Disabilities and Art: The Mask That Is Worn

Apr 2023
5-minute read

The past few months have taught me that there's more to the visual arts than what first glance can really capture. The narratives of stories painted are ones bonded to the artists themselves.  I entered The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP as a literature major, where my skills are based on the written narrative, and I think the history that I have come to learn about in our Humanities Collaborative project concerning art and disabilities is complicated by the public and the viewer.  Working on this project has forced me to shift the way I approach reading as a literature major and how I have approached it in correlation to not only the writings on art but also how I understand the strains of art.

One of the harder things about this project is the way that the images just stay with you.  There is the contention of the gaze from the viewer, but we also have to reconcile with the gaze directed towards ourselves from the artist.  This duality is why I understand that the history is complicated by the public and certain assumptions or misconceptions.  Within this framework, it also became about recognizing which art is so heavily prominent within the Western Hemisphere.  The questions created from here are: "What does society value, and what is society comfortable with?" and  "What is taught compared to what is not?"

Diane Arbus’s photograph Masked Woman in a Wheelchair (1970), https://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/12031not only captures the duality of the gaze, where a woman in a wheelchair wears a mask and attracts the attention of the photographer similar to how she would of the public in her everyday life.  Ann Millet-Gallant argues, "Due to the mask she actively holds to her face, we are refused the knowledge of whether she glares, smiles back, mocks us, or closes her eyes in reaction to the stare” (138).  This knowledge is one demanded by the public, but not one owed to them despite what they themselves believe.  There is always the risk of romanticizing the art and the artist, but with the aid of contextualization and just the recognition of the risk itself, it lends itself to resisting exactly that.  She continues this and describes how “Her mask is a multi-referential symbol of agency.  This mask may articulate Arbus’s own social mask; through battles with depression and self-alienation, Arbus may very well have personally identified . . . with corporal social outcasts, rather than with mere 'normal' people” (138).  This is one of the images that has stayed with me, and it has shaped what I consider the mask I wear every day.

My own learning disabilities are not ones that are easily visible to the public.  More often than not, people assume that I am only kidding about my situation and often do not even attempt to believe me.  Despite being clinically diagnosed as a child, I have found that the hardest part has always been to get my teachers to see how much I struggled to stay still, and how hard it was for me to sit for the duration of a class period.  My friends never understood it, so I failed to believe how others who did not know me for as long could as well.  I have perfected my technique of masking over the years, not because I found it absolutely necessary but because somewhere in the mask those around me felt more comfortable.  Admittedly, being a literature major and having to sit still to read or write for long periods of time never fully made sense in connection to the way my body needs movement.  It is still something that I am trying to figure out and adjust to, and there are days when I still struggle to reconcile the two.

In the book Bodies in Commotion Disability and Performance, Jim Ferris argues in his essay, “Aesthetic Distance and the Fiction of Disability” that “To pretend that the differences that impairments bring do not exist–or that they are insignificant–would be as big a mistake as pretending those social implications have some natural basis, some reality other than the socially constructed one” (67).  The reality is that people become so uncomfortable when confronted with differences that they want to create an imagined leveling.  I would argue that we often see this in the framing of the education system.  Ferris is resistant to this implication and reaction.  In reading quotes like this and some of the books, I had to reconsider some of the assumptions I have seen made over the course of years, whether they be implicit or explicit.

Toby Siebers in his book Disability Aesthetics points out how “people with disabilities elicit feelings of discomfort, confusion, and resentment because their bodies refuse cure, defy normalization, and threaten to contaminate the rest of society” (61).  Within his work, the focus and definition of aesthetics are intertwined with the feeling art creates within the viewer.  I would have liked to have been able to claim that I was never ashamed of my learning disorder, but that would not be true.  For years I was ashamed to be different; I was ashamed that my brain didn’t work the same and that I could not for the life of me fully pay attention.  Having to hide my need to move around, or my general fidgeting has caused a lot of anxiety over the years, as well as asthma attacks, but I also didn’t know how to ask for help or how to approach the conversation with my teachers, whereas when I am with my family there is no need to put my mask on because we are all similar in our A.D.H.D., and I never feel like I am causing any discomfort with them or as though I have to explain or justify my quirks.

One of my quirks is that I go through many hobbies, one of these being drawing.  I have yet to learn how to paint, but drawing has been one of my outlets for as long as I can remember.  I consider my drawings to be extremely personal and something I never really share, mainly because my technique leaves a lot to be desired.  I never really keep any of it, and trying to find some of these different drawings always reminds me and forces me to remember why I was drawing that day, and what led to me needing the outlet.  Despite this, I will never forget the role that art has played in my life as a child that struggled to fit in, or as an adult that is tired of still wearing the mask.

I am excited to continue the difficult conversation with my colleagues and to continue learning how we move from here.  Working on the humanities research project, “From Access to Acceptance: The Role of Disability in Art” for The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP alongside Undergraduate Research Fellow Katherine Villanueva and our mentor, Dr. Melissa Warak, has already taught me so much.  I look forward to learning more from them, the readings, the art, and from the artists themselves.  Personally, I think in trying to reach “our normality in differences” for which my colleague argues the conversation grows here and in the next steps. Seeing the actualization of this being embedded into education is so exciting for different reasons and to be a part of any of this has been truly amazing so far.

Written by Jessica Gomez, Undergraduate Research Fellow  

The University of Texas at El Paso, The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP

All images courtesy of Jessica Gomez.

Works Cited 

--“Masked Woman in a Wheelchair, PA..” Masked Woman in a Wheelchair, Pa. | Yale University

Art Gallery, https://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/12031.

--Millett-Gallant, Ann. The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

US, 2010. Print.

--Sandahl, Carrie, et al. “Aesthetic Distance & the Fiction of Disability .” Bodies in Commotion:

--Disability & Performance, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2005. Print.

--Siebers, Tobin. Disability Aesthetics. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2010. Print.


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