In a 21st Century world with our increased understanding of society, of segregation, and of social constructs, it really isn’t good enough to be lazy in our understanding of the systemic social and cultural discrimination of Disabled people. Within the Arts, we have to examine our practice, our processes, our work, its content, any representations it makes, and be accountable if we, either deliberately or inadvertently, perpetuate negativity around Disabled peoples’ status and value as equal citizens. There are a number of clearly articulated stereotypes and tropes which do this, and some clearly articulated artistic decisions taken by those with artistic and cultural power which actively hinder progress.
I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few Disabled-led Disability Arts events lately, which are brilliant for all sorts of reasons, but particularly when you need to just take a peer ‘check-in’ with your thinking. Having been involved in Disability Arts for 25 years things have changed a lot, and it’s really important that we continue to lead the way when it comes to policy and practice around Disability Equality in art and culture, both for our own work and to inform the work of those working with Disabled people, or where Disability is a subject within their work.
The Disability Arts sector has changed greatly since its inception as part of the Disability Rights Movement in the 1960s and 70s where theatre, music, poetry, cabaret, visual art, street performance were used as a means of protest against discrimination and to campaign for equal rights for Disabled people. Society and culture have also changed a lot since those days, but the fight for equality seems ever more urgent in our current political climate.
One of the great difficulties for any social group seeking equality is to challenge the historical and social status given to ‘marginalised groups’ and perpetuated through time, art and culture. We can trace the development of low ‘social status’ for Disabled people right back to Ancient Greece, where to be less than perfect was to be ‘less good’ and to have ‘less value’ as a citizen, and similarly through each historical era since, there has been specific negative attention given to those with impairments.
Thanks to the Disability Rights Movement, to Disabled activists, artists and academics, we are able to robustly examine art and culture, and its role in perpetuating the low value and low status bestowed on Disabled people.
We have looked at societal perceptions of Disability and Disabled people, and collected those perceptions into different ‘models’ of disability. There is a ‘charity’ model which views us as rather pitiable dependents needing other people to take care of us and make decisions for us. The dominant contemporary model of viewing disabled people is known as the Medical Model of Disability. It sees disability as a deficit, as something ‘wrong’ with a person. An individual is at fault because they are perceived as having functional deficiencies, which progresses into either needing to be cured or becoming a burden to both family and state.
However in the 1960s the Disability Rights Movement developed a new approach of looking at Disability and examined what the disabling factors were for people with impairments. Disabled people were all too aware that we experienced barriers and obstacles to fully taking part in society. There were physical barriers such as steps and lack of accessible car parking for people with physical impairments, there were sensory barriers for visually and hearing impaired people, communication and information barriers for learning disabled people, psychological barriers for people with mental health conditions, and both attitudinal and institutional barriers preventing equal access to employment, education, communities, the arts, and social involvement more widely. Disabled people realised that we were not the problem but in fact the disabling factor for us was that society was full of barriers and attitudes which prevented our equality.
The Social Model of Disability (the term coined by Mike Oliver in 1983 to describe what disabled peoples groups were articulating) is now recognised as the most effective model we have to increase understanding and to removing inequality and discrimination, with its recognition of barriers external to individuals with impairments and to the equality measures that must be put in place by society to equally accommodate the requirements of all citizens.
The social model allowed us to see clearly that ideas around disabled people had been socially constructed, which in turn revealed the stereotypical ways disabled people had been represented in theatre, film, media and literature. In 1991 Paul Hunt identified 10 stereotypes that various media use to portray disabled people:
- The disabled person as pitiable or pathetic – Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
- An object of violence – Blanche in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
- Sinister or evil – Most Bond villains
- The super cripple or superhuman – Paralympics advertising, overcoming and overcompensating
- As curiosity or atmosphere – Tommy the Musical
- Laughable or the butt of jokes – Forest Gump or Dumb and Dumber
- His/her own worst enemy / chip on the shoulder – Captain Hook
- As a burden – people kept hidden or outcast such as Quasimodo
- As Non-sexual – Marlon Brando as a veteran in The Men
- Being unable to participate in daily life – lack of visibility, presented as incapable
Due to both under-representation and mis-representation, myths about Disabled people have been created and underline and inform public opinion. These are just a few myths which we need to dispel.
- Disabled people are brave and courageous – no, we have successfully adapted to our lives
- To become disabled is a personal tragedy – life-changing situations can be supported positively. 70% of us will become disabled as we age.
- Disabled people are chronically ill or sick – we are not defined by illness
- Wheelchairs are restrictive – actually they are a tool of independence
- Disabled people don’t have sexual relationships – of course they do! We are all sexual beings.
- All disabled people need carers – disabled people are independent and sometimes employ assistants to support that independence
- Disabled people are a financial burden – actually there is a strong economy around disabled people through 7 million of us working and tax-paying, and through the creation of jobs to support us – many of us are employers. The ‘purple pound’ has been calculated to be worth £249 million pounds to the economy.
In this context the word ‘trope’ means that a culturally or socially ‘agreed-upon narrative’ already exists around a certain idea – for example disabled peoples experiences, lives or identities – and that it is possible that an audience will accept a reading of a story or situation according to the simplest and most widely-held beliefs. It is a kind of narrative stereotype. Many tropes exist around disabled people and appear in our lives on a daily basis. We exist in these tropes on the basis of the one-dimensional stereotypes above and to further the narratives of other more important, non-disabled ‘whole’ characters. Sadly, there are many more than those listed here. Disability tropes reinforce disablism and ignorance.
- The sweet innocent saint – a representation of saintly goodness in spite of difficulty and inequality
- The vengeful villain – dark revenge characters unable to accept their impairment and seek to harm others
- Magical cures – where a disabled person is cured of their impairments and only then becomes whole
- Better dead than disabled – where someone who becomes unwell or disabled would rather die than endure life with an impairment often relating to suicide or mercy killing
- Disability as an education tool – where disability is used as a tool to educate another character to a device to further another characters narrative
- Disabled people as inspiration porn – a character rebuilding him or herself back from impairment – you can get better if only you tried harder
- Damaged disabled person suffering – presented as a broken person
- Affliction and suffering – defined by a steady decline in health in forensic detail
- Disabled person as a solution – a side-lined one dimensional character who at the end possesses the solution to another characters problem based on their ‘specialness’
Put simply, ‘cripping up’ is the appropriation of disabled peoples’ narratives by non-disabled writers, directors, and presented using non-disabled actors to play the parts of disabled people. It means that the stories chosen to be told are chosen by non-disabled people, often containing disablist stereotypes, myths and tropes because they are unaware of the cultural implications of their ‘artistic’ choices. Much has been said of the relief audiences feel when non-disabled actors receive their Oscars for representing a voyeuristic and distorted view of disabled peoples’ experiences, and then walk away from the podium, transcending disability, completely healed and whole again.
Much of what I’m writing here has been discussed a lot within the Disability Rights Movement and the Disability Arts Community for decades, we’ve discussed it with legislative bodies, Government departments and national policy makers for the arts but somehow the discourse is always side-lined, or hijacked by a new initiative, or sometimes by people who think they know better than we do about what is best for our cultural position - the old Charity Model. We are largely under-estimated still, ironically based on cultural tropes and myths. There are earnest initiatives in place attempting to support the advancement of Disabled people in the arts but without advancing the discourse around content, around voice and how the work is viewed, we may just be temporarily treading water culturally.