Theorizing Disability through Visuality: Seeing #DisabledAndCute Critically

Introduction: #DisabledAndCute

Keah Brown. “I want to shoutout my Disabled brothers, sisters, & non-binary folks! W/ #DisabledAndCute”. Twitter, February 12, 2017. Property of @keah_maria.

On February 12, 2017, Twitter user Keah Brown (@keah_maria) sent out a tweet that read: “I want to shoutout my Disabled brothers, sisters, & non-binary folks! W/ #DisabledAndCute”, accompanied by 4 images of Brown herself. She then sent out another tweet inviting disabled folk to post their own self-images using the hashtag #DisabledAndCute to celebrate disability, visibility, and self-love. Brown’s original tweet has since been retweeted and “liked” thousands of times, and many Twitter users have joined the social media movement by posting their own #DisabledAndCute photos. I will use this hashtag and the images associated with it as objects of inquiry into the field of visual culture.

I will be using a disability studies framework to guide my analysis of #DisabledAndCute, as the application of this critical lens adds value to the field of visual culture by exposing the points where tension exists between visuality and disability. The hegemonic discourse surrounding disability exploits the medical model, which locates the condition of disability as a problem within an individual’s body or mind. Disability studies, alternatively, is more aligned with the social model of disability, which is a framework that exposes that the problems disabled people face are the result of social oppression rather then their own bodies, and provides a structure to analyze disabled people’s social exclusion (Shakespeare 217).

There is currently a small amount of inquiry into visual culture from a disabilities studies perspective. In 2006, disability studies scholars Lennard J. Davis and Marquand Smith opened up the conversation between disability studies and visual culture studies, exploring the many ways in which disability and visuality constitute each other (132). These authors note how disability studies can challenge our dominant conceptions of visuality, which produces “new ways of thinking about the problems of the visual” (132). I will build on the work of Davis and Smith by problematizing the issue of the visual representation of disabled people, using #DisabledAndCute as an entry point into the contemporary conversation, and I hope to contribute to the theorization of disability studies through my critique.

Disability Representation in Photography: History to Present

It is important to first consider the history of visual representations of disability, as this history has informed our contemporary conceptualizations of disability. Disabled individuals are often marked, named, and identified by their body parts that look different than “normal”. While a visually “normal” body can pass without narration, a body visibly marked by disability has culturally inscribed narratives imposed on it (Couser 457), demonstrating that many of our dominant understandings of disability come from the visual of the body. Historically, disabled people have experienced negative visual representation through what David Hevey calls “oppressive disability imagery” (432). Hevey argues that disabled people are almost entirely absent from photography genres outside of charity, where disabled people are used to sell products, or education, where disabled people are used as “guinea pigs” to advance ableist ideals (432). In the cases where disabled people are represented in photography, it is almost exclusively as “symbols of ‘otherness’” – the disabled person is often a freak and always an outsider (Hevey 435, 444). Photographs of disabled people often use repeated imagery that centers the disabled body as the site of fear, loss, or pity (Hevey 445), which has contributed to oppressive understandings of disability.

In previous photographic production, disabled people were often passive objects, fulfilling a role for the photographer but not for themselves (Hevey 444). The new medium of selfies, alternatively, allows for the subject of the photograph to also be the photographer, and this change in image production has impacted the roles and subsequent representations of disabled people. Whereas historical use of photography was for spectacle, not for political dialect (Hevey 437), contemporary photography, especially the selfie, can be understood as a form of visual activism, “a way to create forms of change” (Mirzoeff 289). The medium of selfies and the context of Twitter gives people the opportunity to take, upload, and caption their own photos, all at their own accord. This shift allows disabled people to represent themselves and their disabled identity in their own way, resisting oppressive representations and changing the way disability is understood. The intended use of #DisabledAndCute is more aligned with a political movement of disability pride rather than viewing pleasure, but nevertheless, looking at disability is a complicated act. Now that I have covered what #DisabledandCute is and how it operates within a history of photographic representation of disabled people, I will complicate it further by dissecting the role it plays within our contemporary culture.

The Politics of “Looking” at Disability

Disability is largely understood based on how it is seen, and therefore it is also important to consider how the affective reactions to looking at disability (mostly by nondisabled people looking at disabled people) further influence how disabled people are treated in our contemporary culture. David Benin and Lisa Cartwright are two of very few disability studies scholars who have contributed to the field of visual culture. These scholars claim that the most common affective response to looking at photos of disabled people is shame (157). Shame is a complex human experience, linked to human suffering and empathetic identification (Benin and Cartwright 160). Tomkins wrote that shame is an instrument to strengthen the feeling of community, as “when one is ashamed of the other, that other is not only forced into shame but he is also reminded that the other is sufficiently concerned positively as well as negatively to feel ashamed of and for the other” (Benin and Cartwright 160). This quote demonstrates the power relationship at play between the person feeling ashamed and the other, which is especially important to analyze in relation to nondisabled and disabled people’s viewing positions.

