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“We all have our own unique quirks and traits,” writes Courtney E. Ackerman MSc, she goes on to say: “we all have our own preferences and style for sharing pieces of ourselves with those around us.”

Self-expression for the disabled is just as important and can be just as creative and beautiful as it is for society in general. Social and emotional outlets are needed due to the psychological stereotyping of disabilities and the desire to be so-called ‘normal’. Self-expression provides the opportunity to experience a feeling of cultural normality.

Self-expression is something we are all aware of, it is at the core of every human being,and it is important not only for adults but children as well to have the freedom to self-express. The importance of self-expression should not be underestimated in society. Self-expression can take many forms. People may express themselves through words, facial expressions, body positions, movements, clothing, actions, and the arts.

In her article for positivepsychology.com Courtney Ackerman remarks: “How we share and express ourselves to others forms the basis of our personality, as understood by everyone but us, and sets the tone for our entire lives. It’s a vital aspect of life to pay attention to, especially if you want to feel more understood and more in tune with the people you care about.”

Furthermore, Ackerman goes on to comment: “The way that we share ourselves is known as self-expression, and it turns out there are a lot of ways to do it.”

As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the signing into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it seems like the perfect opportunity to point out that the term disabled is in so many cases misleading. It seems appropriate to appreciate that all people are equipped with varying abilities, strengths and weaknesses, and hidden talents which are often used for self-expression.

Before the ADA people living with disabilities were often minimized or ignored. There was little value placed on self-expression by the disabled. In the past 30 years, society has slowly begun to appreciate the feeling and ideas that were previously suppressed.

The Arts of the Past

It was not that long ago in human history that a person with a disability had few possibilities of self-expression. The few opportunities available were limited to that of being a sideshow ‘freak’ such as in the case of Charles B. Tripp. His talents ad skills may have been overlooked if not for P.T. Barnum and Ringling Brothers.

Throughout history, there have been numerous, famous, talented people with a disability who accomplished amazing works in all forms of the Arts. Below is a small list of those exceptional people:

  • Michelangelo: according to the Passionate People Team: “Experts disagree whether Michelangelo had gout or osteoarthritis. But either way, the famous painter and sculptor recorded that he had significant trouble using his hands.”

It has been claimed that the artist suffered from chronic kidney stones which would point to gout, but regardless, the artist continued his work with hammer and chisel as well as paints until he was nearly 89 years old.

  • Vincent Van Gogh: was believed to be bipolar and affected with bouts of depression. Of Van Gogh, The Passionate People Staff report: “had temporal lobe epilepsy” they continue report: “It is believed that his physician, Dr. Gachet, prescribed digitalis to treat his seizures. One common side effect of this medicine is seeing yellow spots. Some historians wonder if this is why Van Gogh seemed to love to use the color yellow in his art.” Additionally, it is believed that Van Gogh was most productive during his manic periods.

The talents in the arts are not limited just to visual arts, music has its share of composers and musicians who refused to allow physical barriers to hold them back.

  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Although he lived more than a century ago, the music he wrote still resonates today. The impact this German composer has had a lasting impact on classical music. Lee Standberry notes: “In the 1790s, Beethoven slowly began to lose his hearing, but continued to play, compose, and conduct. Eventually, he became entirely deaf, yet he didn’t let his disability stop him.”
  • Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles: Switching to more contemporary music, Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles are considered legends in the world of music. Wonder was born blind, as a singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, and producer he first signed with Motown Records at the age of 11.   
  • Since that time Standberry reports: “Wonder has been able to produce more than 30 top ten hits in the U.S. Ray Charles, Standberry tells: “plays piano, sings, and acts, all while being blind. Though not born blind, his eyesight started to deteriorate around age five, and he was completely blind when he turned seven.” Like Wonder, Charles also won several Grammy Awards and both men have won Life Time Achievement Awards and both were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.        

Film and TV Performers

The performance arts have a remarkable list of diverse people who have overcome a disability and have gone on to successful careers and have entertained and amazed us for years. On stage and screen, though dance, portraying real and imaginary characters, these people have made their talent overshadow their challenges. It is impossible to do fair justice to these showmen but it is hoped some of the links supplied will shine a light on the skills they possess.


