Colin Hambrook, Aidan Shingler and Sue Williams discuss the language of the Disability Arts Movement.
Aidan Shingler: Can you clarify how the Social Model is defined within the orthodox disability movement?
Colin Hambrook: The Social Model of Disability talks about how we are disabled by the physical and attitudinal barriers that society presents us with. Your work engages as Disability Arts because it confronts the barriers raised by psychiatry.
Aidan: I was under the misapprehension for many years that disability meant that one was mentally or physically impaired. When Paula Greenwell enlightened me by explaining that we are disabled by society, it was like an amazing shaft of light breaking through. But having said that, I was left with a sense of dismay. If that is what the social model is, we are creating misconceptions within the disability movement. There are so many people who are unaware because the word itself misinforms and creates ambiguity.
If we are talking about people being disabled by society we should be talking about anti-disability: We are anti being oppressed as disabled people. The word disability unwittingly disempowers people. Disability is not fighting talk. Anti-disability is fighting talk. We should be embracing our experiences and conditions as a natural, vital and integral part of our personal development and certainly not see them as debilitating.
Colin: Is there a contradiction? In my experience of talking to disabled people about the social model; and trying to get across the difference between Disability and Impairment I often find myself falling over words. Talking about disability as a social construct is a very conceptual kind of language. I think, as people with impairments, we face oppression in different ways. which is exclusive. Trying to explain what we're talking about, when we talk about oppression, can be a bit like unravelling a piece of string.
Sue Williams: In some respects the Disability Movement and the Social Model has come from a theoretical position, because there has been such a lack of anything which encapsulates disabled peoples experience of the world. We have clung on to the Social Model. It is very important and invaluable; as Aidan said it has switched a light on for many people in terms of putting our experiences into context.
But it has sanitised our experience of being disabled because it puts that experience into very clear and distinct arenas. In terms of what it is and what it is not, Disability Art is either overt piss-off art or issues subtly layered into peoples' work. As an artist, you are either doing work about that or you are not.
Aidan: But taking the term disabled artist: my art empowers and enables me. It defines my identity in a positive way. Disabled seems to counter this. How can I be disabled by my art when it empowers me? I know that this is all semantics, but words carry meaning, and meaning carries a message. It is indicative of the ambiguity and confusion that the word disability actually creates. How can we be proud to be disabled by society? It doesn't make sense to me.
Colin: By that definition, pride should be to do with impairment rather than disability.
Sue: Pride should be more about difference. What you are saying is that in terms of the Social Model we are talking about pride in being oppressed, rather than pride in being different.
Colin: That puts the disabled artist who is going down the route of getting involved in Disability Art in a difficult position. You have a choice as to whether you're an out-and-out issue-based artist or whether you layer those messages in less obvious and polemical ways. You can get caught in the rut of believing work is only Disability Art if it has a certain polemic attached to it. Does it help to keep saying the same thing over and over?
Sue: Isn't it more about context?
Colin: Tom Shakespeare has remarked that disability is a word like poverty. And that disability pride cannot be the same as pride about race or gender.
Sue: In terms of the Social Model, disability is the discrimination and it is the oppression. We are all very clear about what that means. A lot of politicised disabled people are very clear about what they mean. But there is a lot of confusion about the language.
This is part of the cultural shift, which is taking place within Disability Arts. One of the big things that are happening is around defining who disabled artists are, what disability is and where the art fits in - in a much wider spectrum - and not just the disability specific exhibitions and gallery spaces. We are only just starting to have that dialogue.
Aidan: It is also about acknowledging what is disability: William Shakespeare said:
Sweet are the uses of adversity. If we see disability as an opportunity rather than as an impairment, we can see what it offers us, rather than what it takes away. The word disability doesn't do that for me. It is not a positive. It is not empowering. I know it is all semantics, but talking about the pride thing and celebrating our differences, it is an obvious thing to say but we should be marching under it, rather than cowering behind it.
Sue: It offers the potential for creativity - what we should be celebrating. One of the strongest arguments around this issue is how powerful disabled artists are because they push the creative process and creative boundaries in unexpected ways - whether that be because physically you need to do something differently, or it might be that your thought processes are different.
Aidan: Absolutely. I can see an example of where I see this potential taking place. The Arts and Mental Health Forum was created a few years back for people who have experienced mental health difficulties. I have problems with the term Mental Health also, believe it or not. For me, it complies to clinical catchall clichés. The term Mental Health also implies that our emotional well being is determined by mental faculties or processes located in, and confined to, the brain, somehow isolated or disconnected from the rest of our being, like a walnut rattling around the cave of the skull. Mental Health also evokes the converse; mental unhealthiness, which quite frankly reeks of disinfectant.
I wanted to help change the Arts and Mental Health Forum and assist repackaging it in a way that would give it a universal feel and create a positive image. I came up with the term I-AM or Inspired Arts Movement. The Arts and Mental Health Forum became the Inspired Arts Movement. For me, that has a universal and empowering feel: declaring ourselves as ourselves without pathology or diagnosis. If we could repackage the Disability Arts movement in a similar way as something empowering I feel we could take things forward.
Colin: Language and meaning are a fluid thing, whether we will it or not. Art Brut became redefined as Outsider Art on the whim of Roger Cardinal's publisher, because he wanted a term that was easier on the English ear.
Aidan: The crux is being positive and enabling people to celebrate their differences. It energises people and gives a focus. In the words of Bing Crosby, we should: …accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative and don't mess with Mr In-Between.
We have had 20 plus years of the notion of Disability Art. At this stage in its history it's hard to see it being rebranded in that kind of way. In Slovenia, they talk about anti-disability in the same way that we talk about anti-discrimination. That is how they define their disability movement. So there is a precedent for it.
Sue: I have campaigned for a long time is to say that disability is positive, so I find this quite challenging because it challenges some fundamental preconceptions that we have in terms of where we're coming from when we meet the term disability.
What interests me the most is that it seems to be happening within the context of the visual arts primarily. It is questioning some of the things we take for granted on a daily basis. It is interesting that this is coming from a visual arts rather than a theoretical perspective.
Colin: Of all the art forms disabled people are working in, disabled artists working in the Visual Arts have been at the front line of challenging society's preconceptions. It's especially important to get the good art seen and reviewed and to give it a platform and a focus.
Sue: It is essential to get our art noticed and critically appraised. If what we're doing by calling it Disability Art is essentially putting a negative on it, then this is a difficult position to put an artist in.
Aidan: When I first launched my exhibition Beyond Reason, I didn't invite labelling. I was challenging labels such as schizophrenia but had another imposed on me…disabled artist, This I hadn't invited. However, I don't distance myself from the Disability Movement. I feel comfortable with the ethos and the spirit of the movement and feel it has much potential to impact on the reforming of our society; and the language it uses is, for me, the key to this. I would be very interested in where the term disability originated, from whom, and for what motive.
I feel that if we accept the statuesque and become complacently self-satisfied with the point to which the movement has brought us, the movement and the message is likely to stagnate or atrophy.
Sue: The Social Model has been so important because it has brought people together to challenge the barriers imposed by society. People coming from such extremes of isolation, who had been pathologised and problematicised within their families and communities. For people to start labelling themselves has been empowering. As artists, it is so important to keep challenging and questioning the language.