Looking Beyond Labels

Artists with disabilities want their work viewed as art–not as therapy, and not as “special.” “I don’t want to be a disabled artist–just an artist,” says painter Martin Vogel.

“Being labeled is one thing you’ve got to watch out for,” agrees painter Ernie Pepion. “You get labeled as a handicapped artist, and you can get labeled as a Native American artist. I’ve got both labels.”

Even Jane Alexander, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, says that the segregation must stop. “I emphatically reject the notion that special or different arts programs be developed for disabled people; rather, existing programs of the highest quality should be opened to everyone. It’s the only way we know of to avoid creating double standards, to avoid ghettoizing disabled people.”

Seems clear enough. Artists with disabilities have been labeled and patronized for so long that they often desire a chance at mainstream recognition. But wanting to be “just an artist” raises some hard questions. Should artists with disabilities avoid their disabled peers; should they avoid artists with developmental disabilities; should they avoid creating art about disability?

Most do all of these things, according to arts professionals and artists themselves. But a growing number of artists with disabilities are examining their motives and teaming up with the cross-disability organization Very Special Arts. For many, VSA is a bridge to the larger art world, and a chance to help educate the public about the talents of artists with disabilities. For a few, it’s been a way to participate in a burgeoning arts movement within disability culture.

Art Worlds Apart

One problem that artists face mirrors the struggle of many disabled athletes who’ve had to distance themselves from the image of the Special Olympics–games for people with developmental disabilities-in order to promote elite athletic competitions such as the Paralympics.

Likewise in the art world, organizations such as Very Special Arts historically have worked to increase self-esteem and inclusion of young people with disabilities–often developmental disabilities–rather than promoting adult artists with physical disabilities who are trying to break into mainstream