Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography

The history of disabled people in the Western world is in part the history of being on display, of being visually conspicuous while politically and socially erased.” (2002, p 56)

Garland Thomson analyses the way the disabled body has always been the object of people’s stares, from being exhibited as prodigies or ill omens in antiquity, through the subjects of miraculous cures in Christianity, objects of exotica and ridicule from mediaeval times right up to the sideshow exhibits of the early industrial era, and finally the displayed case study in the medical sciences: “Disabled people have variously been objects of awe, scorn, terror, delight, inspiration, pity, laughter, or fascination-but they have always been stared at” (56). According to GT, staring is a much more intense way of looking than any other, and by its nature indicates an understanding of difference, lending significance to impairment as something anomalous, something that we “fear, deify, disavow, avoid, abstract, revere, conceal, and reconstruct” (p 57). Despite the fact that disability is something we will all face if we live to old age, “in representing disability in modernity, we have made the familiar seem strange, the human seem inhuman, the pervasive seem exceptional” (p 57).

For the author, photography provided a new way of staring at disability. By removing the viewer from the immediate proximity of the perceived subject, photography achieves a number of effects. First of all, since photographs are taken with the express purpose of being viewed, staring at the subjects photographed is authorised, and since there is no possibility for interaction and/or risk of contagion, can be carried out in more scrutinising ways and at the viewer’s desire. Viewers are absolved of any responsibility toward the subjects depicted, while the images themselves shape viewer perceptions of disability and reifies them via photography’s truth claims.

GT identifies four primary visual rhetorics of disability – the wondrous, the sentimental, the exotic and the realistic, which she claims rarely exist separately from each other and so complicate the issue of whether images showing disabled people are received as simply positive or negative, or even as truthful representations of the disability experience. She goes on to say that all images of disability are understood in light of these cultural narratives since they are so embedded in society’s understanding, while none of the rhetorics actually functions in favour of disabled people: “almost all of them appropriate the disabled body for the purposes of constructing, instructing, or assuring some aspect of a putatively nondisabled viewer” (p 59).

The wondrous rhetoric has the longest history, originating in premodern understandings of disability as omen or a signifier of distinction, and uses apparent physical differences to evoke awe, amazement and admiration in the viewer. Although the writer lists literary characters from classical times as well as sideshow freaks among the wondrous, she uses the 19th century celebrity “armless wonder” Charles Tripp to illustrate this rhetoric.


Fusing the ordinary with the extraordinary” is a device used to simultaneously elicit in the viewer identification with and difference from the subject. Thus we see a well-dressed and groomed Tripp in an otherwise unremarkable setting engaged in the everyday activity of drinking tea, albeit with his feet. The ordinariness of the activity emphasises the extraordinariness and difference in Tripp’s body: “By telescoping the viewer’s eye to the mark of impairment, the picture instructs viewers to stare and coaches them to understand impairment as the exception rather than the rule” (p 61). Although GT uses the image of the wheelchair using rock climber as an example of how the photographic composition makes the viewer look up in awe at the disabled figure, a quick look at Wilderness Inquiry website reveals that their mission is truly inclusive:

Since 1978 WI has conducted integrated adventures for persons with disabilities as well as people who do not have disabilities—as equals and peers.” They claim to treat everyone as equals, while boasting a range of adaptive equipment they have acquired or developed themselves, as well as accommodating sign language interpreters and other personal assistants.

Another image GT uses is this one of a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, which shows a disabled volunteer working in spite of his obvious impairment and the consequent difficulty in performing the task he is engaged in. She says that the image was displayed along with a caption, as is typical with disability imagery, which instructs the viewer on how to read the image: “Extraordinary Volunteer, Unstoppable Spirit“. Although he is clearly only hammering a nail, this feat is deemed to be superhuman, miraculous:

By making disabled subjects masters of ordinary activities such as climbing rocks, drinking tea, or using hammers, these photos create a visual context that elicits adulation for their accomplishing what the normalized viewer takes to be a superhuman feat” (p 62-3).

The next rhetoric is the sentimental, which has the opposite effect of diminishing rather than making the disabled subject larger than life. This type of image portrays the disabled person as victim or sufferer in need of help or protection, invoking pity and often requesting monetary donations. Disability is presented as a problem that needs to be solved, the moral obligation of the non-disabled viewer.

