Some artists can cause us reframe our view of the world. Both through the art itself, the processes used to create work and the ways in which these ripple out into the world, in some contexts the experience of disability can serve to help people see what is really there. Jo Verrent explores….
5 September 2011
Susan Austin is a visual artist who wants us to reconsider how we view the world, to strip away our learnt negative responses and instead open up to new connections, new emotions, new perspectives linking to that experience. As she says, her work aims to ‘facilitate new ways of seeing, being and knowing’. 
Take a look at Susan Austin’s photograph Portal (which has also been exhibited as Underwater Wheelchair, and as Submerged, I Stand Proud, and was created in 2007). The image is of a wheelchair and its occupant underwater, but to describe it simply as such is to do it a disservice. It is an image that to me screams freedom – the water is the intense blue of a swimming pool and the tiled bottom and deep blue lines edging the water confirm this, but the sense of movement, flowing and free, take me – as a viewer – far away from the confines of a pool into the blue waters of the sea, of the oceans, of the imagination.
Susan, for it is her in the chair, is dressed in a summer dress, arms and legs bare, the edge of the dress rising in the water as if stirred by the speed and exhilaration she is experiencing. Her long hair flows up and behind her unrestricted, caught in a current, mimicking the wind. Her stance is active – hands on wheels, bare feet poised on a single footplate. Sunglasses shade her eyes. Her face appears resolute – determined.
To me, the photograph reads power. It shows control, self-determination. It’s about dreaming and then becoming. I find it impossible to ‘read’ disability negatively in this context - even the bright fire station red of the wheelchair serves as affirmative punctuation.
Like many artists, her work focuses on identity and how her identity as a disabled person influences artistic practice. She is constantly questioning - her role within the processes she engages in, the specific ‘gaze’ she brings to the work, viewing the world from the level of a wheelchair and also the assumptions others bring with them that shape and skew their ‘view’.
Susan says: "My studio practice has, for sometime, centred around finding ways to understand and represent my embodied experience as a wheelchair user, opening up profound issues about methods of self-representation and the power of self-narration in challenging the nexus of power and control that created the ‘disabled’ as other." 
 In the Freewheeling Impact Fund Proposal, ‘Testing the Water!’ A Research and Development Project available from her website.