Colour photograph of a white caravan from outside the wooden orchard gates, framed by trees, with a red brick tiled cottage behind it. If you look very carefully, you can see a Westie immediately behind the gate.


Holton Lee

What is Disability Arts?

This is a question that Disabled artists have been struggling to answer since the movement began.

What it isn't

It is easiest to start off with what Disabled artists generally agree that Disability Arts is not:

  • Disability Arts is NOT art made about experience of impairment i.e. art that takes a disability or medical condition as its subject.
  • Disability Arts is NOT art made by disabled people that fails to take experience of disability as its subject.
  • Disability Arts is NOT art made by non-disabled people that takes disability as its subject.
  • Disability Arts is NOT art that is controlled by non-disabled people.

However, none of these definitions are strictly true.

  • Within our society, images of impairment are largely invisible. Where impairment is made visible, it is usually portrayed within the Medical or Charity Models of Disability, and it is usually non-disabled people who are creating the images. So it can be argued that when Disabled artists make work about our personal experience of impairment, this is inherently political. It is political because the work is challenging the invisibility of impairment, and it is political because the work is under the direct control of disabled people.
  • Feminists have also believed for a long time that it is important to make physical experiences of life visible and to discuss and make theory around them, and particularly when these experiences are different from those of white, non-disabled men. Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) theorists agree with this, as do Black activists.
  • Feminist theory also legitimises the fact that the personal is political, and has challenged traditional ideas of what is a valid subject matter for art.
  • So it may be that the refusal to accept work about impairment as being Disability Art comes from the dominance of white male heterosexual artists within the Disability Arts movement, rather than from any deeper theoretical objection.
  • Artists who identify as Disabled have a different world view to non-disabled artists. For example, we believe that there is no such thing as a divide between the mind and the body. We also believe that neuro-diversity should be celebrated, rather than a rational mind being a goal to strive towards. This affects our whole approach to our work - for example our use of colour, since 'acceptable' colour palettes have traditionally reflected the 'Cartesian' mind/body divide. So even when the subject of our work has nothing to do with disability, the work may still be fundamentally different than it would be if we did not identify as Disabled. Which means that it IS still Disability Art.
  • Artists are assumed to be non-disabled (and white, and male). So when, for example, a blind woman creates a painting or directs a film, or a Deaf man or a man with learning difficulties choreographs and performs their own work, they embody a challenge to this discourse; their art is revolutionary merely through existing. Therefore it can be argued that all work produced by disabled artists is Disability Art, whatever the subject matter.
  • Non-disabled people may share our experience of disability, as our partners, parents, children, family members, friends, carers and personal assistants. If they are artists, they could potentially make work about this experience. It would NOT be Disability Art if disabled people are stereotyped within it, and/or if a non-Social Model of Disability is used, and/or if the artist seeks to speak for disabled people. But it MIGHT be Disability Art if non-disabled artists use the Social Model of Disability, and focus on their own experiences within their work.
  • Generally speaking, art produced in environments that are controlled by non-disabled people is not defined as Disability Art even when all of the participants are disabled. But an art student might well choose to make work about their personal experience of disability when the lecturers and other students are non-disabled, and be supported to do this (though the majority are told instead that they should NOT). This WOULD be Disability Art.
  • And some communities of disabled people, particularly people with learning difficulties, benefit from having their work facilitated by non-disabled people/disabled people from different impairment groups. Whether or not this is defined as being Disability Art depends on whether disabled people are enabled to have the greatest possible control over all aspects of the activity (though this is more often NOT the case).

Black and white video still of two people looking down from the top of a staircase - a woman using a manual wheelchair, facing a man who is standing.
My p.a. Lee Elliott and I performing in Opening Doors, a film-dance work commissioned by Bradford City Council in 2004. Camera: Julie Newman


What it is

Disabled artists do agree that the Social Model of Disability is at the heart of the Disability Arts movement. (If you are unfamiliar with the theoretical models of disability used by the Disability Rights movement, I created a website about these called Helping the Handicapped. This was commissioned by the Sinnlos Disability Arts Festival in Graz, Austria, when Graz was European Capital of Culture in 2003. The work aimed to explain the theoretical basis of the UK and US Disability Arts movements to a primarily non-disabled audience in Central Europe.)

Using the Social Model of Disability, the Disability Arts movement challenges the fundamental belief systems that govern 21st-century society in the developed world.

  • The Disability Arts movement challenges the belief that impairment is abnormal. It returns impairment to its rightful place as an integral and normal part of human experience.
  • The Disability Arts movement challenges the belief that Disabled people are intrinsically different to non-disabled people. It highlights the facts that anyone can become disabled, and that the vast majority of us will become disabled at some point before we die.
  • The Disability Arts movement challenges the belief that disabled people are less equal and less deserving of full human rights than non-disabled people. It demands equality for all.
  • The Disability Arts movement challenges the belief that impairment is a tragedy, and that disabled people have a poorer quality of life than non-disabled people as a result of our impairments. It highlights the fact that what affects disabled people's quality of life is prejudice and discrimination.
  • The Disability Arts movement challenges the belief that prejudice and discrimination against disabled people is normal. It highlights the fact that the barriers disabled people face are created by society, rather than resulting inevitably from our impairments.
  • The Disability Arts movement challenges the belief that medical science is one step away from eradicating impairment and creating immortality. It requires society to recognise the limitations of science, to face up to reality, and to change accordingly.
  • The Disability Arts movement challenges the dominant discourse of perfection. It points out that we can only be happy when we accept the reality of the human condition as being vulnerable and imperfect.
  • The Disability Arts movement challenges the belief that only non-disabled people can make art. It reminds the art world that many of the great artists of the past have been disabled.

We make these challenges in work that includes poetry and other writing, dance, theatre, live art, cabaret, music and other performance, as well as visual arts such as painting, photography, film and video - and, of course, multi-media. Our work covers the same subject matter as other artists - life and death, relationships, landscape and the environment, spirituality and so on. Disability Art, though, is the art of most resistance.

The Disability Arts audience

One popular misconception is that Disability Arts is aimed primarily at a disabled audience.
  • The Disability Arts movement began alongside the Disability Rights Movement. Live performances grew out of disability rights campaigners' experiences, and were produced alongside political actions.
  • Initially, only disabled people were interested in the work. And the only opportunities disabled artists had to present their work was in segregated settings.
  • However, the work produced by the Disability Arts movement is aimed at everyone, and everyone can relate to it. Increasingly, a majority of audience members are non-disabled.
  • Disabled and non-disabled audience members may experience the work differently. But all art work is experienced differently by different people.
  • As with other Fine Art movements, we are as much part of the mainstream as we are separate from it.

Please note that these are my personal views. Many other Disabled artists have written about the nature of Disability Arts. As the NDACA website is developed, we will be including links to their work online, as well as including it in the archive for study.

Series of four reworkings of the same image in different colours: red and yellow, then greens, then blues, then pinks and purples. The image shows an androgynous figure standing with their back to the viewer, with their left arm raised above their head as if knocking on a door, and the figure becomes less true to life as the series progresses (from left to right).
Image from my work Perception I-IV; after Matisse: Backs I-IV; film on four 2m high bronze-edged lightboxes, 2003.

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