Abnormal 1

In the 21st century, images of disabled people mostly remain confined to medical and charitable images. These images are created and owned by non-disabled people, and even today the subjects rarely have any control over their composition and use.

From the birth of photography onwards, medical research scientists, doctors and related professionals such as orthotists and osteopaths have recorded images of their patients photographically. This has not simply been for private research or record-keeping, but for publication and performance in the arena of the lecture theatre.

Although it appears to go unnoticed by the viewer (the voyeur), in general the eyes of these photographic subjects either look out with despair, embarassment and a deep sense of disempowerment, or appear to be disconnected and dissociated from what is happening to them. Clearly - and unsurprisingly - the subjects are experiencing the photographic process as abuse, and many disabled people later articulate this as such. Perhaps it is as much for this reason as it is to protect the subject's anonymity that the eyes are often covered up in the final photograph.


One of the reasons for the rise of the eugenics movement in the 19th century was the belief that, if we have evolved from animals - Darwin's principle of 'natural selection' - then we can easily return to an animalistic, 'primitive' state if we do not actively take steps to avoid this. Imperialist countries like the United Kingdom - 'Great' Britain - used the belief that less 'developed' peoples were close to an animal state in order to justify their oppression and genocide as part of the 'natural order'.

For disabled people, the belief that natural selection depends on the 'survival of the fittest' continues to have serious consequences. It has been used to justify the segregation and forced sterilisation of disabled people across the developed world - and their slaughter in the Nazi extermination camps. The fact that disabled people are still seen as being closer to an animal state than other human beings is reflected in the fact that, even in the United Kingdom, disabled people do not yet enjoy full human and civil rights.


In the 21st century, medical research is often driven by the hunt for the genes and other conditions which create - or more accurately contribute towards - abnormality and impairment. This is generally driven by the desire to eliminate that abnormality in the future.

To date, this has most often been effected by hunting for genes or other signs of abnormality via foetal testing. When test results are 'positive', abortion of the affected foetus is seen as desirable.

As we have seen, both doctors and medical research scientists tend to define disabled people by our condition. It is also literally impossible to separate us from our impairments. It is therefore easy to feel as if we are scientists' prey.


The spectre of animal testing lies behind most medical research. Even where scientists are working with cell lines, these have originated with laboratory animals. Today, though, this research takes place behind locked doors and is hidden from view: only the shadow remains.

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© Ju Gosling aka ju90 2008

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wellcome trust


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