the campus in early March, and on Facebook said the facilities and people “blew him away.”

“They’re incredibly supportive and its state of the art, with one section devoted to the arts and animation,” he said.

Ultimately, Adelman said he has two possible career goals. The first is to become a tenure-track educator at a Tier I research university. Otherwise, choice No. 2, is to be in research and development at a corporation working in new media and technology infrastructure.

Either way, he hopes to put his brain power to use helping others like himself to speak up for themselves, however they care to express themselves.

“People with disabilities need to be their own activists and speak up,” Adelman said. “I’m reminding people that they have a body and they will have that body no matter what happens.”

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