Meet Sharona Franklin, the Artist Using Memes to Dismantle Ableism

Get to know the creator behind @hot.crip.

Sharona Franklin
Sharona FranklinOwner

These days, the exchange of memes is like speaking another language. When the Canadian artist and activist Sharona Franklin started her meme account @hot.crip on Instagram, she was looking to detach from her work and experiment. As an advocate for subverting the domestic alienation of disabled womxn, she constantly examines disability justice through the lens of her multidisciplinary art. Franklin’s signature sculptures—edible gelatins and botanical cakes that she bakes at home in her own kitchen and shares on her account @paid.technologies—earned her a sizable following on Instagram (and became so popular that it made waves last year when Gucci copied her art for the brand's Resort '20 campaign). 

“Folks frequently experience confusion at the idea that I am a multi-faceted disabled artist,” she says. “I found that when I shared my political work about biopharmaceuticals, or shared sculptures, folks would be less interested in diving into the multiple aspects of my practice.”

Sharona franklin
 Sharona Franklin

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Franklin unveiled her debut solo exhibition in the U.S., New Psychedelia of Industrial Healing, at the Tribeca gallery King’s Leap in New York City. The radical showcase explored the “bio-ethics and social responsibilities of treating people who live with disabilities” through immersive pieces. The artwork captured the autobiographical daily rituals that she and so many others follow to treat genetic diseases while challenging domesticity. Franklin refers to these practices as “bio-ritualistic”, which is also an embodiment of biopharmacology and biocitizenship. Behind closed doors during lockdown, the edible piece has undergone the full process of organic degeneration.

Around that time, we spoke to Franklin about disabled folks reclaiming digital spaces, what self-care should actually look like, and how ables can be better allies going forward. Since then, she took a mandatory break from Instagram to focus on recovery after falling extremely ill. (Her confirmed list of rare diagnoses includes Systemic Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis, endometriosis, spondylitis, two blood disorders, PTSD, and many other chronic issues.) Franklin is currently getting her health back after leaving Vancouver and settling into a new home. Scroll down to digest the full conversation and get to know the artist behind @hot.crip.

hot.crop
@hot.crip


What motivated you to start the @hot.crip account? 

Memes are a medium I had been working with for years, but never was comfortable sharing them! I find they are low-stress and have a dadaist, propaganda-esque chaotic nature that allows folks to view them in a more open minded light. The medium also works well with social media, and the heavy level of distraction we all face daily. I love how memes aren't always tethered to fashion or aesthetic trends in the same way as other forms of pop art culture. I kind of see memes as goofy commercials for political theory. The memes are great for folks who wouldn’t want to read poetry or theory. 

It’s super important to me that the work I create is accessible on varying levels. Humor is a really important part of my life and transmits another vessel of accessibility to folks. It gives an opportunity to consider ableism as a concept that they may not feel as comfortable about reading in a theory book.

What were some of the earlier reactions like to the content on your page?

When I first made the @hot.crip page, I had no idea that people would pay attention. Some of the jokes were embarrassingly personal and crass! There was already a small online disability community and we would encourage one another to speak out against ableism. I had been making memes and sharing on @star_seeded before making @hot.crip. During the same week, I made another anonymous account for my edible sculptures called @paid.technologies

After the accounts were up for one year, I shared my name and introduced myself, but a lot of folks were confused beforehand as they didn’t believe it was the same artist due to the varying content. The first @hot.crip reactions were mixed—nobody had really seen a disability meme account before and a lot of able bodied people said it made them sad or brought them to a depressing place. From the beginning, the disability community was incredibly supportive and excited and a lot of people wrote me and had made accounts where they started making memes—we all kind of became excited about this idea of a new form of content around disability. After a while, able folks wrote to me sharing that the content was super educational and enlightening to them. 

There's a false idea that disability is inherently serious, but it doesn't have to be—it’s many peoples way of life. When I was younger, I would joke about it and people told me that it made them uncomfortable to joke about something so "serious," as they put it. But if healthy folks are able to joke about their experiences, why can't disabled folks joke about ours as well? The world has so much ableist content that makes fun of disabled people, why not have content that just pokes fun back at able-bodied folks for once? 

Why did you think memes would be the best format for dismantling ableism?

I don't really necessarily think meme form is the singular best format. I think so many activists have really amazing formats, such as @itswalela, @_samboswoth, @invalid_art, @crippingupsex, @deathpanelpodcast, @ablezine—their methods work super well for them and disseminate information in such helpful, compassionate and personable ways. I really appreciate both academic and creative work around disability and ableism is well, but I just know that that's not accessible to everybody. 

