DisArt kicks off My Dearest Friends Project, archiving stories of disability culture as the global disability community is deemed disposable.

The project features candid illustrations by artist Oaklee Thiele paired with audio recordings and interviews to capture, archive and share stories submitted by the disability community living through the COVID-19 pandemic.


My Dearest Friends Project Podcast

My Dearest Friends Project Illustrations

(Grand Rapids, Michigan: April 7, 2020) DisArt, the Grand Rapids based Disability Arts organization, in collaboration with Artist Oaklee Thiele, launched the My Dearest Friends Project, a collection of candid illustrations of stories, sentiments and emotions shared by the disability community confronted with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The crowd-sourced subject matter of the artwork is intended to unite the global disability community amidst attempts by governments, health organizations and policy leaders to mark disabled people as a threat to health care systems, and rob them of their basic human rights based on their minority status. Around the world, disabled and nondisabled members of the disability community are sharing 280 word or less submissions confronting the extreme marginalization, isolation and discrimination facing them which are then illustrated by Thiele. To date, more than 100 submissions have come in from across the globe.

During this pandemic, DisArt continues its work to disrupt what it sees as systemic ableism or discrimination against disabled people in the reactions and actions of communities across the country. Ableism, or the tendency to gauge and value experience through a nondisabled lens, has been witnessed in the form of soliciting DNR requests from the elderly and people with underlying health conditions, large, public protests against shelter in place rules, and the rationing of medical equipment and services.

“As the world collectively experiences disability, and benefits from the contributions disability culture has made, disabled people are being asked to die as a social contribution, they are being blamed for the spread of this disease and they are being attacked as an enemy imposing an embargo. These blatantly ableist acts will in effect erase a minority culture.” Said DisArt Co-Executive Director Christopher Smit “We must unite the global disability community to document this moment in history and preserve our culture.”

Since March 23, nearly 90 illustrations have been posted. Thiele illustrates each submission and asks the international disability community to continue to submit their stories. Over the following months, the body of work will grow into an impactful archive of candid glimpses into people’s lived experiences of disability. The profound simplicity of the illustrations matches the intimate candor of the story submissions, each of which is crafted as a letter beginning with the phrase “My Dearest Friends,.”

“Oaklee’s candid and intimate illustrations of the stories, sentiments and emotions of the disability community sheltering in place show the vibrant humanity of the disabled culture.” Said DisArt Co-Executive Director Jill Vyn “The work identifies and disrupts the attempts to strip disabled people of their humanity to justify marking them as disposable and complacent.”

DisArt’s DisTopia podcast will feature a companion collection of audio recordings and interviews with a variety of disabled people from around the world in hopes of amplifying a voice that is not being heard in the global conversation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. As one of the interviewees Ruth Fabby, MBE, Director of Disability Arts Cymru in Wales said in her interview, 

“We need forums where we can express our experiences. We need to be heard. All of our experiences are different, so we need to have safe places where our opinions matter.” Said Ruth Fabby, MBE, Director of Disability Arts Cymru in Wales in an interview as part of the My Dearest Friends Project..  

“As the world gains perspective on a small portion of our struggles, we must not let our vibrancy, our reality, our humanity be discarded.” said artist Oaklee Thiele “We must be sure this moment is remembered by history so we can build a better world, a more accessible world, a world for everyone, a world for us.” 

DisArt is known globally as an organization that promotes expressions of a disabled cultural identity to transform society from awareness to understanding to belonging, creating a community that enjoys the full and equitable participation of all disabled people.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has unmasked and weaponized ableist beliefs and societal structures. Right now disabled people are being treated as a societal vulnerability, a threat to global well being. Sadly,  many disabled people are not surprised that in a time of panic and crisis, we are being denied equal access to healthcare as resources become increasingly scarce. We’re not surprised because disabled people have always represented a threat to the mythology of health and wellness itself.  The disability community and disabled Culture as a whole is being stripped of our humanity. In a crisis we must not lose our morals, we must not abandon the empathy that holds society together. ” Said Smit 

The My Dearest Friends Project is proudly supported by The Ford Foundation.


Public submissions to the project can be submitted by email to hello@disartnow.org as written or recorded messages beginning with the phrase, “My Dearest Friends” and concluding with the first name or pseudonym of the person submitting. The submissions will accompany the illustrations to be published on My Dearest Friends Project Instagram and Facebook with audio recordings and interviews published on DisArt’s DisTopia Podcast. 

For more information, visit disartnow.org



For interviews, quotes, or comments: 


Christopher Smit (chris@disartnow.org) and Jill Vyn (Jill@disartnow.org)


Grand Rapids + Michigan: Todd Herring (todd@commonnotice.com)

About Christopher Smit, PhD and Jill Vyn, MSW

Christopher Smit, PhD (University of Iowa) and Jill Vyn, MSW (University of Michigan) founded DisArt in 2015, an arts and culture organization that believes that expressions of a Disabled cultural identity can transform society from awareness to understanding to belonging, creating a society that enjoys the full and equitable participation of all people. Through public speaking, publications, groundbreaking exhibitions, impactful programming, and organizational coaching, Smit and Vyn have become influential voices in a global conversation about how to use art to amplify the voice, visibility, and value of all disabled people.

About DisArt

DisArt believes that expressions of a disability cultural identity can transform society from awareness to understanding to belonging, creating a community that enjoys the full and equitable participation of all disabled people. 

DisArt has become known internationally for its carefully curated contemporary art exhibitions, cutting-edge public events, educational podcasts, and innovative organizational consulting. All DisArt programs center on disability, identity, design, and community making in order to engage disabled and nondisabled audiences in ways that increase their awareness and understanding of disability culture and the lived experience of disability.

Consequently, Disart has been recognized by peer organizations globally as both innovative and influential when it comes to creative access design strategies, messaging, institutional coaching, curatorial practice, and liberatory philosophies of disability.

About Oaklee Thiele

Oaklee Thiele is an artist and disability rights advocate whose work centers on invisible chronic illness and the intimate bond she has formed with her medical alert service dog. In 2020, Thiele partnered with DisArt to create the My Dearest Friends Project, an interactive art collaboration that archives disabled voices during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since its inception, the Dearest Friends Project now spans several continents and received a grant from the Ford Foundation. Thiele regularly delivers public speeches on the topics of art and disability to various nonprofits and schools. Her latest article about working as a young disabled artist was published in Rooted in Rights in October 2020. She currently attends the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York.

Her website can be viewed at: https://oakleethiele.com

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/oakleethiele/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/OakleeThiele/