Entertainment & Culture

Disability and entertainment: the art of disability

Hayleigh Barclay is delighted to join in with Disability Horizons to offer a monthly article on entertainment. Hayleigh has a Masters in Creative Media Practises, is doing a Doctorate of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and she’s going to use her expertise to open up the world of entertainment to Disability Horizon’s readers. This month, art, and the art of disability.


Like all good little girls, I was brought up to have manners. Always say please and thank you. No elbows on the table. Don’t interrupt people when talking. Well God damn it, have I not brought shame upon my family name?! I was given the role of being a DH guru a couple of months ago and haven’t even done the basics of my subject. Does this warrant a time out on the naughty step or a spanking? Can I vote for – actually never mind…

My point is I will be using this article to ask what can be deemed as art and is disability itself an art form?

Let’s start at the beginning. For centuries, philosophers, art historians, auctioneers and collectors with big wads of money have been asking the same question – what is art? Now, I don’t have the qualifications, the article space and I generally can’t be arsed because it’s not the point of my argument to go into massive detail into all the theories. Let’s just say they are numerous and varied. For those of you who are interested look up such words as aesthetics, theory of the sublime and semiotics. I had to do it for Uni… good luck!

I digress with that lack of manners I was telling you about… If we look at art in its basic form which is the act of creation then I put it to you that the disabled body is itself a work of art. In order to create something new then we have to start with the fundamental materials. For example, a painter uses a blank canvas, paint and brushes to create a picture which paints a thousand words. A musician uses a melody, lyrics and an instrument to produce a song. Then we have those handy sculptors who can use a chisel, marble and plaster cast to formulate the perfect 3D vision. You see where I am going with this. So, going back to the point, if we take the human body in its most basic form as a raw material we instantly have our canvas, BUT, if we look at disability as an act of appropriation it can be seen as a result of artistic intervention. Many disabilities are a result of a mutation of the DNA; some are the aftermath of accidents; and some sneak up on people as part of the ageing process. However the disability is created it can be argued – for the sake of this article – that the raw material we started out with as a body was transformed and recreated into something new. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the living embodiment of art!

I remember during a family trip to Paris there was a running joke whilst we were having a wander around the Louvre that you would think I was the Mona Lisa from the amount of people staring. By the way that painting is a lot smaller in real life than you would imagine… Now I can guarantee you I am no Mona Lisa, Statue of Venus or Girl with a Pearl Earring but I like to think my blonde hair (at the time) and blue eyes had something to do with this voyeuristic attention… But I’m no idiot; it was my being in a wheelchair that attracted the gazes!

The fact is, having a disability is still a hot topic for society to ponder over. It raises questions of identity, ethics and social norms (my normal might not be your normal but it is normal in a non-normal world), like all good pieces of art do.

For a while I have had this crazy idea of putting my theory of disability is an art to public test and scrutiny. The plan is to gather together a group of disabled people and have us on display as a living art exhibition in a gallery. The rules are simple we do not talk or engage with the viewers, we wear eye masks to take away personal identity, and at the end of the session we can have a Q&A session where people can engage in dialogue regarding our disabilities.

Many may say this is exploitation but I say it is taking back control. If having a disability is so interesting that it induces staring then why not allow people to do it in a contained area whereby at the end of the day when the disabled person’s identity is revealed it is blatantly obvious “we are just people!”

Pieces of art represent society and showcase the diversity of people. It asks questions of people and forces people to challenge everything they thought they knew. I would argue that disability serves the same function and so I will still maintain that being a disabled person makes me a piece of art. I am ok with that. Having a disability can also make us creators as we often have to overcome obstacles using creative methods. It is almost like we take our own metaphorical paint brushes, musical instruments and chisels to produce our world where our disabilities no longer shape who we are but is just another brush stroke on the canvas. Take a few steps back and almost like seeing the connected dots in a Monet painting you will see a masterpiece coming into view.

By Hayleigh Barclay

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Hayleigh Barclay

Graduated in 2019 with a Doctorate of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Scottish based, usually plugged into her iPod or watching too many Viking documentaries.
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