Universiteit Leiden

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Andries Hiskes: 'The disabled body is too often ignored’

Bodies come in all different shapes and sizes. For his PhD, Andries Hiskes researched the disabled body and the reactions it can bring.

His dissertation, Disability and Its Affective Affordances , revolves around people's desire to make sense of bodies, Hiskes says. 'We like to know who or what we have in front of us. When that interpretation becomes more difficult, for example because the body in question is disabled, it can affect us in different ways, from fear to wonder and disgust. I wanted to know how those emotions are evoked.'

Perception and representation

Hiskes argues that the taboo of asking about or discussing disabled bodies can play a role: 'This is easy to see with children, for example, who do not yet experience that social inhibition. They too want to be able to make sense of bodies and so they point and ask about things they don't understand. It is often the parents who then correct the children and urge them to be quiet. The parents become uncomfortable because they don't know how to deal with the disabled body'.

Another reaction that can trigger restrictions is unsolicited help. 'For example, some people immediately reach for someone’s wheelchair because they are convinced that the user needs help, without having asked for it'. 

People with disabilities are also portrayed in a certain way in film and literature, Hiskes says. 'One of the artworks I analyse is David Lynch's film Elephant Man, in which a man with a deformed body is constantly put on display. The film operates on the belief that a disabled body cannot appear in a neutral way. This is not unique within the arts. Characters who are in disabled bodies are often also very good or wise, as seen with Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol. The disabled body justifies the good and wise of these characters. But that too is limiting, because then they don't have the same complexity of character as the non-disabled characters.'

A picture of Hiskes dissertation

To set in motion

Although Hiskes’ dissertation primarily analyses art, it is not only intended to create awareness: 'I myself am very critical of the idea of "just creating awareness". That won’t get people moving; you get them moving when they are touched,' Hiskens explains. 'Disabled bodies know how to touch people, after all, they provoke a reaction. But we haven't yet succeeded in getting them to move. That is also the point I want to make with this dissertation.' 

'If you look at a protest movement like Black Lives Matter, you also see that many people have been mobilised who are not of colour themselves. You hardly see anything similar for disability rights. The disabled body is often left out within the discussion regarding social justice. I think more attention should instead go to the place of the disabled body in society'.

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