Parallel Worlds: disabled artists in arts, health and wellbeing

Esther Fox is the Head of the Accentuate Programme

Esther Fox suggests an approach to engage more disabled artists in arts and health practice.

As an artist and disabled person I have an inherent interest in arts, health and wellbeing and have been somewhat surprised that this interest doesn’t appear to be shared, or at least investigated more thoroughly, by the wider disability arts sector. Since graduating from Winchester School of Art in 1999, my practice has been concerned with the synapses between visual arts, medical ethics and genetics. I also believe passionately that through collaboration often exciting and creative outcomes occur.

My most recent collaboration has been with Academic Dr Felicity Boardman, from the University of Warwick. Her research has looked at the role the experiential understanding of disability plays in reproductive decision making. I explored excerpts from her surveys and produced a new work of sculpture which attempted to sum up the ethical complexities of genetic screening in the form of “Pandora’s Box”. This work was exhibited in the Who Am I Gallery in the Science Museum London in 2016.

As someone with a genetic condition, I clearly make work of a personal nature, however, I also aim to produce work that engages the wider public in ethical issues which have vast implications for society. This is the exciting capacity that socially engaged practice offers. It is particularly important and interesting when bringing together science, medicine and the arts. While I relish the opportunity of working across fields of medical ethics and arts practice, I have begun to contemplate why other disabled artists aren’t making work that specifically relates to medicine or healthcare.

But perhaps the difficulty lies in the longstanding opposing positions of medical and social model approaches. The disability arts movement largely grew out of radical group of campaigners who used art as a methodology to speak about oppression and inequality. They also broke new ground in their arguments proposing that disabled people were not disabled by their medical condition but instead there are a number of external “disabling” factors, including attitudinal and physical barriers.

Perhaps then it is not surprising that contemporary disabled artists and practitioners have not raced towards embracing work in the healthcare sector, which still continues to be far from enlightened in terms of understanding those distinctions.

My feeling is there may be more willingness to explore this from the healthcare sector perspective than from disabled artists. From my experience I do understand where this reticence lies. Hospitals, clinics and doctors’ surgeries are places we spend more time than we’d like. We also face a range of attitudes when we enter these spaces, from the very good to the very bad. So perhaps there are other settings that disabled artists would prefer to spend time creating work for and working collaboratively with.

But it strikes me there is a huge missed opportunity here. Perhaps more so than some other artists, artists with a lived experience of disability have much to share with those working in or experiencing healthcare settings, as well as occupying a unique position where they could probe and provoke new thinking.

So how can we find ways to excite a new movement of disabled artists and programmers who wish to take up the challenge of engaging with medics, clinicians, therapists and wider healthcare staff? In the same way, how do we encourage healthcare settings and arts in health programmers to actively seek out opportunities to work with disabled artists, curators and creative practitioners. It may not be easy to bring these two fields which have predominantly operated in parallel together, but some of the best creative experiences and insights often come from difference and opposition.

Esther Fox is the Head of the Accentuate ProgrammeEsther Fox is the Head of the Accentuate Programme, providing innovative opportunities for disabled people to participate and lead within the cultural sector.  She is also a practicing visual artist.


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