Celebrating the artistic history of people with disabilities – Shakira Dyer

> Celebrating the artistic history of people with disabilities

Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell speaking at a DHM event in Portcullis House, Westminster

Shakira Dyer reports on Disability History Month 2017 and its focus on the arts

UK Disability History Month (DHM) has existed in the UK for seven years, but not many people know about it.

Running from 22nd November to 22 December, it is a month to increase awareness of disability and the struggle for disabled people to have equal rights in society.

Every year it has a different theme; this year it’s disability in the arts.

Recently I went to an official DHM event at Hamilton House in Euston. DHM creator, Richard Rieser explained how disabled people had been represented in the arts in the past, as well as how disabled artists represent themselves today.

Shockingly, in the past many artists depicted the disabled as people to be laughed at. This was parodied in LS Lowry’s ‘The Cripple’, a social commentary on how able-bodied people viewed disabled people.

The Cripples, LS Lowry, 1949

Some famous artists in the past were actually disabled or had a mental health issue themselves, yet we don’t think of them in this way today, as their impairments were sometimes hidden.

For example, Leonardo da Vinci is thought to have had Asperger’s syndrome, as he was very dedicated to his work but found socializing difficult.

Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh are known to have experienced depression. Picasso expressed this in his artistic ‘Blue Period’ where he used darker colours and blue tones.

The Blind Man’s Meal, Pablo Picasso, 1903, courtesy of Gandalf’s Gallery

Today, more artists and singers are opening up about their disability or mental health issue. For example James Arthur and Lady Gaga, among others.

At the DHM event, disabled artists such as Tony Heaton and Tanya Raabe-Webber displayed their art and explained how they explored themes of inclusion and acceptance.

Tony Heaton is a photographer and sculptor, creating art that shows both psychical and social barriers towards disabled people, particularly wheelchair users like himself.

One of his creations, ‘Gold Lamé’ suspends a golden car from the beams of a museum. In the 1970s people with mobility impairments were given a ‘special car’, known as an Invacar, because there was an assumption the drivers were ‘invalid’.

On his website, Tony says there was only extra space in the car for a folded wheelchair. “The single seat meant that you travelled alone, the assumption had to be that you had no friends, family, lovers.”

At the DHM event, disabled artists such as Tony Heaton and Tanya Raabe-Webber displayed their art

Tanya Raabe-Webber creates portraits of people, both disabled and non-disabled, in a caricature style. She explores the human condition using both traditional painting and drawing, as well as technology such as iPads. Many of her portraits have been featured in the National Art Gallery.

Another artist, painter and model Alison Lapper was a presenter in BBC documentary ‘No Body’s Perfect’. Alison has no arms due to phocomelia, yet she shows this doesn’t stop her from being beautiful. The documentary aims to convince four camera-shy young people, to gain the confidence to be photographed.

Disability rights activist Barbra Lisicki campaigned with the civil rights group DAN (the Direct Action Network) for accessible areas on the buses and other essential rights.

She explained that DAN’s t-shirts had been effective in getting people to notice their campaigns. Slogans such as as ‘P*ss on Pity’ challenged the stereotypical view of disabled people as an object of charity, while the slogan ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ challenged the idea that disabled people had no say in charities representing them.

The group marched in protest and even chained themselves to buses to help raise awareness and change the law.

Although Barbra and others were arrested for their ‘civil disobedience’, the protests contributed to the creation of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, which made it illegal to discriminate based on disability.

You can read this BBC article about DAN’s campaigns.

At the event, we discussed how schools, colleges and universities could be taught about disability history. Schools could learn about famous disabled people who’ve made it in the arts (and other areas), who challenge negative perceptions of disability. The focus however should be on their artworks and their achievements, not just their disability.

What I think 
The event made me think about how the histories of so-called ‘minorities’ in society can be ‘lost’ or ‘swept under the carpet’ if they aren’t picked up by the mainstream, so that people on the outside and newer generations know what happened.

Hopefully the history of disability rights and art will not be lost. Online archives such as NDACA and ShapeArts are now being set up to preserve art by disabled artists for generations to come.

There needs to be more discussion of what is happening today to protect the rights of people with a disability or mental health issue, and ensure that we are no longer pushed aside. Although things are changing, disabled people still face barriers and social stigma imposed by society.

As inspiring as the speakers were at the DHM event, they came from the older generation. I’d like it if people younger people also spoke about their experiences.

For this year’s DHM, I’m working with a team of other disabled students at my university, King’s College London, to help launch events and raise awareness.

I’m also creating a website, Access The Arts, which will feature disabled artists from many different ages and backgrounds, showcasing their art and suggesting how they might be helping to change attitudes.

Shakira DyerOther articles by Shakira Dyer

Shakira is a visually-impaired writer and student at Kings College London, living in Tottenham. Loving history, literature and especially the German language, she wants to use all of these interests in a career someday. As a member of the Haringey Youth Council, Shakira represents the voice of young people in the borough, at local meetings and events.

Celebrating the artistic history of people with disabilities

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