Performance Arts (Dance and Theater)

While growing up the farthest thing on my radar was an interest in the Arts especially dance and performing arts. Now as an adult I have gained an appreciation for visual arts, with interest in the works of people such as Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Rubens, Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, and other painters, but Performance Arts has never been in my field of vision.  Yet through the studies of disabilities, the possibilities for self-expression offered by dance and stage performances are intriguing.

At first glance, there was a great feeling of admiration for the athleticism of the performers, the grace, and the flow of the movements. Watching You-Tube performances by Anjali Dance Company and Axis Dance Company one can easily become lost in the presentation and forgetful of the disabilities and, most importantly, the messages being conveyed through the performance.  Performance art presented by the disabled portrays messages that are subject to the interpretations of the audience.

Axis Dance Company performance
retrieved from: https://www.artsedconnect.org/educator/axis-dance-company/

Personally, one of the more captivating performances comes from the National Theater of the Deaf or the Deaf West Theater. It’s hard to imagine a deaf theater performance, but the combination of hand movement, facial expressions, and movements are magical together. Through this performance of beauty and grace, there may not be a better example of self-expression.

Visual Art

The need for humans of all types to have an opportunity to self-express is part of our makeup. In the area of visual arts, maybe best exampled by considering Henri Matisse, who is considered by many to be one of the greatest impressionist artists. His desire for self-expression continued even when ill health prevented him from painting, in his final years he turned to paper cutting and collages and creating some of his most important works.

Stigmas and feelings of isolation have often been a constant companion for those living with a disability. Marija Bern of the Bored Panda web site staff wrote: “Around 10 percent of the total world’s population or roughly 650 million people, live with a disability according to Disability Statistics’ annual report.”

Lisa Fittipaldi
Disability: Visually Impaired
Lisa not only learned to paint after losing her sight,
she wrote a book about it. Her inspiring use of color
and her ability to tell which color she is using just by feeling
the texture of the paint are just two remarkable facets of
her story.
retrieved from: https://www.webdesignerdepot.com

Bern continues saying: “From artists painting with their mouths to blind photographers – these disabled people are truly an inspiration. Living with conditions most can’t imagine, they often use this art as a way to communicate with the world.” The human need for self-expression becomes evident once one explores these works.

As mainstreaming increases, so to will come acceptance increase, and the desensitizing of cultures as they become increasingly familiar with people who are disabled. With each new generation as the previous one fades away, tolerance is increasing. Baby boomers are far more tolerant than their parents. The baby boomer’s children even more so, the acceptance and recognition of the abilities of the disabled and is far more acceptable now than for those of the World War II era.

It may be hard to believe that some of the most talented people deal with disabilities in their lives every day, living with and adjusting to situations the rest cannot imagine living with, yet have taken their talents and artistries and put them to use as a means of self-expression and to communicate feelings with the world.

With some guidance and encouragement and using a variety of methods, the results of these efforts are magnificent. Many of the artists paint with their hands, but others with their mouths or their feet. Many are blind or suffer from mental disabilities yet the drive for self-expression produces some of the most beautiful and intricate work anyone can imagine.

As the WebdesignerDepot comments on their website: “Their achievements are arguably epic in the face of the adversity that they face.

We hope that the artists in this post inspire your designs and make you look at adversity in any field as a surmountable obstacle.”

Works Cited:

Bern, Marija. (2020). We Can’t Believe What These 37 Artists Can Do Despite Their Disabilities.
Retrieved from:https://www.boredpanda.com/

Passionate People Staff. (2020). 5 World-Famous Artists That Had Disabilities. Retrieved from: https://www.passionatepeople.invacare.eu.com/5-world-famous-artists-disabilities/ 06/29/20

Standberry, Lee. (July 10, 2009). Top 10 Disabled Musicians. Retrieved from: https://www.toptenz.net/top-10-disabled-musicians.php 07/01/20

Ackerman, Courtney, E, MSc. (2020) What is Self-Expression and How to Foster It? (20 Activities + Examples). Retrieved from: https://positivepsychology.com/self-expression/

Additional Information:


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