Danielle Perez. “Celebrating body positivity, acceptance, visibility & joy with #DisabledAndCute “you’re so brave” nah, I’m just dope.” Twitter, February 12, 2017. Property of @DivaDelux.

When it comes to the images of disabled people in the #DisabledAndCute hashtag, the reaction amongst nondisabled people is aligned with this experience of shame, albeit in a more nuanced way. Tomkins explains, “shame is connected in important ways to pleasure in looking” (Benin and Cartwright 162), as shame is linked with a compassion response, which can be a key source of pleasure. Perhaps the most common reaction to the #DisabledAndCute images has been compassion from nondisabled people. When it comes to #DisabledAndCute on Twitter, disabled people uploaded their own self-images with the hashtag, framing their image in a way that represents their disability in a positive, proud way. These images of disabled people celebrating their disabled bodies and reclaiming their cuteness can easily be interpreted as “inspiration porn” by nondisabled people. Inspiration porn is a phenomenon that disability activist Stella Young describes as the “[objectification of] disabled people for the benefit of nondisabled people” (Young). Inspiration porn can be a source of both shame and pleasure for nondisabled people, as they are looking at disabled people with compassion. This viewing position results in nondisabled people admiring disabled people for being brave for living with a disability and resisting the suffering and sadness that disability is expected to cause.

The reaction of shame, including the associated experience of pleasure, is problematic because it performs the social action of pity (Benin and Cartwright 158). Pity, feeling of sorrow that is caused by the suffering of others, reaffirms the narrative that disability is ultimately a tragedy, and it is a miracle when an individual can overcome it by living the most normal life possible. As Stella Young notes, disabled people do have some things to overcome, but almost all of those things relate to societal barriers, not to their bodies. As it is demonstrated through the experience of shame upon examination images of disabled bodies, the viewing position of the nondisabled person locates the disabled person as inferior to nondisabled people, reestablishing their own position of power and dominance. This can be critiqued further by analyzing the word “cute” that is used in the hashtag, and discussing what this word means in the realm of disability studies as it relates to framing this aspect of visual culture.

Framing Disability as Cute: Language Matters

The word “cute” can be critiqued by examining the context in which it is used, as the meaning drastically changes whether it is used to describe the self or someone else. The intention behind creating the hashtag, as Keah Brown notes, was to celebrate self-love and point out that being disabled and being cute are not mutually exclusive. When Twitter users used the hashtag in this way, posting photos of themselves celebrating both their disability and self-acclaimed cuteness, the word “cute” encompasses pride and confidence. In this context, the word does not simply refer to a sweet and innocent appearance, but rather challenges the dominant belief that people cannot be simultaneously desirable and disabled.

When this word is applied to a disabled person by a nondisabled person, the meaning changes drastically. To call a disabled person “cute” it is often patronizing and diminutive. This is because “cute” is a word that is typically associated with children, and disabled people have historically been infantilized. When nondisabled people apply the #DisabledAndCute hashtag to stolen photos of disabled people, it strips the empowering meaning of celebrating being both disabled and cute, and instead names the disabled person as being inspirational because they are still “cute” despite being disabled. In this use, the hashtag becomes less about pride and more about commentary on someone else’s looks and ability to overcome their disability.

Jessica Paige. “Shoutout to my awesome older brother. You inspire me everyday #DisabledAndCute.” Twitter, February 15, 2017. Property of @hurrciane.

In/Visibility: Who is Seen?

Ophelia Brown. “Ur local genderqueer disabled cutie here for #TransIsBeautiful and #DisabledAndCute.” Twitter, February 4, 2017. Property of @bandaidknees.

It is also important to examine how #DisabledAndCute is not only a way to challenge the traditional oppressive photographic representations of disability, it is also a way for disabled people who have been historically invisible to make themselves seen. In mainstream media today, disability is seldom represented, and when it is it tends to be through white male bodies in wheelchairs. Twitter and the #DisabledAndCute hashtag provides a platform for LGBTQ, People of Colour, women, and other oppressed groups to represent themselves in disability discourse. It also gives visibility to those with invisible disabilities, who often are completely ignored and overlooked in disability discourse. “Invisible disabilities” is a phrase to refer to impairments that are not visible on a person’s body, and examples may include D/deafness, mental disabilities, or chronic illness. Many Twitter users who have invisible disabilities contributed to the #DisabledAndCute movement by posting their own photos with the hashtag. Some included the name of their disability or diagnosis in their caption, as to further inform the viewer of their disability that could not by known through the image alone, whereas others did not.

Renee Boyett, “Just because my epilepsy and mental illnesses are #invisiblediseases doesn’t meant they aren’t there #DisabledAndCute.” Twitter, February 16, 2017. Property of @Chaosfay.

Access to social media and this #DisabledAndCute hashtag in particular provides an opportunity for disabled individuals to share their own images and voices to make themselves seen. This is a positive change, as it allows individuals to represent the diversity of disability and resist the erasure of invisible disabilities in dominant disability discourse. On the contrary, it also opens up skepticism about the legitimacy of an individual’s disability, since it cannot be explicitly seen in the image. Disabled people whose impairments are invisible often face questions about the legitimacy of their disabilities, especially when it comes to requests for accommodation or access to social services. This leaves these individuals with the burden of explaining the validity of their disability, which can be humiliating, exhausting, and extremely frustrating.

