Are you interested in drawing disabled people but unsure of where to start, how to be respectful in your work, or how to find reference material for your pieces? Maybe you feel uncomfortable about drawing a body that looks “so different” from yours or you feel like it would perhaps be offensive to draw disabled people as we are. Perhaps you really want to include us more, but you just don’t really know how or where to start.
Well, I’d like to help!
As an artist myself, I can relate to wanting to see more reference material, and I get that it can be frustrating or even confusing at times to figure out what your needs are and how to fulfill them. As a disabled person, I can also seriously relate to wanting to see more work that features us. In fact, I wanted to see more art featuring disabled people, so I decided to make it and use it as one of the key foundations of my work. It’s been really rewarding, and I hope that I can offer you a starting place or perhaps even just some encouragement because the art world needs more people like you.
First of all, I can’t speak for all disabled people. Please remember that what’s right for me isn’t right for another disabled person, even if we share the exact same disabilities and/or chronic illnesses. So please be respectful and considerate if you’re ever challenged on a piece you make and remember that we are a spectrum of people, just like any group.
Second, I encourage you to consider why you want to create works about disabled people in the first place. Do you think it’s super cool that we do normal, every day stuff “despite” our bodies and their “horrible burden?” If so, I invite you to not ever make art about us ever– unless you come to the realization that this mentality is harmful and dangerous. Disabled bodies are all too frequently used as inspiration porn, and not only is it super cringey, it’s also super ableist and has direct impacts on disabled people’s lives every day, from individual interactions with us to our medical appointments to legislation about our bodies and lives. I invite you to start you re-education on disabled people by checking out folks like Imani Barbarin from Crutches + Spice, Kylie Brooks, Alice Wong from Disability Visibility Project, Lydia X. Z. Brown from Autistic Hoya, Annie Segarra, Amythest Schaber, and Dominick M. Evans who do a lot of public discussions on important disability topics and more. And be sure to compensate them for their considerable efforts and time when applicable! Hit that donate button!
If you’re wanting to make art about us disabled folks because you think art and media don’t have enough representation of marginalized folks in general or if you simply want to make art about all kinds of life experiences or similar reasons, I personally find that pretty encouraging, and I invite you to consider the following suggestions.
Use reliable sources for your research.
Avoid websites and organizations that don’t include people they’re supposedly advocating for in their positions of power and influence. Avoid websites and organizations that don’t appropriately compensate disabled people for their work. Organizations like Autism Speaks are ones that do more damage to the people they claim to support, and they infrequently provide accurate information, let alone photos for reference work.
If you find that an organization primarily focuses on the children with a disorder, disease, syndrome, etc., even though just as many adults have that same condition, you may be in a space that prioritizes the feelings of the adult caregivers of those disabled kids and that encourages ableist attitudes by ignoring thriving adults with the condition who may not care for the way their condition is represented by that organization. It could also be that the organization feels that disabled adults are faking it and should use the old bootstraps mentality to just “get over” their disability, that they make more money off of using children as a sympathy appeal to non-disabled adults who harbor ableist mentalities, or that they simply don’t care about disabled adults and view us as burdens (which is closely tied with the idea that the organization should be supporting the adult caregivers of disabled children).
Of course, it could be that the thing you’re researching primarily effects children, so if that’s the case, you’re probably not going to find a lot of adult references. But in general, if a condition effects both children and adults but the organization doesn’t include disabled adults in their work, their positions of power and decision making, etc., they’re not a reliable source for your research, and you should look elsewhere for resources from the adults with the condition you’re seeking to illustrate.
Go to the source!
Instagram, Facebook, and other social media platforms are great places to search when trying to get visual references of real life disabled people. Most of us like a good selfie as much as the next. :] [smiley] Following hashtags on Instagram is something I find particularly helpful for connecting with the disabled community. It gives me access to a wide diversity of people within that particular hashtag, disability, etc., instead of just one particular person’s experience with their condition.
Medical sources can be helpful for some nitty gritty things, but mostly, medicalized images of disabled bodies are dehumanizing as fuck. Find pictures of us that we like, that we take ourselves, that we share for you to see! Use medical sources as a starting point if you need to: go to places like NORD (National Organization for Rare Diseases) for a list of names for rare conditions, then use the terms you find in there to look up things like blogs or social media accounts from people with that condition. Get to know them, try to understand them and their lives before you start to make work about them. See and respect the hashtags and terms they use for themselves and try to recognize which ones are acceptable for you to use as a non-disabled person and which are not– for example, you as the non-disabled person can’t use the word “cripple,” unless you want us all to hate you for being a colossal dick, so don’t use that in your hashtags or work. Yes, it’s time consuming, and yes, you need to do it that way if you don’t want to dehumanize us.
