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Visual Arts Narratives of Disability

Dr Donna McDonald considers how visual arts narratives of disability and disablement help to understand the everyday life experiences of people with disability...

Most of us intuitively understand that attentive listening to other people’s stories is an act of empathy. We also understand that when we read stories, whether they are fiction, non-fiction, or memoir, we engage in not only our imagined worlds of drama, romance, adventure and so on, but also the affective worlds of fear, joy, love, horror, curiosity, hope--indeed the whole gamut of human emotions.

As a disability policy and studies academic, I embrace these approaches for understanding the lives and experiences of people with disability. I turn to historic and contemporary memoirs (including texts, oral histories and documentaries and films) of people with disability as a research and teaching tool, as a way of “talking back to” stereotypes, and to challenge cultural tropes of sentimentality, inspiration and triumph over adversity.

In more recent times, I have wondered about the potency of visual arts narratives of disability. I am less interested in the aesthetics of those visual arts images, and more concerned about how to build bridges of understanding between disability studies, art history and art practice.

Visual arts narratives of disability and disablement offer us alternative means of understanding, contesting and re-configuring what we think we know about disability, and the everyday life experiences of people with disability. The power of a single visual arts image, let alone a body of works over time, to illuminate a theme such as disability cannot be underestimated.

Just as significantly but perhaps less well understood, the difficulty of accessing images in which people from historically marginalised groups in society can “recognise” themselves demonstrably contributes to the continued marginalisation of those groups (Leavy 2015, 228). If people with disability are rendered “invisible” or inaccessible both to themselves and to others, then the task of understanding their experiences becomes difficult if not impossible.

By reflecting upon and analysing visual arts works of disability and disablement, we learn not only how “the art related to disability reflects the different ways people come to inhabit their bodies” (Sherwood 2006, 192), but also how art works can signify the broader socio-cultural contexts of disablement. In this way, the visual arts can move beyond merely reflecting the world as it once was, and now is, for disabled people.

The visual arts can be an instrument of future disability reform and change. They can be used to contribute to informed discussions in the classrooms, research domains or even simply among friends and colleagues. Such discussions may yield nothing more than an occasional changed attitude or new insight about the prospects of better possibilities for people with disability. People’s understanding about disability can be reformed by one painting at a time, one conversation at a time.


Leavy, Patricia. 2015. Method Meets Art: Arts Based Research Practice. New York. The Guilford Press.

Sherwood, Katherine. 2006. “Art, Medicine, and Disability.” Radical History Review. 94: 191-196. doi: 10.1215/01636545-2006-94-191

Dr Donna McDonald headshot


Dr Donna McDonald is a Senior ​Research Fellow with the Menzies Health Institute Queensland at Griffith University and a member of the Griffith Centre for Creative Arts Research.

Donna’s research priorities include exploring the teaching, research and community awareness potential of written memoirs and visual arts narratives of people with disability. In her research, Donna works with her own drawings and examines the works of other visual artists to find new ways of understanding the history and experiences of people with disability. She is now working towards an improved understanding of the Australian visual arts history of disability. 

Donna’s publications include ‘Jack’s Story’ (1991) and 'The Art of Being Deaf: a memoir' (2014). She exhibited her drawings, Talking Back to Diane Arbus, at Logan West Library (March-April 2016), Woolloongabba Art Gallery (July 2016) and Griffith University, Logan Campus (12 September 2016). Donna has also presented papers about her research-based drawings at national conferences.


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