GT uses the March of Dimes poster boy from 1946 to illustrate her point, and deconstructs the narrative to explain that “The viewer’s dimes, the poster suggests, will literally catapult the unhappy little fellow trapped in braces in his crib into a smiling and spirited tyke, striding with determination and gratitude toward the viewer” (p 63). The image not only reinforces the stereotype of impairment being the root cause of suffering, but also promotes medical intervention as the means to achieving happiness through able-bodiedness, which the poster implies is obviously the only way the boy can ever really be happy.

The switch from charity to commercial in late capitalism has come about as a result of companies’ scrambling to cash in on lucrative markets, and so Benetton’s use of models with Down syndrome is another case of the sentimental rhetoric, and “fuses sentimental cuteness with high fashion to produce the conviction in the viewer-shopper that Benetton is humanitarian rather than solely commercial” (p 65), while an accompanying text anticipates cynical reading and instructs the viewer that the images are part of Benetton’s social campaign. GT insists that the image still continues the March of Dimes fantasy that the child can be rescued, at least from the stigma of being disabled, by being dressed up and through Benetton’s support of her school (thus we are supporting the amelioration of the girl’s situation by buying clothes from Benetton, who are in a sense making a donation on our behalf).

The exotic rhetoric is moulded on ethnographic photography of the colonial period, and continues the myth of taxonomic objectivity of that visual form. The disabled person is exaggerated and sensationalized to dispel stereotypes of vulnerability and asexuality, thus appealing to disabled consumers in a bid to capture that sector of the market.

The example she gives is this advert for a wheelchair, which she describes as follows: “The image alludes at once to the strong men and tattoo kings of the sideshows and then inflects it with a hyperphallic sexuality, completely rewriting the cultural script of the emasculated invalid and the male who becomes feminized by disability” (p 66). As such, the image not only serves to satisfy non-disabled desire to view impairment as freak show spectacle, but would also seem to appeal to disabled viewers’ sense of empowerment.


While the wheelchair ad is specifically aimed at disabled consumers, GT also notes the increasing use of disabled people in high fashion images to capture areas of the market. The photos by Nick Knight of Aimee Mullins (among others) show the disabled body as both conforming to and departing from conventional body types of fashion models. By presenting Mullins as “a kind of hi-tech bionic mannequin” the photographic style “thematically echoes her prostheses and renders the whole image chic” (p 68) while satisfying postmodern demands for novelty in the visual. Since Mullins is both extraordinarily beautiful and an amputee, she appears as an embodied contradiction: both conforming to and subverting the stringent aesthetic requirements of the contemporary fashion industry.

These transgressive juxtapositions of disability and high fashion, such as the macho chair user and the athletic but legless Mullins, produce a fresh, attention-grabbing brand of exotic radical chic that redefines disabled identity for the disabled consumer.” (p 69)

But as GT pointed out at the beginning of her essay, this redefinition is more in the interests of commercial enterprise than disabled people, since they do little to actually challenge stereotypes.

The final rhetoric is realistic, where the impairment is normalized or minimized in an attempt to domesticate it. She cites the example of Lewis Hine, who used disability in photography to tell a cautionary tale, where men are denied employment by the very system that robbed them of the ability to work in the first place:

According to GT, Hine’s implicit message in these images is that “disability is a scourge that can and should be avoided in a world that works right” (p 69), and despite the call for society to support and accept these men, they are still shown as people the viewer would not like to become. Another instance of realism can be seen in the Breast Cancer Fund’s Obsessed with Breasts awareness raising campaign, which parodied soft porn style advertisements by Victoria’s Secret, Cosmopolitan and Calvin Klein’s Obsession.

The posters disrupt the visual convention of the female breast as sexualized object for male appropriation and pleasure by replacing the now normative, eroticized breast with the proscribed image of the amputated breast” (p 71). The posters caused such a shock that many viewers demanded they be removed, which in turn sparked controversy over the representation of women’s breasts as everyday eroticised spectacle and the disabled or medicalised breast which is forbidden and hidden from view. The pictures thus act as a form of protest, challenging not only representations of the female body, but also demanding that breast cancer be addressed as a topic and not ignored or covered up.

GT mentions the wheelchair using dolls of Barbie and American Girl:


Such representations of disability as a routine part of life brings disability ‘out of the closet’, whilst also sending the message to disabled people that their experience is familiar and everyday rather than something to be avoided. Although GT says that the realist rhetoric is one that is least visually arresting since it has no commercial purpose, I don’t really see the difference between Benetton photographing children with Down syndrome in a bid to capture market share, and Barbie in a wheelchair – to me they serve the same commercial objectives.

