Seeing Things

Images of Disability.


Here are some thoughts on images and disability. One of our tasks in setting up DSN is to decide which visual images of disability we would like to appear on the blog. More broadly, we would like to discuss, interrogate and expand the range of cultural images of disability. My interest in this project is both academic and personal. I have two disabilities, one visible (cerebral palsy) and one invisible (a visual impairment). My PhD project considers visual impairment/partial sight as an aesthetic in poetry and examines how a collection of poems can reflect this aesthetic. As such, I have a strong interest in how people with disabilities are seen and in how they see themselves. Which images of disability are widely available in society? How do these images reflect and reinforce attitudes towards disability, and, where applicable, how can we present a more nuanced view of physical, sensory or cognitive difference?

Let’s start with visual images and signs. When I Googled ‘images of disability’ in order to write this (admittedly not a very thorough research method), I mostly found reproductions of the figure-­‐in-­‐a-­‐wheelchair silhouette familiar from car parks and accessible toilets. The silhouette has its uses. It is familiar and instantly recognizable (at least to the sighted community). It marks off areas for the exclusive use of people with disabilities (although sometimes with limited success). But it also has its drawbacks. It is not an especially detailed image. We know that the people concerned have disabilities, but we don’t know much else about them. The image suggests that all disabled people use wheelchairs – not true. More disturbingly, it also suggests that disability is always the dominant factor in the lives of people with disabilities.

Perhaps it’s silly to complain about the silhouette. It is, after all useful. It doesn’t sum up the entire cultural history of disability. Complaining about it is like saying that the equivalent gender symbols are inadequate because not all women wear skirts and not all men wear suits. Moreover, until the day when architectural barriers vanish because all public facilities are accessible (something which would radically change the concept of disability) we do need a symbol to designate accessible areas.

However, given the multiplicity of disparate conditions and experiences contained within ‘disability’ a broader range of symbols would be appropriate. These do sometimes appear. During my search I found a group of images from Disability Studies Quarterly that included the wheelchair image together with images of ears, eyes, a person using a stick, etc. A similar image is reproduced above. It would be good to see this broad range of images more often in public spaces. It would also be good to see more nuanced cultural representations of disability. The relative lack of such representations is puzzling given how common disability is. One in 10 of the world’s population is disabled. Moreover, almost everyone will become disabled if they live long enough – unlike some minorities disability has an open door policy. You can join at any time. Some disability activists, with questionable taste, refer to the non-­‐disabled population as TABs, (Temporarily Able-­‐Bodied). One of the likely side effects of an ageing population is a boom in age-­‐related disability. This may make us question the value of a disabled/non-­‐disabled binary. Neither term makes sense without the other, but both are more porous than they may at first appear. Arguably it makes more sense to think of ability as variable in different situations, rather than as part of an unchanging opposition.

Our society’s view of youth, independence and individual achievement as desirable attributes makes disability, the club we will all join, a frightening prospect for many people, even though it is a natural part of life, and especially of old age. This societal anxiety often leads to negative representations of disability, which is seen as an overwhelming loss of agency, worth and personality. Disabled characters in literature often have little to distinguish them other than their disability. They are versions of the wheelchair silhouette – their disability is so overdetermined as to blot out all other features.

Since I was a book-­‐obsessed adolescent I spent many years looking for my life in literature. I rarely found it. There were plenty of disabled figures, but they were shadowy and disturbing. Either they were deformed by bitterness, like Captain Hook or Richard III, or they were pathetic creatures like Tiny Tim. Worse still, they had a horrible habit of getting better. I retain a poisonous dislike of Heidi and The Secret Garden, improving narratives in which invalids learn to walk through the good offices of able-­‐bodied girls. These books are the descendants of mythical and Biblical narratives in which heroes such as Perseus or Christ vanquish deformity. How could I identify with my image, if all the fictional people like me kept disappearing, transformed by the powers that were into acceptable members of society? One of the reasons I’m not a Christian is that I feel there’s no space for me in a tradition where bodies like mine disappear. I understand that everyone’s body disappears – that’s the point – but still the implication that disability is a problem solved by Christ, rather than a valuable aspect of life makes me uneasy.

Disappearing disabilities are not so common now, but literary images of disability are still quite restrictive. I was inspired to begin my PhD project when I read a poem called ‘Blind’ by Edwin Morgan, from his collection Cathures (Carcanet, 2002). There is nothing technically wrong with this poem. It is about a blind singer, and its iambic tetrameter lines do sing. But I find its perspective difficult to accept.

Almost unconscionably sweet
is that voice in the city street.
Her fingers skim the leaves of Braille. She sings as if she could not fail
to activate each sullen mind
and make the country of the blind unroll among the traffic fumes
with its white stick and lonely rooms. Even if she had had no words, unsentimental as a bird’s,
her song would rise in spirals through the dust and gloom to make it true that when we see such fortitude, though she cannot, the day is good,

That was written only ten years ago, but it tallies with traditional images of disability, distorting blindness, turning the blind woman – who for all we know may be thinking of her lunch – into a prop in the non-­disabled writer’s drama. It also propagates clichés associated with blindness. There is no ‘country of the blind’. Blind people are not automatically lonely, nor are they angels of fortitude. They are people, not metaphors.

The preponderance of such distorted cultural images has unfortunate effects on real people with disabilities. I frequently attend writing courses to develop my poetry. The last time I did this I explained to one of the other writers that I was partially sighted. She said ‘But you can read’. From her tone of voice, she could have been saying ‘But you can fly’. I have had exactly the same conversation with a hospital consultant doing ward rounds, who, given his medical training, really should have known better. But the picture of people with disabilities as completely helpless is so prevalent that it can distort relations between real people, making it unbelievable that I, a partially sighted woman should be able to read print.

This is not to say that I haven’t on occasion come across wonderful portrayals of disability in literature. I warmly recommend Nights At The Circus by Angela Carter to absolutely everybody who hasn’t read it. It focuses on Fevvers, an aerialiste who may or may not be a freak of nature, a winged woman. It is usually read as a feminist text, but its portrayal of the social and psychological effects of having a visibly different body, and of the balancing act between constraint and freedom that this entails makes it an important text for disability studies.

Nevertheless, nuanced representations of disability as one aspect of a rounded life are rare. Given the prevalence of disability this seems ridiculous. It is why I want to write poems that present people with disabilities as people, not disabilities. I sometimes worry that in focusing on visual impairment I am recreating the tendency to turn disabled people into spectacles for a sighted, non-­‐disabled audience. For this reason I am planning to produce my poems in Braille and audio as well as print. There seems little point in writing about visual impairment in a medium solely available to sighted readers. Living between sight and blindness I want to question cultural links between vision and knowledge, vision and artistic talent, vision and worth. I want to question how we see disabilities and the people who live with them. Being someone else’s metaphor is tiring, and distorts my experience and that of other people who live with disabilities. I don’t want to appear as a monster or an angel of fortitude. I want to appear as a person.

Nuala Watt 18 July 2012 Image