Representation of Disabilities and Ableism in Visual Culture (Autistic…
Representation of Disabilities
and Ableism in Visual Culture
Upon researching this topic, I have discovered that there is an overwhelming lack of information about it compared to other social topics in visual culture. This is not due to a lack of misrepresentation or ableism in visual culture, but rather a lack of awareness toward the issue.
Also, I want to be careful of the voices I am listening to. For example, one might have watched
The Greatest Showman
and thought it was a great representation of and inspiration to people with disabilities who might relate to the characters in the movie, but after reading the perspectives of some viewers with disabilities, it is evident that this is not the case for everyone. I want to always make sure the minorities and lesser-represented groups of people are getting the opportunity to speak for themselves, and leverage my own privileges to promote this.
I feel compelled, then, to make sure these stigmas and misrepresentations of people with disabilities are brought to light in my future art classrooms.
I have also been made aware of the ways I have flippantly used language that I did not realize could be very hurtful to people with disabilities, simply because the words are so commonly used in the culture around me. I will now be more sensitive about the words I choose to use, aware of the connotations associated with them.
Ignorance is the main drive, I think, for the perpetuation of misrepresentation and ableism in visual culture, but that is not a good reason to allow it to persist. It is our job as future art educators to bring this to people's attention.
Autistic Thriving | Dawn-Joy Leong | TEDxPickeringStreet
Leong is passionate about conveying that her circumstances are not a weakness, but a way to thrive. She is inspired by her Autism, not limited by it, and wants other people to understand this and get a glimpse of what life is like in her shoes.
Dawn-Joy Leong is a contemporary artist with Autism who creates immersive settings for the mind and body to embody her experience as a person with Autism. She achieves this through the use of music, photography, poetry, performance art, and visual art.
“Another description that autistic people cringe at is that we ‘suffer’ from autism. We do not suffer from autism. But we do suffer from social discrimination, stigma, and ignorant misrepresentation. How about patronizing condescension? We face that a lot of the time…In truth, the autistic’s world is a rich, thriving ecology, of multi-sensorial experiences and insights, with juxtapositions of acute challenges, unusual abilities, and everything else in between.”
A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.
Representation of mental illnesses/disorders in visual culture from the past
Visual culture in the past has represented mental illnesses and disorders negatively, falsely, and in a way that is stigmatizing to people with such disorders. The goal in the past in trying to depict these was to isolate and alienate the "other" in order to preserve a sense of normality.
Misuse of offensive or outdated language, especially in children's TV shows: crazy, mad, nuts, twisted, deranged, disturbed, loony, lunatic, insane, freak
The Greatest Showman
Barnum, played by Hugh Jackman, exploits people for their disabilities or abnormalities–such as a bearded lady, a dwarfed man, and a set of albino twins–by putting them in a circus and charging admission for people to come marvel at their unique qualities.
"The great thing about P. T. Barnum is he takes these people and he says, no, you are special. And he celebrates that, and he celebrates what’s different about them. And there’s a really beautiful line in the film where he says, ‘No one made a difference by being like everyone else.’ And I kind of think that is at the heart of the film, you know. The things that make you different are not things you should look down on, they’re the things you should celebrate.”
–Michael Gracey, director of
The Greatest Showman
This movie is based on a true story from the 1800s, and begs the question of whether P. T. Barnum was indeed celebrating the unique differences of these people and showcasing their beauty, or exploiting them for money and shaming them through exposure to the ableist gaze of able-bodied spectators.
Aside from the historical context and plot line, we as viewers of this visual culture must also question how the actual movie was made and how it addresses ableism.
In this article, Carly Findlay offers the perspective of a person with a disability, which is one I cannot speak on myself, so it is important to recognize the value of her voice on the subject.
Carly's criticism: Most of the actors in the movie who play the characters with disabilities do not actually have these disabilities in real life. They have no genuine life experience to draw from, which makes their performance somewhat contrived and idealized. As a person with an actual disability, this creates distance between spectator and spectacle.
The main message of this movie, essentially, is that death is more desirable than living with a disability. Clearly, this is a dangerous message for people with disabilities, as it dehumanizes them and makes their lives seem meaningless and hopeless–which could not be farther from the truth.
Me Before You (2016):
another film criticized for its lack of an authentic cast and ableist gaze
"I was annoyed that audiences would look at the characters and think’ “I’m glad I don’t look like that”/”if they can go out of the house looking like that, I’ve got nothing to complain about.” I think I even shouted at the TV. I hate that disabled people – including me – are seen as objects to make others grateful for their lives. We aren’t here to put others’ lives and able-ness in perspective."
The Greatest Showman – upliftspirational exploitation and the able gaze
The Greatest Showman (2017)
is a movie about the life of P. T. Barnum, founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. This musical movie received lots of traction when it first came out, along with mixed reviews and accusations of ableism in its storyline and direction.
What is ableism?
Charity: seeing disabled people as incompetent and in need of intervention from able-bodied people, as if they are property
Security: seeing disabled people as "dangerous" and therefore trying to control them
Medical: fixing people who are "broken"
Eugenics: trying to erase the prevalence of "undesirable" genetic characteristics through controlled breeding
4 models of ableism:
While some of these models can be beneficial, such as charity or medical, the assumption that people with disabilities are in need of being rescued or controlled inherently gives them less value as human beings compared to people without disabilities, deeming this attitude ableism.
Ableism is one of the main sectors of the medical-industrial complex, which is a system that targets and manipulates oppressed communities to gain a profit. While some people working within this system are genuine in their intentions to help others, many are using it as a way to take advantage of the weaknesses of others to make them reliant on their resources.
In this model, we see that ableism is a combination of power, control, exploitation, and oppression of able-bodied people over those with disabilities. Not only is ableism a hurtful and offensive mindset; it can have very real, dangerous repercussions when people with disabilities either have no other option, or are made to think they have no other option, than to rely on able-bodied people who have greedy, unhelpful intentions.
In visual culture,
the medical-industrial complex might look like a popular celebrity being paid to promote a certain medication or prescription drug regardless of its actual health benefits or the potential dangers it may cause. This is likely to make the vulnerable viewers want to try it for themselves, increasing profits for the advertisers and medical companies who made the drug, though it might not actually work.
The visual above shows that the American style of healthcare often values healthy profits over healthy patients.
Discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.
Eisenhauer, J. (2008). A Visual Culture of Stigma: Critically Examining Representations of Mental Illness. Art Education (pp. 13-18).
Findlay, C. (2016, June 15). Me Before You – disability as a tragedy and the laughing able gaze. Retrieved February 20, 2019, from
Findlay, C. (2018, January 19). The Greatest Showman – upliftspirational exploitation and the able gaze. Retrieved February 20, 2019, from
Leong, D. (n.d.). Dawn-joy Leong. Retrieved February 20, 2019, from
Lukayo. (2018, October 10). Workshop Wednesday: Dis/Ableism. Retrieved February 20, 2019, from
Mingus, M. (2018, September 12). Medical Industrial Complex Visual. Retrieved February 20, 2019, from
Casa de Locos
Vermont Teddy Bear Company's "Crazy for You" bear
Dawn-Joy Leong: A contemporary artist working against the stigmas
Roaring Whispers, 2013
LACK OF REAL REPRESENTATION
Examples of Leong's work
My role: Personal reflection
Clement Space, 2018