What is disability art?

I’m saying that I’m on a mission to raise the profile of disability art and disabled artists in Leeds. So here’s what I mean by disability art…

Disability art is art made by disabled people that is based on their experience of disability, i.e. the experience of being a disabled person in a disabling society. So it’s a political definition, it’s art with a purpose and a message, it’s about disabled people being in control and it’s linked to the disabled people’s movement and the social model of disability.

There are loads of excellent articles about disability art by disabled people that explore this in more detail.

Allan Sutherland in Disability Arts Online emphasises that, “Disability Arts is Art. It is seriously intentioned creative work… It is not a hobby to keep the cripples’ hands busy. And it is not therapy.”

Disability Arts Cymru give a straightforward definition with a bit of context and crucially explaining the difference between disability art and arts and disability:
“The term ‘arts and disability’ is used to describe arts projects specially set up for disabled people, but usually led by non-disabled people… Arts and disability does not seek to reflect the experiences of disabled people’s lives in the same way that disability arts does.”

Although a broader definition of arts and disability is just disabled people making art – about whatever, but not about their experience of disability. Which is absolutely fine – it’s just not disability art.

Ju Gosling, writing on the Horton Lee blog, brings in the fact that disability art can also address experiences of impairment as well as disability.

(And I was interested to see the website Ju created, Helping the Handicapped, written for Graz in Austria when the city was European Capital of Culture in 2003. Interested because Leeds is going to bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2023. I wonder if, like Graz and, more recently, when the disability arts organisation DaDaFest organised DaDa International while Liverpool was European Capital of Culture in 2008, there will be a disability arts festival in Leeds?)

My last quote is from Prof Colin Barnes, founder of the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds:
“Disability art is the development of shared cultural meanings and collective expression of the experience of disability and struggle. It entails using art to expose the discrimination and prejudice disabled people face, and to generate group consciousness and solidarity. For a growing number of people around the world, the main forum for positive cultural representations of the disability experience is only located within the context of Disability Arts.”

Read more here.

Why am I describing Shoddy as a disability art project?

  • the themes clearly address disability as an issue: cuts to public spending and welfare and the disastrous effect these are having on disabled people, as well as the point being made that disabled people’s work is not shoddy
  • the exhibition will be produced and organised by disabled people. All the artists are disabled people. We’re in control and direct the project (but that doesn’t mean that other people can’t help and be involved)

On their own, some of the individual artists’ work might not be described as disability art as such. But together as a project called Shoddy, aiming to challenge negative assumptions and get people talking about access and inclusion, this is definitely disability art.





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