Also, be sure that you get information about us from us. Getting information or even photos of us from non-disabled people is harmful and sometimes dangerous. This is prevalent in places like the autistic sphere where allistic parents of autistic children seem to think they (the parents) are somehow representatives of actually autistic people, better even than autistic adults who have lived life this way! This often includes disseminating images and personal stories of us without our consent, which is a horrible violation of our rights.
Demonstrate our inherent diversity.
Vilissa Thompson, creator of the hashtag #DisabilityTooWhite and founder of Ramp Your Voice, put it best in that hashtag about the serious racial disparities in our representation. Disability representations are overwhelmingly white, which needs to be corrected. Show us in your work as Black people, Native people, and other People of Color (BIPoC). And if you’re white, I can’t stress this enough: please educate yourself on racism before you start making work about BIPoC. You could, even with the best of intentions, create something that’s incredibly insensitive and harmful, and if you’re making art with the desire to have a positive impact, that’s the exact opposite of what you wanna do to people, so take steps to do good and educate yourself.
In addition, show disabled people as queer, fat, transgender, nonbinary, and more. If you think it’s hard to find mainstream representations of a straight, cis, thin, young, white disabled woman, it’s next to impossible to find mainstream representations of bisexual, trans, fat, disabled women of color. So please, don’t make us all white, thin, young, pretty, visibly disabled, heterosexual, and cisgender. That’s not representative of us as a whole, and we need intersectional representations even more than we need general disabled representations.
Avoid ableist tropes. Show our disability without hyper-focusing on it.
Making art about us is great! …If you’re not making art that makes our lives worse or harder. For example, if you only make art featuring disabled people as recipients of charity and pity, you’re actively making our lives more difficult by showing us in an infantile way or a way that shows us as burdens. On the flip side, if you only show us “defying” our disabilities (also known as “disability porn” or “inspiration porn”), you’re also actively making our lives more difficult. lol Don’t do that.
While you shouldn’t try to portray us without our disabilities and differences as though we’re completely “like everyone else,” you also shouldn’t make our disabilities our sole descriptor.
I know this can seem confusing at first! In order to do this, I feel that you need to get to know us better. Look for blogs that are authored by disabled folks (like me! Hey!) where we talk about how our lives and bodies and minds are effected by the world around us and how the world accommodates us (or doesn’t). Really pay attention to how we talk about ourselves and our experiences and take note of anything we say about how we wish others would perceive us and interact with us. When you listen to us and respect our perspectives and lives and opinions, you’ll be in a better position to understand how to portray us in your work.
So to give you an example, because I learn best from them, if you were to, say, want to draw a woman who uses a cane every day, you wouldn’t draw that person without her cane or by hiding her cane behind something like it’s a secret or a thing to be ashamed of, but you also wouldn’t make the piece solely about their mobility assistance device. What I would do is figure out what kind of scenario or pose I want to draw, then think about a way to make it feature a disabled person/person with a facial difference instead of a non-disabled person/person without facial difference. It’s not a perfect method, but it works for me. So in this example, I would probably be wanting to draw something sweet, something with a smile, something with flowers, so I would perhaps draw this person lying on the grass with one hand behind her head and the other hand holding up a flower to her nose to smell it as she smiled. I would have their cane(s) lying next to them in the grass, perhaps cushioned by lots of flowers to emphasize the cane’s presence. If it were a series around this cane user, I would perhaps also include a piece showing them on a boat, looking out over the sea, then in a garden, surrounded by huge sunflowers while they pose for a selfie with a friend, and so on.
If it were a series about one particular character (like for a comic, for example), I’d be sure to show her experiencing a range of situations and emotions. A character will be effected by events and people around her, and her disability may sometimes be the inherent cause of pain in her life, but I guarantee you the ableism is almost always going to be a bigger barrier to your character than her disability itself. So I would maybe draw something like a character who’s a fat, Black lesbian guitarist who’s trying to become successful in her field while dealing with EDS at the same time. She’ll face struggles in the industry for being fat, for being Black, for being a lesbian, and for being disabled, and she’ll also face plot obstacles like a broken lucky, adaptive guitar right before a big competition or figuring out how to deal with slowly realizing she’s polyamorous or dealing with an intense rivalry against another talented band in the industry or learning that a music producer is actually an alien who’s come to study Earth life and just got really into the music scene. You know, stuff that’s the backbone of comic books! So drawing this character in a way that is respectful of her identities but also shows her dealing with the same life stuff other people deal with in addition to her disability struggles is important.
What I wouldn’t do is draw several pieces showing the cane-using person only being the recipient of some non-disabled person’s kindness or assistance, pieces that completely omit the cane(s) even though that person would absolutely need her cane(s) in the situations I draw her in, or pieces that show her only looking sadly and forlornly out the window at a playground of non-disabled kids playing without her. Or, to use the comic example again, I would not make the comic book series about how depressing her life is as a failed musician who can’t do anything ever again because she’s disabled and how much she mourns a life she’ll never have.
