This site now acts as an archive only. For the latest news, opinion, blogs and listings on disability arts and culture visit

Disability Arts Online

> > > On The Next Level: Labels Seminar
Traffic sign reading

Artwork by Kathleen Franks and Caroline Cardus, courtesy of InterAction, Milton Keynes.

In response to a workshop, as a part of Art Shape's Space Between touring exhibition, Zoe Partington confronts the issue of labels. Who uses them? Who chooses them?

Labels that are used in the context of disability are often loaded with terminology that disempowers and segregates disabled people. The recent touring exhibition developed by Art Shape, provided a platform for artists and disabled artists to present their art work together. Work was shown without reference to their impairment unless the artist wished to specify this as relevant to the art.

A seminar was developed to support the exhibition and discuss the issue of labels and open up the debate about the concerns of the inappropriate use of labels. This seminar we hope is the start of many. In this modern day, society still chooses to label disabled people with their specific impairment - for example the blind artist who can paint despite sight loss. This type of statement is loaded with unnecessary layers. It can be annoying for the individual, as they set out to create visual images and don't want to be drawn into a conversation about how they manage their life as a blind person.

The visual artist would prefer to have an honest critique around their technique and aspirations. Sometimes the problem with the label is that it has started to give the inquisitor the ammunition to ask things like, How do you cook a four course meal? or Wow you have children. How do you cope?

This type of approach from non-disabled people is very hard to avoid and very intrusive. People are obsessed with finding out what's wrong or how an artist copes with life, if they have an impairment. It is easy to be drawn into answering the question. In reality an artist doesn't want to discuss the lack of access in the external and internal environment, the inaccessible paper filling exercises for Access To Work, the difficulties at the chip and pin machine, the lack of accessible public transport, the rejection of your ideas and the constant time wasted on explaining your personal issues to complete strangers, medical professionals, funding bodies. What you need is your access issues resolving or meeting.

This type of unwanted questioning is experienced by disabled people every day and in the most bizarre places. Recently I was working in an organisation with 3 disabled artists. We were in the lift going to the workspaces when one of the artists was asked Are you stone deaf? And before they could draw breath the next question had been fired at them. Can you still drive? The other artist, who had a physical disability, was asked, What's up with your leg? Neither person had thought about the inappropriateness of the question or that it really was none of their bloody business. The difficulty begins when a disabled person starts to fight back because they are seen as rude or aggressive. They are expected to be passive or happy that the person is taking an interest in the problem. They are not supposed to say ‘I'm bloody fed up with this inequality and constant reference to how marvellous you are.’

Sometimes it seems that non-disabled people are unable to understand the rules and etiquette of over familiarity. Over many centuries disabled people have had to fight to be seen and heard as equals in society. Every disabled person has developed different techniques to achieve this. For some it's about just getting on with things and shrugging their shoulders every time inappropriate moments happen. For others it's about pointing out that the individual is not the problem but the lack of access. It is the environment and attitudes of others that are disempowering.

If the environment was fully accessible and attitudes equal, then individuals and groups could discard many labels that are applied to disabled people. One approach is to reclaim these labels so that a disabled person owns the label and decides how and when it is appropriate. This can be very difficult around labels such as crip as it is such a powerfully loaded term. However it can be used in an ironic way and thus thrown back at the negative abusers of labels, to create a level playing field.

Labels Seminar

In the seminar when we began talking about labels, people had very strong views on the terms and labels applied to them. In regard to art work it was suggested the term disability made a huge difference between people investing in work and attending an exhibition or not. An issue that continually seems to repeat itself is that the history of disability arts and deaf arts is not included in the history books and the work of disabled artists is not seen as true art unless presented by a non-disabled person. When suddenly a non-disabled person presents the idea, it is acceptable or understood. Sometimes you feel like you are in a parallel universe when you explain disability arts. You have to continually re-iterate the issue of a disabled person's perspective in great detail to shift and change thinking. Most people are locked into the therapeutic or charitable notion of disabled people presenting art work. It is a fine balance between how you frame your work, dependent on your audience as to whether the term disability in the title will attract or deter people from attending the show.

Tony Heaton talked about his positive experiences of defining himself as a disabled person and the strength this gave him to identify himself as an equal to other artists. He uses the term disability in his art work as he is interested in the way that his work can challenge the system and encourage society to ask questions of itself. It provides a mirror for the reasons why disabled people are segregated or ignored.

For disabled artists it should always be about the freedom of choice. This is where it starts to get more complicated. If you are a practising artist and you just create landscapes or films, then it may be that you choose to work without the label attached. If you are happy to be seen as a disabled artist it may be that your work is influenced by your experiences and this drives you to create. At this point many more questions need to be considered. You could start to ask the question about why you are an artist and what is your motivation? Is it your choice? Often it may be because it fits with your life and experience of managing your impairment. From a personal point of view I have for years advocated that creativity is a skill that all disabled people possess as they constantly have to be creative in their approach to accessing opportunities, employment, and social networks. The barriers that are placed in the way, have made disabled artists open to alternatives, and experienced at dealing with obstructive attitudes. The labels debate is an arena, which needs to be continually revisited as experiences change and the parameters of equality shift as more barriers are removed. The main underlying issue is that disability arts is not understood. Non-disabled people apply their criteria for accessing the worth of art. But as long as art work is judged in this unequal way, disability arts will perpetually be undermined or devalued.

Identity and labels are not as clear cut as we'd like to think. A young person talked about their experiences, ‘Once I had the label dyslexia it was fantastic because if someone called me thick I just replied, No you are wrong I have dyslexia. So I began to feel much better and stronger’. Often avoiding a label can be as negative as owning one, particularly if you feel that you have to hide your impairment to be recognised and respected. Hiding an impairment can be stressful and complicated. It was felt by the majority that once you owned the label and it was used by you in the way that you chose it became an empowering tool and could give you strength and inner freedom. If we lived in an ideal world you wouldn't need labels but if we need support or resources and access to services and information in the current system you have to be labelled and often the label replaces a proper analysis of the persons needs.

On the Next Level - Space Between, has been developed by Art Shape, alongside four partner organisations, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, The Brewhouse, Holton Lee and John Creasy Museum.

For more information about Zoe Partington-Sollinger click here