The final image GT looks at is one of disabled Secretary of Education Judith Heumann:

In her opinion, in its normalizing capacity this image does not make the viewer want to stare at the woman; instead, the secretary is depicted as ordinary, inviting both disabled and non-disabled people to identify with her: “The photograph suggests neither that her accomplishments are superhuman nor that she has triumphantly overcome anything. She thus becomes more familiar than strange” (p 74). For GT what is most significant is the implicit message that a woman with disability can hold such a post. According to the writer, such representations “banish the strange and cultivate the ordinary“, placing disabled people in everyday situations and showing them as ordinary, but also dispelling the notion that disability can in any way rule out personal achievement.

In conclusion, GT writes:

Understanding how images create or dispel disability as a system of exclusions and prejudices is a move toward the process of dismantling the institutional, attitudinal, legislative, economic, and architectural barriers that keep people with disabilities from full participation in society” (p 75)

Thus my analysis of disability imagery in the media is helping me to understand the common metaphors and stereotypes that exist, while my disability studies reading is helping to shed some light on how these images are perceived by disabled people and what they expect or are indeed producing themselves in the way of images that are politically correct or which reflect the realities of living with disability.

In a more extended version of this same essay, GT states that photographs “construct the object they represent as they depict it, shaping it through the conventions of presentation and through cultural ideas and expectations about such pictures” (Garland-Thomson 2001, p 336) which means that the photographs themselves are partly responsible for the way they are read or interpreted. What she means is that by dint of being the subject of a photograph, an object is already infused with a cultural significance, and the style of the image as well as the context of its presentation will further assist the viewer in understanding its implicit message. Photography not only “obscures its mediation between the viewer and the viewed“, but also “arrests time, freezes motion and prunes away space, which are the coordinates and context of real life” (ibid, p 336), which means that although a photograph may appear to be real, it is in fact far from reality. She cites Sander Gilman as having written: “We do not see the world, rather we are taught by representations of the world about us to conceive of it in a culturally acceptable manner” (quoted from Seeing the Insane, 1982 p xi).

GT insists that the distance between the viewer and viewed afforded by the photographic image replicates the “social untouchability” of disabled people: “The disabled figure in western culture is the to-be-looked-at rather than the to-be-embraced. Consequently, the visual – whether it is looking toward or away – is the major mode that defines disability in modernity” (p 340).

The wondrous rhetoric, by placing the disabled person on a pedestal, in effect removes them from circulation in ordinary life, and thus negates any claims to equality. The sentimental rhetoric turns the visibly disabled body into a “spectacle of suffering rather than the reality of suffering” continuing the myth of helpless victim and offering the possibility to “contain the threat of disability and empower the viewer to act” (341) which presumably does more for the sense of moral wellbeing of the viewer than for the object of pity, since the former is constructed as “benevolent rescuer“, while the latter is regarded as “grateful recipient“.

To recapitulate simply these rhetorics of disability: the wondrous mode directs the viewer to look up in awe of difference; the sentimental mode instructs the spectator to look down with benevolence; the exotic mode coaches the observer to look across a wide expanse toward an alien object; and the realistic mode suggests that the onlooker align with the object of scrutiny.” (p 346)

Although as GT points out, the impairment is always visible, I’d say this is more a result of the visual nature of photography than anything else – after all, how else does a photographic image convey disability? What she is getting at is that disability exists as visualization of impairment rather than as lived experience for the viewer to contemplate.

GT differentiates the act of staring from that of gazing in that the latter encompasses the whole of the body, while the former focuses on the particular signifier of disability and rarely if ever envelops the body as an entirety. It is an unequal dynamic, since the starer is in a position of power, being both normal and anonymous, while the one being stared at is in a position of vulnerability, stigmatized and defensive; the disabled person is also excluded from the “imagined community of the fully human“. Staring can thus be understood to constitute “one of the cultural practices that creates disability as a state of absolute difference, rather than as simply one more variation in human form” (p 347).

Wondrous images “lift their subjects out of the realm where ordinary people live typical lives and create them as distantly strange yet compellingly familiar” (352). Images that promote diversity and inclusion, on the other hand, display impairments or prosthetics in a restrained manner without drawing unnecessary attention to them.

I have chosen my subjects based on the fact that they are all visibly disabled. Although a truly inclusive project would include people with different, more or less visible disabilities, the scope of this project is limited to those I have chosen because of time constraints and their relative autonomy and ability to communicate with me.

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