Last Night I read this article in The Guardian, examining what conditions are like for artists with disabilities in the UK. And yes, it seems that funding bodies are opening up schemes to give disability arts more money and resources, something that the writer seems to think is great. I’m not so sure.
The idea of being known "as an artist with a disability" repulses me. That’s going to anger a lot of people so permit me to give some explanation. As long as I can remember, my family and I have fought for the term of “disabled” and all of its politically correct variations not to apply to me. I am one of those persons with a disability that when put inside a mainstream classroom with her abled bodied peers, flew. Problem was, the school’s administration saw fit to ship me off to classes with all the “special students,” where they were still learning colors at the age of eight, all because I couldn’t hold a pair of scissors or play with blocks. Or worse, they sat you down in a bean bag chair for the entire school day, did nothing to interact with you and then sent you home soiled and claiming you had 'an accident.'
Deep down, an intelligent kid knows when the adults around her are holding her back, and it stings every bit as much in youth as it does it adulthood. You never get over the fact that many people will expect less of you simply because the label of “disabled” has been thrust upon your life’s work. The ghettoisation of disabled artists does little to salve the pain, even if it means more funding from the government.
And then there’s the absurd fact that by classifying artists as having disabilities we make what they lack their primary defining characteristic. Surely an artist is the sum of his experiences, his character, his physical features, his humanity. To add the word “disabled” in front of that is to highlight this disability and nothing else? Why? Does my work need some sort of explanation? I’m proud of my disability because it gives me a unique perspective on humanity, that is a characteristic that already is covered by the term “artist.” To add a qualifier is redundant.
If thinking about artists with disabilities conjured up visions of Beethoven and Monet, Sarah Bernhardt and Anna Sewell that would be great. But all too often we still view artists with disabilities as a fringe group, focused on their own issues while the government "helps" and everyone else looks on in the name of diversity. Schemes and grants must be given with caution as we want to ensure we are fostering great work, not checking boxes.
My disability is a result of an error in judgement decades ago. To call me a disabled artist is to define me by someone else’s mistake. Why should I be defined by someone else’s mistake? I am an artist and with that term I defy labels and expectations because it’s a brave new world world out there. Every Day.