Re-presentation, disability and gender: Have any contemporary artists represented disabled women?

I began this journey some time ago by asking whether there are any commonalities in the visual representation of women and disabled people. What I found suggested the answer to be yes and no. The common feature throughout both popular and important imagery appears to be that images of disability and women are both limited: women have been, and continue to be,  presented in very narrow ways. Currently this means that they are represented in westernised, white and youthful ways and disabled women are represented through the dominant use of wheelchairs or blindness – at least in popular imagery.

However this commonality disappears in important artistic representations. Disability in that arena is largely absent and when represented done so in terms of freakery. But is this true of any contemporary art?  Are there any current artists showing disabled women? This is the question I have attempted to answer today. I am happy to report that I found a number of such representations.

I am beautiful (in your terms)
In July 2008 the BBC ran a series entitle Britain’s Missing Top Model where eight disabled women competed for a modelling contract.

Britain’s Missing Top Model, Rankin (2008)

The fact that the BBC ran the programme – albeit on BBC Three – means that the show had the backing of an important cultural institution. Moreover one can see by the image above, shot by Rankin no less, the programme took the accepted narrow view of women (white and young) and then repositioned it by exploring disabled women’s attempts to meet that standard.

Another disabled women with a strong visible presence in the field of beauty is Shannon Murray. She is a wheelchair user and has been employed in a number of modelling roles one of which was as a model for Debenhams range of clothes and this was presented as a breakthrough in disability awareness (Alexander, 2010).

What is interesting to me in the two examples of representations of disabled women is that conformity to the norms of beauty. If you remove the disabled person’s impairment then you will see all the women conform to the current westernised white beauty standard. So for me this type of approach to representation doesn’t challenge the stigma of disability by asserting the right to be different so much as assert that the disability should be ignored – denied even – and the assessment of beauty be based on wholly other non-disabled matters.

I am able
Another area where disabled women have been represented is again in the popular (rather than artistic) media and has been to do with the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics held in London. The UK publicity for the events was wide and sustained and resulted in a diversity of images such as these below.

Disabled women represented in the Paralympics (2012)image

Again, and as in the images of models, the visibility of the impairment was not shied away from. But whereas the impairment was ignored for the purposes of the beauty competition and modelling, here the competitors are defined as exceptional super-humans by the very nature of the competition. Accordingly these are not normal people and so the representations say nothing in terms of representing normal disabled women. Yet there are 5.9 million Disabled women in the UK (DWP, 2011). But the Paralympics did offer some alternative representations that were shown in an artistic and non exceptional context.

Take me as I am

Alison Laper status at the Paralympics opening ceremony (2012)

The opening ceremony of the London Paralympics included a gigantic statue of a visibly impaired and heavily pregnant Alison Laper. Actors surrounded the status with signs promoted rights and in those few minutes a presentation of what is is to be a disabled women was challenged, albeit within a very spectacular setting.

But the image of Lapper had been shown before in another important artistic context. Some seven years before the Paralympics opening ceremony took place a 12 ton, 3 and a half metre high marble version of the statue had been unveiled at Trafalgar Square (Cook, 2005).  In fact the statue had been made in 2000 by Marc Quinn along with a series of statues portraying disabled people and these can be seen here.

The Laper image has been reproduced and shown widely and was received well by both artistic and disabled communities. For example, Garland-Thomson compared and contrasted the statue of Alison Lapper and the Venus de Milo and offering an account of how the Lapper statue questions society’s assumptions about beauty, disability, womanhood (specifically motherhood) and status. The author concludes by arguing that by this representation of disabled people conferring positive recognition and cultural capital the art is ethical because it is not reductive and counter historically dominant representations. I agree with that.

