‘Wheelchair work’

Learning from fieldwork at New Orleans second lines

Daniella Santoro

On a recent Sunday afternoon, while at a street parade, known in New Orleans as a ‘second line’, I follow behind life-long second liner Skelly Well, as he rolls his wheelchair to a sudden stop a few feet behind the brass band, pausing in the shadow of the sousaphone. The music is just right: the collective energy has begun to rise, and the two-lane thoroughfare is now transformed into the ideal dancing ground. Skelly leans his weight back and tilts his chair up on its wheels, beginning a choreography of spins and styled pauses, punctuating the brass band rhythm as his long and lean arms offer commentary on the melody. Francis, another second liner, has now rotated his wheelchair to face Skelly, and bounces his torso and shoulders in gesture towards him, bending at the waist and rising again in a creative groove. As they dance, second liners begin to shout encouragingly with a hip-hop tonal sensibility. ‘Work that wheelchair!’ they chant, ‘Work, work, work that wheelchair.’

Amidst the various fieldwork spaces that I frequent as part of my current dissertation research on paraplegia and spinal cord injuries as a result of gun violence in New Orleans – the rehabilitation hospital, the community organization, the clinic – the ‘second line’ parade affords a particular type of ethnographic insight, valuable for thinking through local contexts of health disparities and disability. In this temporary musical corridor, dance reigns as the lingua franca of the moment, and represents what Afro-diasporic dance and religious scholar Yvonne Daniel (2005) refers to as ‘embodied knowledge’ – a shared collective way of knowing imparted through expressive movement, which often contrasts or contradicts the ‘authoritative knowledge’ that is reified and reproduced in medical and political institutions. In the social space of these parading traditions, what is classified as a disability in the medical clinic, and in need of intervention, may be transformed into a creative asset, or what dance and disability scholar Ann Cooper Albright (1998) calls a ‘strategic ability’. Second line dancing becomes a public commentary, making visible that which has been systematically excluded, discounted, and devalued. 

Following the second line parades, both in weekly practice, and as a theoretical thread of inquiry, I began to connect embodiment and dance theory with histories of structural racism in the US South, thus situating health disparities in a rich local context. Helen Regis’s (1999, 480) work analyzed second line parades as critical spaces of collective memory and social visibility in the context of the ‘quotidian struggles of the ghetto’. Expanding on her notion of second lines as social landscapes, Regis’s work inspired me to think about embodiment and to interpret dance as an extension of such social trajectories. What are the current stories our bodies tell? As medical anthropologists, it is our duty to investigate the legacies of structural violence; the forms of stigma and oppression that render some bodies more valuable or more visible, than others. Indeed, as Donna Haraway (1991, 208) remarks, ‘Bodies are not born, they are made’.   

My initial research was focused on racial health disparities in relation to chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease. Yet, while interviewing community elders, it became clear that these chronic health concerns were over-shadowed by the more urgent issue of the gun violence that claims the lives of young residents from African American communities with a distressing predictability. I became concerned with one specific health disparity which was under-represented by the news media and local antiviolence campaigns: while violence is the third most common cause of spinal cord injuries throughout the nation, it is the leadingcause of spinal cord injuries resulting in quadra- or paraplegia amongst Black and Hispanic men in the US. Constrained by both media discourses that marginalize violence as part of everyday ‘black-on-black crime’, and the myopic structure of city crime statistics – which track murders but not the survivors of violent crime – individuals who have been physically disabled as a result of gun violence are statistically and socially invisible; they remain uncounted and vastly underserved. In their edited collection Disability Incarcerated, Allison Carey, Liat Ben-Moshe, Chris Chapman, and Angela Y. Davis (2014) offer new perspectives for interpreting the dynamics of social invisibility. By exploring the relationship between the social concepts of disability and imprisonment, both theoretically and tangibly, the collection reveals how constructs and conceptions of disability shape the social order and build spaces of incarceration in everyday life, effectively imprisoning persons in plain view.

What are the sociopolitical processes by which a physical impairment becomes a ‘disability’ and a social identity? How does rehabilitation act as a space of social production? How do the constructs of race and disability work as contingent social processes? And finally, what does it mean to be uncounted and unseen?

These are the broad questions that frame my work as I interview individuals with violently acquired disabilities in order to learn about their ongoing rehabilitation. To my surprise, however, after being welcomed by social workers and therapists, the management at the city’s only rehabilitation center rejected my formal request to use their hospital as a research site. When faced with this change of plans (and the brief ensuing identity crisis over how a medical anthropologist can productively do work outside of medical institutions), the weekly second line parades took on even more significance. These social spaces of local tradition offered insight into the flexibility of the social labels of disability, and the way that rehabilitation is an ongoing social and cultural process long after patients leave the clinic. I soon spent hours talking to groups of wheelchair users about the details of their injuries and suffering; their specific mobility concerns, signature dance moves, and abilities; and their reconciliations – in sum, I learned about ‘wheelchair work’.

When I started attending second lines, I had not yet focused my research on the social and cultural contexts of disability. Nor had I realized how central dance and embodied performance would figure in my work as a medical anthropologist, an uncommon pairing. However, I have come to see how integral such thick descriptions are to the larger story of the ways structural violence both begets physical violence and makes the survivors of such violence disappear. Fieldwork, as I’ve learned, is often an untidy collection of layered moments, new ones partially obscuring older ones, yet demanding we read them together as one. In this way, fieldwork realizations don’t happen suddenly, but are excavated and experienced in unexpected ways: when you are lost, when you’ve been denied access to critical research spaces, and sometimes, maybe even when you’re dancing. 

About the author 

Daniella Santoro is a PhD candidate in medical anthropology at Tulane University. Her dissertation explores the social and cultural context of gun violence in New Orleans, and the processes of rehabilitation amongst individuals with spinal cord injuries resulting from such violence. Her work focuses on the social constructions of disability, its intersections with race and gender, and the politics of self-representation within local expressive culture forms, such as New Orleans second lines. Daniella aspires to expand her current research into a collaborative ethnography with participants of Push for Change, a social aid and pleasure club for persons with disabilities.


Albright, Ann Cooper. 1998. ‘Strategic Abilities: Negotiating the Disabled Body in Dance’. Michigan Quarterly Review XXXVII, no. 3. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.act2080.0037.313.
Carey, Allison C., Liat Ben-Moshe, Chris Chapman, and Angela Y. Davis. 2014. Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Daniel, Yvonne. 2005. Dancing Wisdom: Embodied Knowledge in Haitian Vodou, Cuban Yoruba, and Bahian Candomble. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Haraway Donna. 1991. ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist -Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’. In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 149–181.New York: Routledge.
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