by Tom Shakespeare
Academic Tom Shakespeare thinks it’s important to celebrate the successes of disabled people, past and present. Here he explains why. A free-thinking poet with visual impairment, a painter with learning difficulties, a sculptor with schizophrenia, a painter with cerebral palsy, that’s what I’ve been talking about on Radio 3’s The Essay this week. Looking beyond the obvious names like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent Van Gogh, I’ve been exploring some of the more obscure figures from the past and present. For me, the stories are fascinating. But maybe they also offer role models for today’s disabled people, whether they have artistic leanings or not.
The world is full of images and narratives of disability and despondency – from tragic diseases and disasters, to the problems of poverty and social exclusion. I think it’s important to celebrate the achievements disabled people have made over the centuries, and which many continue to contribute today. The stories I have found show that disability is no bar to success if an individual has talent and drive, and probably a fair share of luck. They also show the contexts people need to live in in order to achieve, and more importantly, make us think about how we could remove barriers. Bryan Pearce was an artist with intellectual impairment from Cornwall. His story shows that if you are in the right milieu, it helps. For most of the twentieth century, there was a colony of painters in St Ives. Pearce went to the local art school, and was supported by a very loyal mother, who gave up her own painting career to help him. Surrounded by other painters, he simply fitted in. In a close-knit community, people would look after his interests and ensure that he could carry on living independently, even after his mother died.
Disabled people are not just their obvious impairments. Lucy Jones, a contemporary painter with cerebral palsy, told me that for her, dyslexia was a bigger obstacle than her mobility problems. Only when she was diagnosed, and received the extra help she needed, did she have a chance of passing her exams. Jones also reminded me of something else: many disabled people don’t actually want to be classified as disabled. She has always fought to be taken seriously as an artist, full stop. Increasingly, disability themes do enter her work, particularly in her striking and colourful self-portraits. But she exhibits her work in mainstream galleries and settings, and refuses the disability art label. In her TED talk last year, Stella Young – who sadly died in December – criticised the way that disabled people are often praised for minor achievements like simply going to school or doing something, rather than nothing. That’s because expectations of us are so low. But we can ourselves feel content if we achieve a basic outcome – getting a job or having something exhibited or published online. Surely we should push ourselves to do better and achieve more.
Of course, those celebrated artists who continued working into old age – Goya, Matisse, Klee – remind us of something else. Disability comes to most of us in the end, like it or not. But it doesn’t have to mean the end. We might have to adapt. Lucy Jones in her garden Lucy Jones wants to be acknowledged for her art, not her disability Matisse moved from painting to the medium of cut-outs after losing his mobility in surgery to remove cancer in 1941. It was impossible for him to paint freely as he had done before so he turned to the decoupage technique, getting an assistant to pin and re-pin painted shapes to his wall until he was satisfied with the effect, creating undersea creatures, stars, and abstract compositions. It is still possible to produce something beautiful and memorable, and we should have higher expectations of older people with disabilities. Over half a million people visited an exhibition of Matisse’s cut-outs in 2014 at the Tate Modern.
It is too easy to think that ageing-related impairment is normal, that retirement from public life is inevitable, and that it’s time to give up. The stories I tell on BBC Radio 3 come from my website, where there are biographies of more than 50 obscure and memorable disabled people from different cultures and different walks of life. My dream is that a young person with a disability – or their parent or teacher – will read the website and be inspired to think big, and not settle for less. Just like gay people or black and minority ethnic people or women, it’s important for today’s new generations to learn from the struggles of those who have gone before.
Radio Three heads
Another important lesson is about what it takes to achieve. Almost all of the people on the blog succeeded because they had staying power; they overcame setbacks and endured hard times. There is a danger in looking back and “outing” historical high achievers. I don’t want simply to add the adjective “disabled” to Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf, and Edward Lear any more than I agree with the current fascination with Stephen Hawking’s disability. These people are simply exceptional contributors to politics, culture and science, regardless of their health conditions. Nobody wants to be pigeon-holed as disabled, and of course, some of the people I have talked about have also experienced other forms of exclusion – class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality. And no one must feel bad that they may never win a Nobel Prize or be buried in Westminster Abbey like the highest of achievers.
Each of us is valuable, and all of us contribute something, somewhere. It’s the glorious diversity of human embodiment, talent and individuality which should be celebrated, and so I hope that my recent talks have helped to rectify the balance.
Tom Shakespeare is an academic in disability studies at the University of East Anglia. You can hear him talking about the Radio 3 series and other disability-related issues in this month’s Ouch Talk Show, available to download now. Follow @BBCOuch on Twitter and on Facebook, and listen to our monthly talk show