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Is the only time Cripplies get a look into `mainstream’ arts when we’re ‘spilling the beans’ about impairment? / 16 October 2015

Caroline Bowditch eating a slice of watermelon

Caroline Bowditch's 'Falling in Love with Frida'. Image © Anthony Hopwood

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I seem to have seen more shows in recent months than I’ve done in quite a while! The most recent, which I’ve genuinely loved, being Jess Thom’s 'Backstage in Biscuitland' and Caroline Bowditch’s 'Falling in love with Frida'.  

In both I’ve had moments of being caught up sharp, as if by red flashing lights when things have started to go all ‘Medical Modelly’. It feels to me that all of a sudden we come to a section intended as the `educational’ for non-disabled people bit all about impairment! But is this just me having perhaps an over-sensitive reaction?

I was recently informed by a Tribal Elder from DPAC that the Social Model of Disability does not automatically rule out discussing impairment; it’s how it’s done, context etc.  

As you Dear Readers may know, I’ve been formerly critical of autobiographical/ impairment laden work by disabled artists. Have I been wrong in this? It has felt to me that the only time Cripplies get a look into `mainstream’ arts, is when we’re ‘spilling the beans’ and the private becomes public. That’s absolutely fine, if that’s what the artist intends for the piece.  

Artists like Penny Pepper with her spoken word show ‘Lost in Spaces’, was totally up-front about this, as was Liz Carr with ‘It hasn’t Happened Yet’; both of these pieces included some reference to impairment. Do others perhaps feel pressured into impairment talk in order to be more `marketable’ to venues? Or is it purely personal choice?

It’s certainly better that we tell our own stories – Nothing About Us etc. as a way of countering Tragic over Brave – than having others tell tales for us and does it in fact only tell half the story if we exclude impairment from work all together? Shows like Robert S-Gales 'Spasms...' have successfully opened that Pandora Box for non disabled audiences whilst Scope’s 'End the Awkward' campaign has proved controversial for many, including myself. Are there parallels to be found in LBGT and / or Black Arts?

So here comes my Flashing Red Light revelationary bit!  Part of my reluctance to tell any (usually non-d) person about my impairment, stems from all the baggage being labelled brittle has caused in my life; from my Mum being looked at as if she were a Bad Brittley Mum because she didn’t know exactly how many fractures I’d had (and me being a crap one for not having counted; tho’ of course no one expected my Dad to know!), through fear of interpretation of that label and being refused an interview at one Uni, years ago until I attended a Medical (it never happened!), to just recently being asked for a doctor’s letter before I could even `have a chat’ with a Personal Trainer about the possibility of some supposedly disability friendly gymn sessions!

Truth is I’ve always resisted any impairment related discussion, yet here I am, getting it all out...


Colin Hambrook

20 November 2015

Underpinning the question that Sophie raises is the age-old 'What is art for?’ Is it about social change?

It seems to me that a lot of the disability arts we see these days is impairment-focussed because it wants to address barriers to access. Jess Thom for example has created Backstage in Biscuitland as a statement about how creative and enlivening bringing spontaneity back into performance can be. The show has been successful in alerting producers etc. to the potential of ‘relaxed performances’ to shake theatre up from it’s tight-lipped, conservativeness and to push for something more exciting.

I can see why disabled artists are pushing for more consideration of impairment issues. We hate being labelled, because it immediately signs us up to the Medical Model, which defines us by ‘what’s wrong with us’, but equally if institutions and people don’t know about our access needs then we can easily be disempowered. Either way it can be a no-win situation.

There are tensions aren’t there. This emergence of ‘impairment focussed’ art by disabled artists has an element of “let’s put the ‘freaks’ on show to entertain and let us know how great we are for being non-disabled”.

But equally if we don’t tell our own stories they’ll be told for us. And within the work of people like Marc Brew and Cian Binchy there is a striving to subvert ‘normality’.

You cannot control how your work will be interpreted. So there is some element of being prone to the age-old ‘tragic but brave’ messages in these recent explorations of impairment. Some of the reviews of the work at Edinburgh were full of flowery language about how wonderful the work was, with undertones of the critics' interpretation being one of 'inspiration at overcoming adversity'.

After decades of campaigning and fighting for rights, the disability community has seen things go further backwards in the last 5 years. The Social Model messages: 'piss on pity’ and ’nothing about us, without us’ have been reinterpreted to mean we can get along without support from access to work or the independent living fund or disability benefits etc. etc.

We’re in a dilemma, fucked if we do and fucked if we don’t. What is clear to me is that we need more Art that addresses discrimination from a more universal standpoint.

Deborah Caulfield

23 October 2015

This is so interesting and deserves a much longer and better thought-out reply than this. I may do a blog (but I've said this before, so am avoiding making any commitment.)

In order to maintain any credibility as a Disability Art artist, l feel I must occasionally reference my impairment. This is fairly OK in my writing but problematic in my pictures. Similarly, mental health is one thing, but physical impairment is another bag of bones altogether.

As soon as I mention any aspect of impairment, I feel I've crossed a line and entered a different space. Like institionalisation, I'm scared I'll never get back.

Actually, I'm a bit all over the place on this, just as I've never felt totally secure in my identity as a disabled person. It's as if at any moment someone will tap me on the shoulder, say I'm a fraud, and show me the door marked 'exit.'

Sophie P.

21 October 2015

In deed Penny! Thanks :-) x

Penny Pepper

20 October 2015

I think you're right Sophie, when you say it's context. We must be free to discuss our impairment how we choose, otherwise we are echoing the constraints medical model traps us in. What's important is we tell the whole story of who we are. I've tried to do that in Lost in Spaces, the story is one of barriers and realisations. The mainstream will always want us in safe stereotypes and I think this has happened in other groups who've faced discrimination. We have to coax them to think otherwise. We are after all, much much more than a cliché of our impairments!

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