Disability is a complex identity category, and its boundaries depend on the larger context of human diversity (Gilson and DePoy). Invisible disabilities are just as valid as visible ones, yet they are often more difficult to understand or mark as “legitimate” disabilities because they cannot be seen. This demonstrates another complexity to the relationship between disability and visuality, as it adds yet another problem that arises when disability is attempted to be understood though images of the body. When disability is understood solely through the visual, disabled people whose disabilities cannot be explicitly seen are entirely excluded or pushed even further into the margins.

Disability and Visuality: Complexities and Contradictions

As Nicholas Mirzeoff declares, visual culture can be used to “create new self-images, new ways to see and be seen, and new ways to see the world” (279). As evident through this critique, #DisabledAndCute is undeniably a successful way to create new self-images and new ways of being seen for disabled people. The new medium of selfies is an effective tool for disabled people to control their own representation, and social media sites like Twitter provide a platform for making these representations visible to others. This shift in image production instrumentalizes change in the way we visually represent and therefore learn about disabilities of all kinds, including invisible ones that are typically forgotten. It remains a complex topic however, as even when the images are produced and shared by disabled people, framed with the empowering and prideful statement #DisabledAndCute, this visual representation of disability can still be problematic. Frames limit how we think about disability and difference, and #DisabledAndCute alone as a frame does not provide enough context to resist ableist readings of and reactions to the images, such as using them for inspiration porn or commentary on a person’s looks. This demonstrates that even with the change in production and representation, nondisabled people still hold the most powerful viewing position of disabled people, which inhibits the ability to change the way disability is viewed within the world.

Of course, I do not want to condemn the celebrating positive body image and confidence for disabled people through self-images, as I think this is a social movement that has been extremely positive for disability rights. I am rather demonstrating that the way that disability is represented and treated visually is important to be critical of, as it relates to cultural understandings and treatments of disability. Davis and Smith’s work in visual culture utilizes disability studies as a way of exposing the problems of the visual (132), and through my critique of #DisabledAndCute, it appears as though disability and visuality seem to perhaps fundamentally contradict one another when it comes to images of the body. When attempted to be understood through photographs documenting the disabled body, disability is reduced to a problem that exists within the individual. The image’s symbolic value therefore becomes aligned with the medical model of disability, and leads to cultural understandings about disability centered around the abnormal body, both reestablishing “normal” looking bodies as the ideal and reinforcing the narrative that disability is a tragedy. This leads to emerging questions in both disability studies and visual culture studies that should continue to be explored.

Work Cited

Benin, David & Cartwright, Lisa. “Shame, Empathy and Looking Practices: Lessons from a Disability Studies Classroom.”Journal of Visual Culture, volume 5, issue 2, pages 155-171. 2006.

Boyett, Renee. “Just because my epilepsy and mental illnesses are #invisiblediseases doesn’t meant they aren’t there #DisabledAndCute.” Screenshot of Tweet by @Chaosfay. Twitter, February 16, 2017.

Brown, Keah. “I want to shoutout my Disabled brothers, sisters, & non-binary folks! W/ #DisabledAndCute.” Screenshot of Tweet by @keah_maria. Twitter, February 12, 2017.

Brown, Ophelia. “Ur local genderqueer disabled cutie here for #TransIsBeautiful and #DisabledAndCute.” Screenshot of Tweet by @bandaidknees. Twitter, February 24, 2017.

Couser, Thomas G. “Disability, Life Narrative, and Representation.” The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard J. Davis, Taylor & Francis, 2013, p. 456-460.

Gilson, Stephen French and DePoy, Elizabeth. “Explanatory Legitimacy Theory.” Encyclopedia of Disability, edited by Gary L. Albrecht, 2006.

Hevey, David. “The Enfreakment of Photography.” The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard J. Davis, Taylor & Francis, 2013, p. 432-447.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. How to See the World. Penguin Random House, 2015.

McNamara, Brittney. “Twitter Trend #DisabledAndCute Is Empowering Disabled People.” Teen Vouge. February 15, 2017.

Paige, Jessica. “Shoutout to my awesome older brother. You inspire me everyday #DisabledAndCute.” Screenshot of Tweet by @hurrciane. Twitter, February 15, 2017.

Perez, Danielle. “Celebrating body positivity, acceptance, visibility & joy with #DisabledAndCute “you’re so brave” nah, I’m just dope.” Screenshot of Tweet by @DizaDelux. Twitter, February 12, 2017.

Shakespeare, Tom. “The Social Model of Disability.” The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard J. Davis, Taylor & Francis, 2013, p. 214-221.

Young, Stella. “I am not your inspiration, thank you very much.” TED Talks, TED Conference Sydney, June 9, 2014.

Disclaimer: Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.