For myself, memes can be one of the most therapeutic ways to work through traumatic experiences that I have not wanted to write about in a serious manner. I think if I had been given the opportunity to speak about disability while I was growing up, I might feel more comfortable writing about it in more personal ways, but visual culture allows me to detach in ways that can create a sense of safety for me. When I started sharing on @hot.crip, it was really one of the first times in my life where I was digging into my own disability experiences along with the exclusion and alienation of ableism where it felt natural to my voice.

For myself, memes can be one of the most therapeutic ways to work through traumatic experiences that I have not wanted to write about in a serious manner.

I feel like a lot of people are unfamiliar with ableism as a concept. Could you break it down?

I think ableism can be interpreted differently for each person experiencing it. Each person and their disabilities require unique parameters of care. Ableism acts as a societal notion that prioritizes folks who don't experience disability. Ableism is deeply rooted in white supremacy as well, and is linked to eugenics. To me, it is the concept that gives superiority to a standardized ideal of ability and health, which discriminates against folks physically, genetically, physiologically, cognitively, emotionally and mentally defined as disabled; it is a false perception society has deemed as "normal."

I see ableism as an overarching concept that prioritises able-bodies and minds over any folks who may be fat, mentally ill, neurodivergent, physically disabled, developmentally disabled, blind, injured, or experiences disability of any form. There is no such thing as "normal." Infrastructures, bureaucracies, pop culture and media have completely alienated so many people systemically and culturally through this false homogenic and prejudicial concept. Ableism is anything that makes a disabled person experience life as less than equal. 

Ableism can be stigma, it can be preconceived judgement, systemic barriers to access, lack of research and media representation about our experiences. The systemic barriers exist in many forms; in educational institutions, the workplace, exclusion in the arts...it can be many things, including false narratives and the overrepresentation of disability inspiration porn.

Given that you're an artist, has this project become more than a creative outlet for you?

I consider it a social practice. Aesthetically I'm not really interested in a ton of my @hot.crip imagery, but a lot of it is coded and autobiographical. Sometimes I refer to @hot.crip as advocacy, propaganda or activism, but it is a creative practice in it’s own sense. If I were to put too much emphasis into the aesthetic, I wouldn't be able to produce the memes as honestly or frequently. 

I make each meme under a five-minute limitation, spanning from the creation to the moment I post them. I don't take time to source specific images or fonts in the way I would for my books or art practice. I try not to overthink it or I get too anxious and would never post. I use meme apps and I make them only on my phone, on the go. I keep them contained to a very low-level output of energy. I would like to see them in hospitals, in staff rooms as a form of political anti-art. It’s definitely separate from my conceptual work, poetry, my writing and medium-based sculpture practice. 

When I first started @hot.crip I was planning on making a published anthology of memes, but I take a lot of medications and struggle with memory loss and cognitive/organizational disabilities, so for me, just channeling them into one place helped me organize my thoughts because I'm always producing content and things get lost.

What is your goal with this account? What are you hoping to accomplish? 

The account was a true experiment. I hoped it would lighten some peoples experiences, make people laugh, and spread awareness and create discourse in a general sense. I never had access to the internet as a kid because it was not well established yet or accessible to our region, and as a teenager because I was too poor, but I’ve spent a lot of my life homebound. It's been amazing that people are so receptive to what I'm sharing online and it's really surprising.

I make work intuitively and I share things based on organic experiences and thoughts. I often don't go online for long periods because I don’t really enjoy being online, although it’s such a great place to meet folks and share a community. My goal now is to work to continue to develop community, public discourse and my own personal practice. If I can continue to share that with people, then that's amazing.

Why do you think the disabled community continues to be disregarded? Why is there still not enough advocacy?

 There are so many factors to this question. Historically speaking, disabled people have been institutionalized, been victim to eugenics, euthanasia, abuse, mass murder, genocide, imprisonment. I think this long narrative still plays out in our day-to-day society. Ableist capitalism is a big reason disabled folks are not major earners, we often live in the lowest levels of poverty, are incarcerated at extremely high rates, especially disabled BIPOC folks, and received education at very low rates. Historically, there has been very low financial incentives, or perceived incentives for capitalism and commodities aside from medical care to be marketed towards people with disabilities and disease. 

We are often not visible within media representation of consumers. Our bodies are considered less useful in both procreation, media, concepts of nuclear families, and receive lower pay rates in the workplace. The fact that it is even legal in many places to pay disabled people less to do the same job as an able-bodied person is disgusting and immoral. Part of the reluctance of advocacy is that I think that able people are genuinely afraid of disabilities. To their credit, it is partially because of the general unknown about disease and disability, and I think that the fear of mortality and the unknown of body plays into this ignorance. 

