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I’m not the first one to say that even without a chronic illness, engaging
with creative activities can be a barrier due to motivation, resources,
pricing, and a billion different things. Now imagine this but ten times more
stressful and difficult. That’s pretty much how it feels to have a chronic
illness and try to deal with making things. And now imagine that even
more difficult and exhausting again. That’s what taking a creative course
at university when you have a chronic illness is like. It’s laughably difficult
in retrospect, but I’ve put myself through that difficulty!
I really do love taking art, I love making art, but how are we expected to
thrive when all you bump into when studying is barriers? To think I’ve
been told “Why even bother?” by so many people when I’m not the
problem. Navigating life, never mind university with a chronic illness is a
humongous task, it’s possible for sure, and I hope one day I’m another
example of how we’ve succeeded, but that’s not our faults. Inaccessibility
feels like such a personal insult at times that it’s incredibly easy to forget
that these wouldn’t be issues if the proper infrastructure was in place to
accommodate those with disabilities, and especially long-term ones. It’s
especially hurtful when creativity is such an integral part of my identity
and part of my autistic self, that I’m essentially being told in every subtle
way possible that art has no place for me.
Well there’s a place for all of us in the art world, in society, in places of
education, I promise. Let me highlight some cool disabled artists to make
you feel more empowered about being a chronically ill creative!
Yinka Shonibare CBE (b. 1962): A British-Nigerian artist explores cultural
identity, colonialism and post-colonialism, and uses bright Ankara fabric in
a lot of his work which has become a hallmark. One side of his body has
been paralysed ever since he contracted transverse myelitis at the age of
18, so he uses assistants to make works under his direction.
Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898): A British illustrator and author who is
well-known for his ink drawings and woodcuts. He was a leading figure in
the aesthetic movement and contributed to the formation of the Art
Nouveau movement before his passing at age 25. He contracted
tuberculosis at age 7 and lived with complications his whole life.
Angela de la Cruz (b. 1965): A Spanish artist, now living in the United
Kingdom, nominated for the Turner Prize in 2010. Her work uses broken
and distorted canvases, such as ones with their stretchers removed to
become saggy. She suffered a brain haemmorage in 2005, and has been a
wheelchair user ever since. Similar to Yinka, she delegates her work to
assistants for her practice, but this was something she already did before
Adapting my work to suit my medical needs was a blow to my self-esteem
and confidence because it felt like how I wanted to create was being taken
away from me, but it’s meant I’ve been able to do more than I ever could
overdoing it or not accommodating my needs properly, and there’s no
regrets in how I work now. I’ve learnt a lot about working creatively as a
chronically ill person since starting my degree in 2021, and I hope that
some of my findings and advice can help someone else, whether through
reassurance or giving helpful tips!
There’s no shame in delegating work to others. Many big artists use assistants and helpers, and you have more reason than others to bedelegating work, it doesn’t invalidate your work.
Digital methods of working are more accessible than practical, in person work sometimes. Again, this doesn’t mean your work is “fake”or a “cop-out”, you are simply working in a different way.
Sometimes your health simply has to come first. You might have big plans, but are they reasonable in terms of energy levels? Materials? Time-frame? Can you do something more manageable?
Disabled artists are massively underrepresented and this is amassive issue. People like me are desperately trying to provide better representation, but don’t feel bad about being alienated from the art world at times, it’s not your fault. But get angry! Be loud about it! It’s how we get change in the world.
Don’t feel ashamed of your disabled identity, of your needs and accommodations, they’re a part of you and access and adjustment is a right and is rightly expected from things. Being a disabled artist is not a problem, the world being inaccessible is!