The Disability Arts Movement

This movement has produced a counter-culture over the last 30 years to give expression to the disabled people’s movement. A number of the short films on the bfi DVD Disabling Imagery? that accompanies this site have come from disabled filmmakers who would view themselves as part of this movement. As yet, no commercially distributed feature films have been made from this perspective.

Published in: on February 3, 2007 at 3:26 am  Comments Off on The Disability Arts Movement  

Themes today

Many of the prejudiced attitudes that still exist today have their foundations in these longstanding historical influences.

Various aspects of medical treatment and care in the UK, USA and Europe are causing great concern to the disability movement, eg:

  • Cut-backs in the welfare state, rationing health care;
  • ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ policies (decided by medical staff) for some disabled people;
  • Growing demands for voluntary euthanasia which, in some cases, can be misused to dispose of a ‘burdensome’ disabled person;
  • The prospect of designer babies, using the knowledge gleaned from the Genome Project, further marginalising people with impairments.

A list of people in history who might not have existed if such policies had operated in the past would include:

Beethoven (deaf)

Toulouse Lautrec (short stature)

Stephen Hawking (motor neurone disease)

Einstein (dyslexic)

Byron (club foot)

F.D. Roosevelt (polio in both legs and unable to walk unaided).

Winston Churchill (depression)

Helen Keller (deaf, blind)

Tanny Grey Thompson, athlete (spina bifida) … and many others.

One of only two known pictures of Franklin D. Roosevelt in his wheelchair.Roosevelt perfected ways of disguising his impairment, never being photographed in his wheelchair, because he believed the American public would never vote for a president who was a cripple.ase)

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Propaganda films

Hitler’s Germany used film to great effect to reach the masses. As well as feature films, film was used as documentary propaganda. The Racial and Political Office made five films:

  • S√ľnden der Vater (Sins of the Fathers, 1935)
  • Abseits vom Wege (Off the Path, 1935)
  • Alles Leben ist Kampf (All Life is a Struggle, 1937)
  • Was du ererbt (What you have inherited, 1929)
  • Erbkrank (Heredity, 1936). This film, intended to criminalise, degrade and dehumanise the mentally and physically impaired, was silent and shot in black and white. The victims were manipulated to make them appear horrific, with superimposed captions of the cost of keeping them alive. Using direct interviews with disabled people, cleverly lit and staged, filmed from below and cut to make them appear very different from ordinary workers, it made the audience sympathise with compulsory sterilisation and, later, mercy killing. By Hitler’s order, it was shown in all German cinemas.

Opfer der Vergangeheit (Victims of the Past, 1937), reworked Erbkrank in a more polished and professional style.

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One of the basic precepts of the Judaic, Christian and Islamic traditions from earliest times is charity. Charity is normally considered to be a good thing and in some ways it is, but the attitudes that charity has bred in the past have led to some enduring legacies that disabled people find offensive. The idea that giving charity was a way of achieving God’s grace led to pitying or patronising attitudes towards disabled people, and the founding of institutions to care for the less fortunate away from society gave rise to unwanted segregation. Today, disabled people, although some still rely on charity, demand ‘Rights not Charity’. Many of the large charities run by non-disabled people persist in using patronising promotional material.

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With the development of the printing press in 1480, when most people couldn’t read, cartoons became a popular way to make political and moral comments. Over the next 500 years, personifications of evil, moral weakness and powerlessness were shown as caricatured disabled people.

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Some famous victims of eugenics

Under the Mental Deficiency Act, two of the Queen Mother’s cousins were incarcerated, as was the ‘lost prince’ – the Queen’s uncle. (The 2002 BBC TV film, The Lost Prince, by Steven Poliakoff, told his story). As a boy, he was diagnosed as an epileptic and shut away from the rest of the family until his death.

Similar laws in America led to President Kennedy’s sister being kept in an institution and then having a frontal lobotomy. This led Kennedy to bring about reform during his Presidency, allowing people with learning difficulties to live in the community.

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Supporters of eugenics

Winston Churchill MP was a supporter of the British Eugenics Society, as were Sidney and Beatrice Webb, founders of the Labour Party, and many other influential intellectuals of the left and right. As Home Secretary at the time the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 finally became law, it is recorded in Hansard that Winston Churchill said:”The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feebleminded classes, coupled with a steady restriction among all the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, constitutes a race danger. I feel that the source from which the stream of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed.”

Other eugenics supporters included authors D.H. Lawrence, H.G.Wells and Aldous Huxley, and the economist John Maynard Keynes.

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Originally accepted for their part in plundering treasure to help build empires, by the 19th century pirates were considered to be unacceptable robbers and raiders. At this time, they were often portrayed as disabled and evil, with eye patches, wooden legs and hooks, for example R.L. Stevenson’s Long John Silver, or J.M. Barrie’s Captain Hook. In fact, pirates had a simple social security system long before anyone else. They all had shares in the crew’s common purse so, if one was injured and disabled, he was given money for his needs and was unlikely to go on seafaring.

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Entertaining the crowds

In Ancient Rome, the games at the Coliseum included throwing disabled children under horses’ hooves, blind gladiators fighting and dwarfs fighting women.

Disabled people have historically been figures of fun. Court jesters, such as Henry VIII’s William Somner, were often disabled, and dwarfs feature as freaks in many court pictures.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, ‘ships of fools’ containing ‘mad’ people sailed from port to port, where the public paid to come and laugh at them. The ‘fools’ were then abandoned at the end of the tour. In 18th century London, people visited ‘Bedlam’ (the Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem) to laugh at the insane.

Circuses and freak shows continued the tradition. A Freak Show is still in operation on Coney Island, USA. This curiosity/fear of the different confirms the non-disabled viewer in the security of his or her own ‘normality’. The highly successful horror film genre is founded on this phenomenon.

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Ideas linking disability with evil fill the folklore of Britain and Europe. The Brothers Grimm collected the oral stories of northern Europe and turned them into their Fairy Tales. For example, the witch in Hansel and Gretel is deformed, blind and ugly, with a stick. Images shown to us early in our lives are bound to affect the way we see and relate to disabled people in later years. This story is still widely read by young children. Many films for children, such as The Princess Bride (1987, Rob Reiner, USA), draw on these tales.

Published in: on February 3, 2007 at 3:09 am  Comments Off on Folklore