I hope the difference is obvious, but let me add a little clarity here just in case it’s not. The difference in the types of would-do and would-not-do series are that the would-do pieces demonstrate a disabled woman simply being alive and enjoying herself and doing things she enjoys with people she likes and who like her. They show a disabled woman in her reality: using canes to get around and do normal life stuff. They show her as a person with emotions and a life with purpose and joy. They show her as a fully developed character navigating the complexities of her life. The would-not-do type of series shows this disabled woman as an outsider, as a burden, as someone who only comes to life when others give her a purpose as a recipient of pity. They show her as inherently sad and depressed and alone– a life that’s without joy or any positivity. Or on the flip side, they hide her disability, pretending that she is “just like everyone else” by completely getting rid of any signs of her differences that are a completely normal human experience; erasing our disabilities is an erasure of us.
Do disabled people struggle with loneliness and depression and sadness? Absolutely. Do we get excluded by non-disabled people in ways that are not only painful for us but also harmful to us? Absolutely. Do we receive assistance from caregivers? Absolutely. Is that story about the pain from our disabilities yours to tell? Probably not. Leave those painful stories about how our disability/ies effect our lives to disabled artists to tell for ourselves. We exist in multitudes. And non-disabled people contribute to the harm they cause us by depicting us in ways like the second type of series I described.
Show us doing life stuff, fun stuff, meaningful stuff! All the stuff!
Contrary to mainstream news (yes, this includes liberal news), disabled people can and do live amazing, fulfilling lives! We do all kinds of things! We just do it with our disabilities at the same time. :] [smiley] While I don’t like to say we’re “normal people” for many reasons, in essence, we really are just normal people. Disability is a type of normal human experience, therefore we are normal.
So be sure to show us in a range of ways: happy, sad, overjoyed, depressed, stressed, confused, excited, anxious, afraid, and more (all while keeping in mind the previous section’s advice). Because we’re human– we experience life in all kinds of ways.
Don’t use us as the butt of a joke or make our personal lives into your pet project. Some disabled people love letting everything hang out, so to speak– don’t mind talking about their disabilities and the good and bad that comes with it (yes, there’s good that comes from disability). Some people very much mind talking about it. You’ll have to be respectful of each of our wishes. If you use our photos as reference material, try to be sure that it’s just that: reference material.
For example, if you’re really great at hyper realistic paintings, maybe don’t paint someone exactly as they are unless you get their permission first (and pay them accordingly– the vast majority of us are in poverty because of non-disabled people’s bullshit). Instead, use their images available to you as inspiration. Maybe you paint a body similar to their body but create an entirely new face for the subject of your piece to protect their privacy.
Make sure to be considerate of any personalized mobility devices, too– for example, if I had a customized hot pink, race-car looking wheelchair that clearly is unique to me with my name on it in shiny gold glitter with rainbow light-up wheels and it’s a well-known feature of me on social media (like, has its own hashtag #ChairOfAllThingsAwesome and everything) and you really loved it (because fuck, that does sound like an awesome chair!), don’t draw it unless you get my permission to. It’s a part of me, and it would be inappropriate for you to use it without getting my okay. On the other hand, if you wanted to draw my plain black metal cane that I got at the pharmacy for nine bucks and have never done anything to it for customizing it, you don’t need to get my permission to draw that because it’s available to the public and used by many people. Or you could perhaps draw inspiration from the hot pink chair of awesomeness by creating a cool, functional chair of your own custom design, like making a chair that looks like I’m riding a lime green dragon or some shit.
Always be sure to credit and link back to disabled people who have helped you get to where you are! No human is an island, and you certainly don’t become aware of disabled issues without disabled people providing you the knowledge. So if you create a piece about a particular chronic illness, for example, and you learned about this illness from, say, gastroparesis and stoma care from With a Smooth Round Stone, you should credit them in your work’s description for enlightening you about that condition and to drive traffic to their page in support. That’s not to say you have to credit every single person who ever inspires, educates, or enlightens you in some way because that would be impossible, but it’s something you should do when you can and something you should make an opportunity to do. If you need an example of this, just look at how I’ve placed links throughout this post and others to link to activists who do amazing work.
Just as, if not more, important as the last step! As I noted earlier, the vast majority of us disabled people live in poverty. And this is directly because of the ableist constructs non-disabled people have created and reinforce in society. I’m not going to talk much about it here because it’s a vast, winding topic, and people who dedicate their time to important topics such as this explain it better than I can here in this tiny segment on an article about art. Follow the work of the people mentioned throughout this post and my website to better get a sense of ableism and how it effects our lives.
