Arts, Disabilities, and Therapies

Sep 2023
10-minute read

As our humanities research project progressed in 2022 and 2023, one of our current priorities was creating an online symposium that would take place on April 12, 2023. We had been putting together an engaging and informative program meant to provide valuable insight and challenge the negative misconceptions of disability and showcase how art can be a powerful tool for expression and activism. We chose to hold the symposium online rather than in person as newer conferencing technologies such as Zoom and Webex have made public lectures much more accessible for individuals with disabilities. Individuals who use screen readers or captioned text may benefit from online lecture options, as well as those with mobility issues. We love our beautiful UT-El Paso campus, but as we have learned, even ADA compliance does not mean that public institutions have eliminated accessibility issues for wheelchair users and others for whom walking may present challenges. Furthermore, online options help to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19 to members of an at-risk population such as the disabled. As a team, we decided to focus on issues of ontology and the body with the topic of the symposium, and our two research fellows, Jess and Kathy, chose the speakers based on their research interests in disability in the arts.

Our planned speakers included artist and photographer Joel-Peter Witkin of Albuquerque, NM, art historian Dr. Keri Watson from the University of Central Florida, and finally, art historian Dr. Nina Eckhoff-Heindl from the University of Cologne. All three of these speakers have worked on issues of disability in the arts for quite some time, and, in the case of Witkin, for many decades. We planned on have Witkin speak first and give an artist talk on photography and disability. His photography is deemed as “grotesque” and “controversial” as it depicts the imagery of injury through the use of human amputee bodies. However, Witkin’s photography presents disabled bodies as aesthetic objects of art while challenging the classical visual conventions of what a “perfect” human body should look like. Moreover, it challenges the diagnostic, or, medical gaze—described as scientifically objectifying a human body and separating it from someone’s personal identity, essentially dehumanizing disabled patients within medical institutions that are preoccupied with labeling, diagnosing, and exhibiting human “abnormalities.” As one can see in two photographs from his Instagram account, the disabled body is displayed and is the center of the image, emphasizing beauty while envisioning it as a subject for aesthetic art. Witkin’s artistic composition versus a scientific one subverts the viewer from objectification as it offers them the opportunity to gaze upon those who are disabled.

Photographs from Joel-Peter Witkin’s Instagram page (@joelpeterwitkin.fotografia)

Dr. Keri Watson’s talk on “Picturing Difference and Disability in Art and Its Histories” questions how the human body is represented in society and its correlation with what is considered normal and abnormal. Moreover, Watson was to affirm an artist’s role in challenging the convention of the normative body through their artistic performances or artwork. Dr. Eckhoff-Heindl’s planned discussion, “Encountering Unmarked Assumptions: How Disability Arts and Theory Disclose Body Norms,” was to first introduce the substructure that is Disability Theory and the Disability Arts as negative societal responses from art created by or represented by those who identify as disabled signify disability as “different” from social idealist standards of a typical and healthy body. Using the ideas from these three speakers, our Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP team hoped to inspire meaningful dialogue surrounding the disability community and promote greater understanding and empathy towards disabled individuals.

Furthermore, some artists have been romanticized as “tortured artists” or have been interpreted as inspirational for having impaired conditions as their art flourished “despite” their disability such as Vincent van Gogh’s mental instability, Claude Monet who experienced blindness in his later years, or Frida Kahlo's physical disabilities from polio and a bus accident. We hope that viewers of disabled artists’ work will consider their disabilities’ influence on art rather than the individuals serving as beacons of inspiration and idealization. Different mediums of art, such as performance art, photography, painting, and others can challenge the misconceptions about disabilities or the social oppression of disabled people. Art allows many to identify and define themselves, rather than be defined by social constructions. We looked forward to welcoming participants from the UTEP and El Paso community with a QR code in the poster for the Zoom link.

On the March 4, 2023, we as a team had the chance to visit and learn so much from and about Compadres Therapy. Visiting Compadres Therapy and having the opportunity to hear the work that they do and the diversity in the people they work with was absolutely amazing.

Jess (L) and Kathy meet Compadres Therapy horse Haley.

Compadres Therapy offers Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL), Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP), Equine Management, and Adaptive Riding. EFL is the interaction and development of the relationship between horses and humans, EAP helps overcome mental health issues, and the last teaches horse management, and horsemanship skills. All of their services are facilitated by licensed and certified instructors, social workers, various therapists, and trained volunteers. As an organization, they serve individuals who identify with attention deficit disorder, at-risk youth, autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, mental health issues, genetic conditions/disorders, traumatic brain injury, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, learning disability, orthopedic disorders, paralysis, PTSD, speech impairment, substance abuse, terminal illness, violence, abuse or trauma, visual impairment, weight control disorders, as well as those who are socially and/or economically disadvantaged. In addition, Compadres Therapy, Inc. works with first responders and serves the Fort Bliss military community including soldiers, families, and spouses. Veterans of any branch of the military service are welcome to receive services at Compadres Therapy.

While visiting Compadres, we met a young woman with cerebral palsy who volunteers for the organization with her mother. Coming from a military family, this young woman moved around a bit as a child, but her parents enrolled her in equine therapy as a child because she could not use her right hand. As she said, repeated muscle movements helped to strengthen that hand, which she uses quite adeptly today as an adult. One thing that she told us that was important for her therapy as a child was being supervised carefully, but not helped overtly with specific tasks. It was fascinating to see how equine therapies had helped someone manage a specific physical disability to the point that she is now able to give back to the community as a volunteer. Most impressive was her knowledge and care for the herd of horses who are team members of Compadres Therapy.

Compadres Therapy program coordinator Alejandra Garcia, a Master’s student in Social Work at UTEP, introduces us to one of the therapy horses.

The things that an individual learns range from patience to independence, to structure and time/task management and beyond. The connection between a human being and the horses is one that links the breathing and heartbeats, it is literally embodied, and unlike anything, I have ever heard about. I (Jess) am someone who deeply struggles with focusing and maintaining my attention span on any one thing for a long period of time, but being there and learning about their process and how Compadres Therapy works gave me a better insight into the need of adapting. Being able to listen to how the learning curve becomes a process of discovering what works and what doesn’t, and the necessity to change their approach to the need of every individual and how they do this all by working with horses, was inspiring. One of the moments from that day, and from all the conversations, that stuck with me was the way one of the trainers talked about her work with at-risk youth, and the change in demeanor that she saw in a particular student.

Written by Katherine Villanueva, Jessica Gomez, and Melissa Warak

Master's Research Fellow, Undergraduate Research Fellow, and Faculty Fellow, the University of Texas at El Paso

Works Cited

Compadres therapy: Horse therapy: El Paso. compadrestherapy. (2013). Retrieved from


Witnessing a Fragment

One of the specialties of the Institute of Oral History (IOH) at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) is gathering and memorializing the experiences of individuals in the Bracero Program. The Bracero Program (1942–1964) was the largest temporary worker program in U.S. history, bringing Mexican men to The United States to work in agriculture.