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Disability in Media
Disability & Art
Charity Images
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Disability Culture

For centuries, people with disabilities have served as cultural objects, rather than as active creators of culture and media. Generally, people with disabilities did not decide how they would be portrayed, nor did they participate in the creation of the cultural products which dealt with disability. Instead, artists and authors used various disabilities to convey ideas about evil, suffering, grace, and human nature. Such themes were especially popular among European artists.

One example is Rembrandt von Rijn's etching, "Peter and John Healing the Cripple at the Gate of the Temple" (1659). Another is Francisco de Goya's drawing, "Beggars Who Get about on Their Own in Bordeaux" (1824/1827).

Section of etching showing a "cripple" seated at the feet of Peter and John
Section of Rembrandt's etching, "Peter and John Healing the Cripple at the Gate of the Temple"
Section of etching showing a "cripple" seated at the feet of Peter and John
Section of Goya's drawing, "Beggars Who Get About on Their Own in Bordeaux"

These two drawings were made over 160 years apart. What are some of the similarities and differences between them? What messages do these two images send concerning people with disabilities? What emotions do they evoke in you? Can you explain why and how these images evoke certain emotions?

In both drawings, a man with a disability is the main character. Rembrandt's piece contains two other main characters as well St. Peter and St. John, who stand over the "cripple" (the commonly accepted term of the time) in an attitude of both benevolence and authority. In this biblical story, faith and divine intervention bring about a cure of the man's disability.

Goya's drawing focuses more closely on the disabled individual, a beggar riding in a crude but apparently workable wheelchair. The beggar appears dirty and disheveled, but also actively engaged in the world. Even the work's title emphasizes mobility and independence. Goya's beggar faces the viewer head on. He is portrayed as active, a person in motion; whereas Rembrandt's cripple sits passively, his back to the viewer, perhaps waiting to be healed so that he can then take part in the world around him.

Why are the two images so different? Is it because one is based on a religious theme, and the other focuses on contemporary 19th-century society?

One more factor to consider: Francisco de Goya contracted a high fever in 1792, and lost his hearing. By the time he drew "Beggars Who Get about on Their Own in Bordeaux," Goya had been deaf for 30 years.

Do you think Goya's deafness could have influenced his attitudes about people with disabilities, such as the man in his drawing? If so, how? And if Goya had been deaf all his life, how might his art, and his attitude toward the disabled beggar in his drawing, have been different?

(Next - Section 5: Charity Images)

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