I decided to explore Alison Lapper, the subject of Quinn’s statue that raised the most controversy. I found a series of images online where Lapper is posing in a similar way to how the statue shows her. Analogies with the Aphrodite of Milo are obvious, and then I found the Disabled History Month poster where Lapper herself alludes to this.
Lapper was born with no arms and shortened legs as a result of a chromosome disorder. “When Lapper was born, in 1965, the doctors waited for her to die. When she didn’t, her mother was told that she would have a terrible quality of life and that she should just forget about her; at six weeks old, she was sent to live in a residential home for children with physical and learning disabilities.” This is something that I have come across when interviewing subjects – not necessarily advocating giving up the child into care, but certainly a pessimistic outlook, from both medical professionals and family members. On the one hand, there is certainly a need to be realistic, as the director of the disability centre told me – the parents need to understand that their child will always be like this, there may be some improvement in the condition through rehabilitation but there is no cure. On the other hand, it’s not all doom and gloom – it’s definitely hard work, but there are rewards. This is what I hope to show.
I found an interview in the Guardian, where she speaks frankly about her life and work. The article says that Lapper was made famous by Quinn’s statue, and maybe there is some truth to this. Going back to what Davis said, perhaps Lapper was famous within disability circles before the statue was made, but it was Quinn’s work that rocketed her to celebrity status.
“Every step or achievement in my life – learning to drive, living independently, doing my A level art – to most people it’s probably just another small thing, but it’s all been really amazing when you’re brought up being told you’re not going to amount to anything, you’re useless, you’re thick, you’re a drain on society and you’re always going to be in care.” Showing determination and a desire to succeed against all the odds; this is another aspect that I have learned from my subjects – very often it is their own strength of will or stubbornness, a refusal to throw in the towel that enables them to achieve. There is a lesson in this for everyone, I think, since we all have a tendency to give up far too easily, or find excuses not to do or to think we are not capable.
On motherhood, Lapper says that her son is her “greatest piece of art work and creation”, and describes how the father and her own mother tried to persuade her to have an abortion. “She was once in a chemist, talking to a friend, when two women started discussing, in front of her, how her child would become a “burden on society”.” She also speaks of how her pregnancy was viewed by the social services, who were watching her very closely: the implicit message being that if she made any mistake, her son would be taken from her. “It made me realise we are still so backward about disability. Most of the disabled people I know who are parents are bloody good parents – we’re being watched, so we have to be 150% better than everybody else.” She insisted on breastfeeding and changing nappies herself. This is another thing that I’ve noticed about a lot of disabled people, that they often stubbornly refuse to be helped. Learning to do something by themselves, unassisted, gives them a sense of independence, freedom. When Lapper was fitted with artificial limbs, she saw it as an attempt to ‘normalise’ her (to make her appearance less disturbing) rather than in any way assisting her, so she discarded them, learning instead to live without prosthetics or external aids.
On disability: “I realise I’m not looked at as a normal human being – I’ve never met a ‘normal human being’ in my life, I hasten to add – but it’s amazing, just because my limbs are missing, how different people think I am, and that somehow you don’t function like anybody else. I mean, I had an amazing pregnancy. I looked fantastic, I felt fantastic.” She speaks of how people stare, some of them being blatantly rude, and how she was treated as less than human in her childhood – which is part of her determination to provide her own son with a happy childhood. She is also adamant that her son does not treat her with kid gloves, and that since she is his mother, she looks after him, not the other way round: “I didn’t have a child to become my carer. He’s got a childhood and a life to have, and it’s important that he has that. He can’t look after me and then be expected to do a day at school.”
On her self determination: “I’ve always had a drive, and maybe that’s what’s kept me going, I think, because I’ve always had to prove myself. For me, life is about looking forward. Where’s my next challenge? … I have to go forward, not backward, and I always vowed I would never be anyone’s victim and I would never dwell on what has gone. I don’t want it to spoil the rest of my life, because my life is really good.” Again, I think it is important for people to realise that drive is important, and maybe support – not in the sense of smothering or treating the disabled person like a china doll, but moral support, and looking beyond the impairment to see the person. I have found this to be the best advice when interacting with and interviewing my subjects, and they have even remarked on how easy it is to open up to me.
Lapper is a member of the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists association, who are clear about the fact that they are not a charity, and that the work of the artists “should be of a standard that enables them to be exhibited alongside the work of artists who are able bodied” and as such is judged by merit alone. Some of Lapper’s more accessible (commercial, mostly landscape) works are available on the MFPA website, but she also makes her own personal pieces that are more radical and activist in nature and essence, and a direct assault on the medical profession (her condition was the result of Thalidomide):
In another earlier interview for the Telegraph, Lapper speaks about how she loathes pity: “I think people look at me and think: ‘Isn’t she brave?’ but I’m not one for sympathy. If anyone were to pat me on the head,” she adds, “I’m more than likely to bite their hand off!””
She is quite frank and says that her pregnancy wasn’t planned: “I’d got so used to being told that disabled people didn’t have relationships and didn’t have children that I suppose I blocked all thought of having kids out of my mind.”
“Normally, when you are pregnant, people ask if you’re having a boy or a girl. All I was asked was: ‘Is he going to be like you?” in fact, she admits, there was a 4-5% chance of her son being born with the same condition.
In fact her son was born without the condition, but she says she doesn’t plan on having any more! “People are amazed that I’ve had him and think that I’m brave and courageous for doing so. But I don’t feel that I am.” Alison shrugs. “All I’m doing is just living my life.”” This is what I want to show – people simply living their lives!!