The complexity of disability can be intimidating for non-invested community members to take time and learn about. A lot of disabilities are invisible or fluctuating, and that fluctuation can frustrate able-bodied people who are not used to variations of cognitive and physical states. The reality is, disability is one of the marginalizations that all humans are vulnerable to at any moment and will most likely experience first hand at some point in their lifetime. We (the disability community) sometimes become visceral reminders of mortality. The more folks get comfortable learning about deconstructing ableism, the more advocacy can be shared and effectively implemented. 

The more folks get comfortable learning about deconstructing ableism, the more advocacy can be shared and effectively implemented. 

What are some actionable ways that people can step up and be better allies to disabled folks? 

I think self-education about disability politics is so important. Doing research on the statistics of different disabilities and the real bureaucratic barriers we face—accessing medications, food education, employment and care. Mutual-aid, connection, community integration and stability is the goal, and consistency is crucial to our health. When attempting to become part of a person's care system, please be aware of how complicated our systems really are. It’s a vulnerable place to have to rely on others. 

Before a person decides to assist or work with a disabled person, they really need to educate themselves to tangibly understand how they can offer solidarity. False conceptions are damaging and can inhibit true transformative justice and potential care that you might be able to offer. Really listen and engage with disabled people, reconsider the stigmas you may believe or may have contributed to. Consider your comfort levels, but also step out of them. If you love cooking, maybe offer that? If you love fundraising then start there; if you have a car, offer rides. 

Question institutions and value systems which prioritize able bodies. Keep a completely open mind about disabilities and daily experiences, because a lot of disabilities fluctuate, and that is what makes them difficult to live with. A lot of us live with varying, untreatable symptoms; we live within inaccessible systems that seem unjust. I find when people complain to me about my injustices while helping me, it wears me out—so refrain from complaining while helping us! 

How else can people educate themselves more on this issue?

Another thing to educate yourself about is the saviour complex. It’s very real—folks will attempt to "support” a disabled person without understanding that we may always be permanently disabled. Friends and family can get discouraged when we don't "get better." Please do not attempt to support folks with disabilities if you have underlying expectations of our bodies.

Able folks often become overwhelmed and disappear, leaving us feeling even less capable to trust the next person offering help. Small acts of kindness are really great but for people who are chronically disabled, it can be delineating and feel like charity at times. A lot of able bodied folks tokenize us, pop in and out of our lives with attempts to “support”— it can be confusing for us to feel like we are part of a community. Being very clear with boundaries and barriers is integral, so don’t overcommit. Understand that offering help to someone with a disability is a huge leap of trust for us. To be vulnerable about our bodies and what we need help with and that shouldn't be taken for granted. 

Understand that offering help to someone with a disability is a huge leap of trust for us. To be vulnerable about our bodies and what we need help with and that shouldn't be taken for granted. 

What are some changes that you would like to see in your lifetime?

There are so many things that I would like to see happen. If someone gave me the power to change something, I would like to see prison reform, an end to white supremacy, and police violence. I would love to see the medical system be decolonized, for food access and access to clean water provided for everyone in need. I would like the media to positively represent and prioritize trans lives, as well as the medical systems. 

I would want to see the FDA and DEA do more to be responsive and create healthy accessible farming and production practices, better researched pharmaceuticals. I’d like to see the FDA tighten food additive regulations, implement eco-friendly insecticide and fertilizing practices, and environmentally-friendly packaging regulations. I would love to see disability access prioritized by government and employment, access to medical care increase, assistance rates increase. I would love to see infrastructure for support and education about trauma and violence recovery. I’d like to see infrastructure for addiction support, and stigmatization of opioids. 

Also I’d like to see the general public consider rare diseases, which are often under-researched due to the fact that the market for big pharma is simply smaller, given the smaller number of people diagnosed. I would love to see disabled youth in care be acknowledged and properly supported by the government. In general, I want the hegemonic class to be able to learn, unlearn and reframe their lifestyles collaboratively to create acceptance and change.

What makes you feel empowered these days?

I think seeing opportunities and resources being given to folks who need and deserve them makes me feel hopeful. For me, right now, I've just been recovering from spinal nerve damage and arm paralysis, so being able to shower or eat etcetera has been empowering. I just did an exhibition in New York at King Leap Gallery, which was amazing. I had to have so much full-time assistant because I wasn't able to fully walk or use my arms on my own for a few months. I think if I can just eat three meals a day, bathe and sleep and not go through a day puking, that's a huge accomplishment and gets me psyched. Achieving small things—if I can walk even with a mobility device, or if I can function independently—those are huge to me.

