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1 July 2005

What is Disability Arts?

What are the issues which have underpinned the development of Disability Arts? Allan Sutherland offers a concise explanation.

photo of sophie partridge from peeling

Photo of Sophie Partridge from Peeling

The generally agreed definition of disability arts, the one that we in the disability arts movement have found most accurately reflects what we are doing, is that it is 'art made by disabled people which reflects the experience of disability.'

Disability arts is Art. It is seriously intentioned creative work - poems or painting or music or comedy or theatre or whatever - made with some sort of aesthetic purpose. It is not a hobby to keep the cripples' hands busy. And it is not therapy.

Disability arts is made by disabled people. So we're not talking about anything that portrays us according to other people's perceptions: Rain Man or Richard III or 'isn't it tragic' documentaries. In disability arts we are in charge, we tell our own stories, we present our own perceptions of disability and the issues around it.

Disability arts reflects the experience of disability. There have always been disabled people who made art, and some of them were great artists: Homer, Alexander Pope, John Milton, Ludwig van Beethoven, Vincent Van Gogh. But those artists treated their disability as an impediment to their work. We would not recognise Milton's Sonnet on his Blindness, which treats his impairment as a burden that he has to bear, as disability arts. Disability arts regards the experience of disability, not as an impediment, but as an appropriate and fruitful subject for artistic work.

Who is our audience?

The primary audience of disability arts is other disabled people. We don't feel that our work has to be ratified by the approval of a mainstream, able-bodied audience. We respect ourselves and each other, and we direct our work at the people who know what we are on about, and who can engage in a worthwhile dialogue with us.

One of the exciting things that happens within disability arts is that people with quite different disabilities, different experiences, but a common analysis of our situation, create something shared. We break through the idea, presented to us by the medical profession and disability charities in particular, that our situations are different and unrelated, and come together not as the blind or the deaf or the epileptic, or the spastic or the arthritic, but as disabled people.

What are the major issues?

We are only just beginning to identify the issues we have to deal with. Some of those most pressing at the moment are: how do we move beyond autobiography and polemic as ways of talking about disability? how do we draw a distinction between amateur and professional work? How do we find ways to help artists earn a living? How do we develop an appropriate critical practice?

And, in particular, how do we save the work that has already happened, so that we leave a legacy for future generations of disabled people?

Related information

Edward Lear Foundation