Hidden Exhibition Catalogue
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Breaking the Image of Disability
By Nikki Cooper
In art, in literature and in life, image can be everything. From the imagery conjured by the language that we use, to the actual images themselves; Disability has a history of being portrayed as something that is abnormal, unnatural even, but above all something that is unattractive. The issue of negative symbolism for disability studies in the humanities, like manyareas of humanities investigation serves as an impetus for questioning social constructs ofidentity and stereotypes.
Are representations simply reflecting attitudes already present in society or should those creatingthe representations take responsibility for reinforcing or even creating attitudes?
Hidden is designed to challenge both the negative symbolism and the visual stereotype of disability, which is usually portrayed through physical impairment. The project aims to represent disabled people as people first and foremost, challengingpreconceived ideas about what disability looks like, and as a result what it means to be disabled.
Does disability ever represent anythingother than a negative image?
In literature as in film, representations of disabled people seem to have served to dehumanise and stigmatise, rather than present disability as an average and usual human trait.The crippled Greek god, Hephaestus; Montaignes sexually potent limping women; Shakespeares hunchbacked
king, Richard third; Frankensteins deformed monster; Brontes madwoman in the attic; Melvilles one-legged,monomaniacal Captain Ahab; Nietzsches philosophical grotesques; Heminways wounded war veterans;
Morrisons truncated and scared ex-slaves; Borgess blind librarians; and Oes brain damaged son.(Mitchell and Snyder 2001: 196)
What appears to set disability apart in terms of literary stereotyping is that throughout historythere is very little evidence of these stereotypes being challenged; unlike race or gender wheretexts such as Othello caused audiences to question not only the stereotypes presented but alsoauthors intention to challenge the hegemonic view, there are few examples of this for disabled characters. Furthermore, the majority of Disability representations within popular culture have been through disfigurement. The Elephant Man (1980) and the Hunch Back of NotreDame (1923) are quintessential of how disability has been portrayed in film.
This almost exclusive focus on negative representations functioned as a means of humanities-based proof that discrimination against disabled people not only existed but also was fostered by the images consumed by readers and viewers alike (Mitchell and Snyder 2001:).
Attitudes surrounding disability have undergone dramatic changes throughout the last century. Civil rights movements during the 1960s and 1970s set about challenging the verycontext of disablement, in order to bring about change to the way society viewed disability.
Traditionally the Medical Model of disability was dominant. This placed the reason for disablement with a persons medical impairment, locating the responsibility to adapt on the individual. This model is still apparent today, as it reflects the World Health Organisations definition of disability. However since the beginnings of the disability civil rights movement, disabled people have been successful in developing what is known as the Social Model of disability. This model asserts that disability is caused by barriers in society rather than a persons impairment. The responsibility for adaption is therefore placed on society rather thanon the individual. Today the United Kingdom is seen to have accepted this model with the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act (1995), and Internationally the UNs most recentconvention on Human Rights the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is a global recognition that disablement is caused by practices in society rather thana persons impairment.
But whilst legislation such as this indicates that attitudes have changed, when we look at representations within popular culture it is difficult to pin point the same progression.
Recently reality TV seems to have taken the view that it needs to champion disabled people bytaking extra effort to present them in prime-time TV shows. Programmes such as Gok WansHow to look good naked with a difference, BBC programme Dancing on Wheels, andBritains Missing Next Top Model have all taken a typical programme format and adaptedit to present a 'disability special'.
Separating Disabled People into their own spin off shows, further reinforces the view that disabled people are different from the norm, and would not fit into a usual programme series.Furthermore the emphasis has still been placed on physical disabilities and the visual differences of disabled people. Whilst the intention behind Gok Wans How to look goodnaked with a difference was to highlight the fashion industries neglect of disabled women,by addressing these issues in a programme titled 'with a difference' it instead served to confirmthat disabled women are different and are not part of the mainstream of society.
However the issue of inclusion goes deeper than disabled people being integrated into regular TV programming. The heart of the issue lies within our notion of normal, which is perpetuated by our notion of beauty.
Alison Lapper is famous for challenging stereotypes about disabled women.
She states that her work questions notions of physical normality and beauty, in a society that considersme to be deformed because I was born without arms. Her work raises the questions:
Can disability be beautiful? and Can it evoke more than revulsion, pity or sympathy?Lapper asserts that it can, that there is beauty in everything. By presenting images of her body instrong, almost defiant poses Lapper effectively challenges the negative connotations surrounding physical disability.
However whilst work like Alison Lappers is important in changing perceptions surrounding disability, focusing on the physical is something I wanted my project to move away from. I feel the unseen aspect of disability - the lived experience of disability is, in the main, ignored by both artists and the media industry; and is therefore worthy of critical exploration. The hegemonic view that disability equates tolooking and therefore being different still prevails. Hidden disability provides an opportunity to challenge the preconceptions about disability. Because difference is usually attached to strong visualconnotations, presenting people who do not look disabled offers an opportunity to challenge perceptions of what being disabled actually means.
Charli Bailey is a third year History and Philosophy student, who is active in disability rights,setting up a campaign for people with hidden disabilties. Although having IBS makes her feeljudged and misunderstood it also made her stronger and gave her a passion for campaigningto improve disabled peoples lives.
On Hidden Charli said:"It's a great concept that I was proud to be part of"
Brendan Rodgers is a 2nd year student studying Media Communications & Culture with Philosophy. He takes an active role in student-run societies at Keele's Student union and has foundedKeele's first Media orientated society. His epilepsy takes a backseat as Brendan plans for hisupcoming media career.
On Hidden Brendan said:The Hidden project is a very relevant project for its time. In an age where disabled peopleare victim to ignorant assumptions, Hidden highlights the normality of disability
Lucy Jeffery is a Masters student, concentrating on audiovisual music composition and enjoysbeing creative with sound/music and visuals to express herself. Although she sometimes getsfrustrated by the negative aspects of having ADHD and of peoples misconceptions about it,she is determined to not let it stop her and can appreciate and make use of the positive sideto her condition.
On Hidden Lucy said:I thought Nikkis project was a great idea to help raise awareness and understanding aboutthe disabilities that arent obvious and I was happy to be a part of it.
John English is a first year politics and international relations student, who loves anything political and campaigning, and although having OCD he does not let it stop him from enjoyinglife and knows he can get through anything.
On Hidden John said:This is a fantastic project which tackles peoples misconceptions on disability.
Rachel Boyett is a second year student studying International Relations and Politics. Whoseacademic interests stem from the ignorance, discrimination and injustice she has seen and experienced towards people with disabilities. Having ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has givenher the self belief and drive and discipline to achieve her ambitions and made her realise whattruly is important in life.
On Hidden Rachel said:I am honoured to of taken part in such an innovative project which hightlights many of thehidden difficulties disabled people face.
Nicola Doyle is a 3rd year student studying International Relations and Philosophy. She is passionate about promoting equality for people with disabilities and takes great pride in herrole as a marketing assistant at her local disability advice charity. Although Nicola's CerebralPalsy is somewhat obvious there is still much about the condition that people misjudge. In thissense, Nicola sees her disability as a gift that has given her the great empathy and insightthat brings her great happiness.
On Hidden Nicola said:Hidden is an excellent way to demonstrate that when it comes to disabilities, one can't judgea book by its cover.
The biggest challenge society fa