Indeed Lapper isn’t the only exceptional representation of disabled women.  In Revealing Moments: Representations of Disability and Sexuality Murray Jacobs describe how the New York Museum of sex exhibited a photo series entitled Intimate Encounters: Disability and Sexuality by Belinda Mason aimed at exploring these issues. However the New York exhibition encountered problems/local criticism that in hindsight can be seen to be due to: failing to engage the local population – so disabled activists felt their voice was not heard; being unclear who the intended audience is and what the message was to the untargeted audience – thus politized disabled activists felt the exhibition was too medicalized – eg naming the nature of the subjects impairments, while others felt this was useful in challenging stereotypes and using language that was not appropriate in that context because of differences between Australian usage and the US.

Yet for all of the criticisms the exhibition represented disabled people as sexual beings that not only demonstrated the still sensitive and changing nature of disabled representation but also highlighted some of the different views within different disability constituencies. For example, just because I am disabled does not mean that I will agree with other activists about the nature of such imagery. I found the images useful in stimulating questions about beauty, masculinity and femininity – and especially the way societies define it.

But while both the statues of Lapper and the images exhibited by Mason challenged dominant representations they can still be seen as exceptional and pandering to impairment as spectacle. This change cannot be laid against John McCafferty.

I learned that John McCafferty is a fellow wheelchair user. He broke his neck and sustained spinal cord imager damage at C5/6 of his neck and so has limited hand and arm movement as well as being paralysed in his trunk and legs. He was injured in 2003 and it was when a support worker suggested photography that he took it up. Since then he’s gained a Undergraduate and a Masters degree in Photography and is now a freelance using mainly medium format film.

The photographer has two websites – a professional one where a few series of his work are displayed and a personal one that is mainly focussed on fundraising to support his independent living. On viewing his professional site I saw a number of images of disabled women as part of a series of portraits of wheelchair users.

Yasmin, solicitor and Victoria, BBC radio 4 producer by John McCafferty (2010)image

The photos in the series all shared that same broad approach in terms of point of view and framing thus offering some insight into the context the person works in. These women are presented as normal people in normal jobs and that was refreshing.

New Aesthetics
I had expected to find little else than the approaches noted above in terms of representations of disabled women but that was not the case. I also found one other interesting approach to the representation of disabled women that I have termed New Aesthetics.

In my research I came across some interesting images of women who had breasts removed for medical reasons embracing tattoos. Instead of having reconstructive surgery and presenting the illusion of no impairment these women left the shape of the removed breast unaltered and had a tattoo in place of the missing breast. The effectiveness appeared varied to me, but offered a fantastic way to be true to oneself and not try to hide, pass or cover the fact that her breasts have been removed by offering a wholly different concept of feminine beauty.

One of the things that I found particularly interesting was that the issue of tattooing in western society has been mainly focussed on men and so it is surprising to see tattooed women in any circumstance and so see such bold imagery is quite arresting.  I found on some further research that, of course, women had always been tattooed but that like many things, the practice of it had been largely hidden and so images of it are quite rare. For example, one book – Bodies of Subversion: The Secret History of Woman and Tattoo  (2013) showed that the practice was long held and widespread with many very interesting images that challenged dominant views of sexuality, femininity and beauty. This led to me finding other approaches to impairment focussed on redefining oneself through the use of impairment related kit and equipment.

For example, over the 36 years I have been a wheelchair user I have seen a growing interest in the aesthetic and cultural values in regard of the kit and equipment disabled people use. When I was first injured it seemed to me that the whole focus was on function of kit built to a price and no thought at all was given to its aesthetic value. This approach also seemed to be reflected in photography with a lot of it showing equipment forensically. That approach had two effects: firstly it referenced the kit without any context save for labelling and usually in medical brochures so the connotation was wholly medical; secondly it ignored the real way people were using the kit – and in some cases adapted it for real life situations. Below is an example where the left hand image shows a wheelchair user in the 1950s using a standard Everest and Jennings wheelchair for basketball and the right hand photo shows how wheelchairs were beginning to be adapted by their users with small casters at the front to stop tipping and protection for spokes. (I could not find a similar image with a women in it).

