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Identity and Representation in the 2017 Disability March

Talea Anderson

Literature Review

Visual Representations of Disability

In considering the images posted as part of the Disability March, this webtext will rely on work by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (2011) and Maria Bee Christensen-Strynø (2016), who identified common visual rhetorics of disability and introduced notions of "misfitting" and "mainstreaming" to discuss choices made when representing disability in images. In her essay "The Politics of Staring," Garland-Thomson (2002) outlined a long history of representing disability according to particular tropes. She noted that images often reinforce a "culturally fabricated narrative of the body" by showing disabled people variously as monstrous, pathetic, alien, or object lessons for able-bodied viewers (p. 74). Historically, images of disabled people have been used to assure able-bodied viewers that they are beautiful, healthy, capable, and intelligent by comparison to the grotesque other.

In her essay on "Misfits," Garland-Thomson (2011) identified four common visual rhetorics of disability: the wondrous, the exotic, the sentimental, and the realistic (p. 58). Disability has often been represented as wondrous or exotic in circuses and freak shows in which the disabled person was displayed as something "alien, distant, often sensationalized, eroticized, or entertaining" (p. 65). Common images in this category showed disabled people performing unfamiliar or superhuman feats, as the Armless Wonders did in circus performances when using scissors with their feet or otherwise using their bodies in unfamiliar ways.

Garland-Thomson continued by discussing the rhetoric of sentimentality, which figured disability as something pitiable, and the disabled person as one who needs to be cared for, lifted up, and protected. This rhetoric has been frequently used to recruit financial support for charities or otherwise invite action from viewers of the image. For instance, it appeared frequently in advertising for the March of Dimes. Children were shown as victims of their own disability, helpless without outside intervention.

A sketch showing a skeletal figure, monstrous in appearance, approaching from behind a frightened child to grasp her legs. The figure is labelled 'Infantile Paralysis' and the text below reads: 'Help me win my victory--join the March of Dimes.'
Figure 3: "Help Me Win My Victory" (Alston, 1943)

As a last category discussed here, Garland-Thomson pointed to realistic images of disability and noted that these are often used for utilitarian, commercial, or journalistic purposes. These images may show disability as a loss that compromises the ability of the disabled person to work and contribute productively to society. As a result, the disabled body serves as an object lesson for able-bodied viewers who may be encouraged, by implication, to advocate for safer working practices or may be induced to more fully appreciate their own ability to perform labor.

Garland-Thomson made clear the long history of exploitation involved in visual representations of disability. Drawing on this history, Maria Bee Christensen-Strynø (2016) showed how these tropes have been used by some image creators to advocate for the inclusion of disabled people in mainstream society. For instance, by showing the disabled person as a "misfit" in some social setting, an image creator can exert pressure to achieve structural change. On the other hand, by showing the disabled person as a "mainstream" member of society, image creators can highlight the shared human experience between people with and without disabilities. Mainstreaming can lead to increased representation of people with disabilities in visual media and, thus, expand conceptions of "normality" (p. 64). A sense of misfitting or mainstreaming can, therefore, be intentionally used by people with disabilities to affect change in social structures and perceptions of disability. As such, this analytical framework will be used to point out patterns in the profiles posted to the Disability March website.

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