But it’s really super important that you financially compensate disabled people who take the time to share their knowledge and educate you on subjects you would otherwise know little to nothing about. Black and Native disabled people, trans disabled people, queer disabled people– all are more likely than white, cisgender, heterosexual disabled people to be impoverished and in difficult situations due to intersectional issues, so I encourage you to start there if your funds are limited. So if you see an option to sign up for their Patreon, Ko-Fi, or even a regular PayPal donation, please go for it as often as you can! And if that person sells a product or service (ahem 😀 [big smiley]), be sure to support their work by purchasing and sharing when you can!
If you have a (respectful) question, just ask us! I mean, do some good research first (seriously– Google is your friend with this), but if you truly just have questions that are respectful and polite, you should probably just ask us. Don’t go around demanding questions of random people you encounter, though, or expecting every disabled person to owe you an answer or even the time of day; take the time to build relationships with us. Find those of us who talk publicly about our issues. Get to know us. We’re pretty fucking cool. :] [smiley]
Remember we’re not all the same.
Even if two people have the same disability, odds are very good that they don’t experience their disability the exact same way. This is one reason why the disability porn thing is so harmful, btw, because it presumes that we can all “overcome” our disability if we really tried, even though that’s completely based on non-disabled people’s hatred of disabled bodies and not at all on fact.
Anyway, another thing is that not all disabilities are visible. In fact, loads of people have disabilities that are what we call “invisible.” This often applies to things called “invisible illness,” but it can also be used like “invisible disability.” So when you draw disabled people, remember that there is a wide spectrum of things that can disable us. I think it’s very important to draw people who non-disabled people think “look normal” in addition to visibly disabled people in disability series because there are a lot of misconceptions out there about what disability looks like. While I don’t want to go into too much detail because this post has become much longer than I originally intended (lol), this kind of incorrect thinking leads to disabled wheelchair users being attacked, like when they stand up in the store for something or leads to people who don’t use a mobility device being attacked when they use a disabled-reserved parking space– with their placard on their car! It’s important to encourage awareness of lots of ways disability can present itself.
It’s important still to make sure you base your “character” in your work in reality, though– don’t just draw someone kickboxing and say that they have some disability that may actually prevent that person from kickboxing because you decided after you drew it that you wanted to add some disability to your character. For example, if you drew someone kickboxing and later decided you wanted to make them have a diagnosed herniated brain tissue that could kill them if they received a punch the wrong way to the face/head, you’re not exactly putting your character in a realistic situation. I used to do muay thai, but I would have to be suicidal now to actively seek situations that could cause me to receive damage to my head from a punch or hell, even a bad fall where I land on my head– all of which happened while I was practicing before my brain issues. This kind of thing could literally kill me, and I have no desire for that to happen, as would most people, I imagine. So again don’t ignore the reality our disabilities when you make art about us!
And one final thing to remember that we’re not all the same on is that not all of us like to be referred to using the term “disabled people.” Some people prefer the term “person/people with disabilities” (often shortened to “pwd”) or maybe even some other descriptor. While it’s important that you respect each individual’s desire for what they be called, overall, it’s best to use the term “disabled person/people.” For now, that’s the term that seems to be the most accepted in the community; related note: I prefer “disabled person” myself. :] [smiley] And a reminder again that while some of us may be reclaiming slurs like “cripple,” those terms are never yours to use as a descriptor if you’re not disabled, especially in a public space and while making art or other media about us. So please be careful with the language you use to talk about us with.
So obviously, one blog post isn’t gonna cover everything, and I certainly can’t just compile an artistic reference book (not right now anyway– but hmmm, maybe something for the future!) showing you every kind of disabled person and their assistive devices, their needs, etc. out there. You gotta put in some work, too. :] [smiley] Maybe once you realize how difficult it is to find good quality pieces of us in mainstream and have to go searching for a connection to the disabled community itself, you’ll have a better appreciation for what it’s like to be us and having to find that connection for ourselves and our survival and our thriving. You’re lucky if you only need to be able to find us for your work!
As I mentioned before, I can only speak for myself on this, and I hope you’ll seek out other disabled folks’ opinions and thoughts on this subject, too! I think if you follow these general suggestions, though, you should be fairly well equipped to begin featuring disabled people more in your art. :] [smiley]
I hope this was a helpful starting guide for how to draw us disabled folks, and I hope you’ll go forth and make great work! It would be wonderful to see disabled people represented more in art. If you feel this has been helpful, please be sure to link back to this article in your work as a good starting point for that “Credit us” suggestion, share or purchase some of my work, and follow me on Instagram! ;] [winky smiley]
Thanks so much for reading, and I hope you have a great day!