Disability culture

Disability culture and politics emerged from the 1970s rights movement, and aims to change perceptions and attitudes about disability through radical and activist means:

anything from articulating the experiences of impairment and disability openly and without shame, through to the rejection of prostheses or other artificial aids designed to conceal or minimise the visibility or effects of impairment(Barnes 2003, p 6)

Engaging with the source of discrimination and oppression in order to invert it, in much the same way as early feminists burned their bras. Impairment is seen as a mark of difference rather than something to be ashamed of, while unity is perceived in non-conformity with mainstream culture and values. On the one hand, this can be seen as a form of self assertion and empowerment; on the other it can be perceived as wishing to remain apart and not be (or not able to be) assimilated into mainstream society – what Davis (2011) refers to as ghettoisation. Barnes (ibid, p 7) observes that historically, impairment and suffering have been seen as a precondition for creative types, and lists a number of examples. He also notes that there are examples too of artists who have ignored their disability or refused to make it part of their appeal.

Disability artists are differentiated from artists with disabilities since they are politically motivated, and as Sutherland (1989) observes, disability arts and politics are inextricably linked, since politics teaches disabled people they are “oppressed not inferior“, and they “have the right to celebrate being disabled.” Disability arts are completely different from art therapy, which Sutherland dismisses as employing art to inartistic ends since “it leaves out communication, for it assumes we have nothing to communicate“; on the contrary, disability arts are all about communication, culture and identity. They are about exposing the oppression, the disabling imagery and organisation of society.

Paradoxically, disability arts are by definition exclusionary, alienating non-disabled allies as well as those disabled people who do not wish to engage in political discourse. Moreover, as disability arts and culture become widely available and assimilated into mainstream culture, the discrimination would appear to be addressed and representations of disabled people adapted, the political value loses steam (Barnes 2003, p 16-17).


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