This site now acts as an archive only. For the latest news, opinion, blogs and listings on disability arts and culture visit

Disability Arts Online

Public bodies, disability on display... / 10 October 2011

18th century print of an elderly blind woman

'Blind Granny', c17-18th century. Image © Royal College of Physicians

Zoom in to this image and read text description

On 15 September I was asked by the Royal College of Surgeons to speak about `public bodies, disability on display’. As someone with a very visible impairment, I do feel I’m always on display.  Display itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. I’d certainly rather that than being shut away somewhere, hidden from view.  The quest for me always, is to gain as much control as possible over how I’m displayed. Whether that’s simply by my choice of clothes as I trundle up the street, portrayal of myself as a disabled person in the press & media, a photo or on stage etc.  It’s a bit like being famous, but without the red carpets & the wealth!

For some of the original exhibitors in the RCP’s collection there were, I think, varying degrees of `fame’ – or notoriety at least – Blind Granny for example.  They too had adopted the attitude: “If we’re going to be looked at anyway, we may as well get paid for it...”  As much as I’d like to take credit for that line, it’s actually a quote from Kaite O’Reilly’s stage play, Peeling.

It seems each individual from the historical portraits in the exhibition were selling their uniqueness, their `best feature’ in fact being the curves in unusual places. They were reguarded as freaks and we could debate endlessly whether contemporary disabled people are revered as such today.  Are Paralympians in fact – just Super Crips?!  Were the individuals featured in the original portraits, the Super Crips of their day?  Individuals who had, to a certain extent conformed to that classic cliché of Triumph over Tragedy – because they had seemingly, turned exploitation on it’s head and were able to gain an amount of respect, earning a living, by exploiting the curiosity of the viewer.

Personally I don’t actually think any of the historical individuals were ever really, beheld in fear – more admiration for looking so different because, as humans so easily jaded, we long to see something new... But it’s as if – and I’m sure this could also be said of the historical exhibitees, the non-disabled / general public, want the myth of disabled peoples’ lives and not the reality, which can be quite mundane like most peoples’.

I’d like to end with what another Focus group member of the RCP project – Mark Pampell said of the historical portraits: -  "If those gents & ladies didn’t exhibit themselves, we wouldnt know about them.."!  The Google on-line dictionary defines exhibit as `to offer or expose; to place on show; to make manifest’.

I am truly grateful that those Ladies & Gents did in deed make themselves manifest. When the exhibition was in place at the Royal College of Physicians, my photo and blurb was shown in a room along with those of small people from the archive. I felt this sense of almost pride and definite well-being, having my own portrait put in a context with theirs.

I was following in a historical line of obviously impaired people and was very happy to be there. How much longer disabled people – with both visible & invisible impairments will be part of our society, I don’t know and am fearful for our future. But I am glad to be here, living as I am and immensely glad that those in the past, lived as they did, too.

Go to to see a selection of the portraits in the RCP collection.

Keywords: history of disabled people,visual arts