Basketball players and adapting wheelchair for their use

Nowadays wheelchairs not only come in all sorts of shapes and designs aimed at particular activities but the way they are photographed reflects a move to a more idealised view of life using one. Such  photos do much more than the old forensic types of image that just showed the kit. They show the kit being used by real people in real life settings. In that sense they are much more akin to social documentary images.

However, and as I have been discussing, images work on many levels and these images also offer an idealised sense of what being a wheelchair user is like as statistics show us for example that most people with spinal cord injury are poor and live of state benefits and whose lives are far removed from those in the above photos. Rather these images above show the elite of this group and provide a sense of what others might aspire toward. In that sense they have a symbolic value.

It isn’t just wheelchairs that this new aesthetic is being applied to. Below are images showing new designs in prosthetics. Instead of hiding or trying to pass off (Goffman, 1986) oneself as not being impaired by using prosthetics that are built in the image of the lost limb, the users here have chosen to beautify and celebrate a wholly different kind of aesthetic.  The imagery is also very different. The photographs show people in social settings and the prostheses are not designed to hide the impairment but rather make it into something beautiful as well as functional.

The alternative limb project – see here


I have not attempted to complete a comprehensive analysis of the representation of women in this series of blogs. Rather I have attempted to identify dominant – that is popular and or important – representations of disabled women over time. What I found was that women have been represented vary narrowly, and while the representations have changed with time and fashion disabled women have largely been absent from any representation aimed at saying something of what is it is be a women, and so been a discourse or representation wholly on disability rather than women and disability.

Indeed, even in our current, online always on world, with its massive increase in imagery produced and shared, representations of disabled women have been largely absent from view. Where such representations have been made, they have fallen into traditional categories of unfortunate victims or freaks such as in Oliver Fermariello’s imagery even when its dressed up as something else, but I have found that new forms of representation have arisen and can be categorised in four ways:

1) the “I’m normal” category that tries to ignore the impairment;

2) the Supercrips category where the impairment can be seen to be an obstacle that has been overcome;

3) the Take me as I am category;

4) New Aesthetics category where finally we have seen some representations of disabled women as just that.

Of course there continue to be many images of disabled people shown as freaks

What does the research regarding the representation of women and disabled women tell me?
It seems to be that this exploration of the representation of disability and women has allowed me to conclude a few things:

  • I am not alone in being stereotyped.
  • Disability is largely absent – or more exactly made invisible – when talking about dominant popular or important artistic representations of women. The subject of disability trumps and overrides any notions of what society thinks it is to be a women – women as a sexual entity, women as other, women as beauty are all generally missing. Disability is a representational class apart.
  • Where disability is represented it is clearly represented within the body and seen as a term wholly interchangeable with impairment.

Implications for my work
This research has helped me crystallise my approach. I will not ignore the body but nor will I focus much on it. This will allow me to offer a counter view of disability and impairment being one and the same thing. I will present my experience, status and outlook from an approach that shows all the aspects of what it means to be disabled. That means showing physical and social barriers which are themselves products of social attitudes; my environments; kit and equipment and anything else to do with my paralysis.

But I also need to explore disability in terms of its representation in others areas of life to see if this type of difference and distinction applies (eg you are either a women or a disabled person). So I think I will explore how disabled Black people are represented.


BBC (2008) Britain’s Top Model, Available here: [Accessed on 01/12/2014]

Rankin’s website: Available here:

Murray, S. (undated) Available at: [Accessed on 01/12/2014]

Alexander, H. (2010) Debenhams first with disabled High Street model Available at: [Accessed on 01/12/2014]

Disability in the United Kingdom (2012) DWP Family Resources Survey 2010/11, Available at: [Accessed on 01/12/2014]

Opening Ceremony – London (2012) Paralympic Games Available at: [Accessed on 01/12/2014]

Cooke, R. (2005) Bold, brave, beautiful, Available at: [Accessed on 01/12/2014]

Mifflin, M (2013) Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Woman and Tattoo, Published by Powerhouse Books

Erving Goffman Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity,  Touchstone 1986

Fermariello, O. (N.D.)  Je t’aime moi aussi Available at: [Accessed on 01/12/2014]


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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