What does the term “self-care” mean to you? Do you believe in it as a concept? 

Folks doing things to treat themselves is totally healthy and fine, but why not just call it what it is? Child care does not mean giving your child a latte, candle, facial and pedicure, so why is self-care being adopted in this cosmetic consumer and neoliberal health-culture way? Sometimes I feel the term is being used as a scapegoat for privileged folks to justify their spending to any means. It’s really important not to abuse those words. I’d love to see the term self-care be melted back down. 

Care has been a term used to describe food, shelter, health and domestic practices, such as child-minding, home care, doctors, domestic practices and nursing. It’s important to consider the historical context of care work, and how BIPOC women have been forced into positions of child-minding and care positions through colonialism, white supremacy, and slavery, as well as the colonial systems that would only allow BIPOC women to be employed in low-wage care work positions. So many folks are still locked into these roles today due to systemic barriers, race, disability and class. 

To have the term "care" be so jarred into luxury consumer culture is unfair to the political context of care, as well to the people who survive on poverty-level care work jobs. My mom cleaned for a living when I was a kid—myself, her and my brother and I would sometimes clean multiple places a day, sometimes at night. There were times where we had to miss school to clean. We cleaned all sorts of homes, offices, industrial factories, as well as elderly folks, and scraped by. We definitely did not provide facials, so if anyone does that, why not just call it what it is—esthetician work? I think a real gauge of whether or not something truly is self-care is to question if it can change your experience in the world while eventually extending to better other people's lives. 

I hope self-care would ideally be understood as a practice that grows who we are as people, creating a ripple effect that allows us to have a larger positive impact on others and society.

So if self-care is checking in with your mind and body’s needs, getting rest, turning your phone off to become a more stable person and to be able to support yourself and your community, then I totally appreciate those as forms of care. I know it carries different meanings for everyone, but I hope self-care would ideally be understood as a practice that grows who we are as people, creating a ripple effect that allows us to have a larger positive impact on others and society.

How do you feel about the way that "self-care" is used in the modern wellness space? 

I think the words "self-care" could be utilized in a more honest and generative way. I wish self-care meant meeting the basic minimum of living, which is; food, sleep, rest, safety, shelter, education, healthcare and employment. But I think that it's been morphed into this lavish luxury idea of champagne and face masks, pedicures at the spa...and it's kind of depressing to be honest. I had never heard of the term self-care until lately. I don't really know what to make of it as a concept because I often see it as a term privileged people use to excuse themselves from mutual aid and supporting less privileged people. I believe that everybody should take time for themselves but I think that "self-care" is a concept that is being abused by folks who really don't need more of a break than their white able-bodiedness, which is privilege in itself. If every white able-bodied cis person donated a portion of their self-care time or funds to marginalized communities, the world would be a much more generative and safe place.

How does "self-care" apply in your life at this current time?

Self-care is not a medical term, no doctors, nurses, hospitals or clinics have ever said that in my lifetime. I only learned about the word on social media! Since quarantine, it is now an unavoidable term on the internet. But we have to be careful how we use the term and overuse it. I am totally a person who enjoys baths, I make candles, love to use skincare and face masks, and when I’m able, I take extra time for special treats and love to share them with friends and family as well, but I consider those fun special and superfluous—not self-care. They’re like a cherry on top a day where I have had my bases met. Folks claiming they are “too busy doing self-care” to contribute to transformative justice should just be honest upfront and say, “I don’t have any desire to contribute energy to that cause” or “I’m not personally invested enough in donating to that person and those politics," rather than excusing themselves to spend energy on self-care branded commodities. 

Everyone should be able to take time and treat themselves, but call cosmetics procedures and commercial purchases what they are: a luxury. I am on disability assistance, so I don’t go to spas or salons. I cut my own hair, I tailor my own clothing. I live alone in state housing, and I have to medically take care of myself, so it is very challenging with my diseases and physical disabilities. I can’t drive, I use mobility aids and even things like groceries, I need to coordinate assistance for. 

I know the term is subjective, but self-care for me is having fresh food, showering, having clean laundry. I definitely cannot afford to be a consumer of care, and even if I could, I wouldn't ethically decide to buy into the capitalist machine it has become. If I’m able to get to my medical appointments and treatments, purchase food, physiotherapy, medications, vitamins or take a nice nap, I consider myself more than fortunate to call that my self-care.

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