Creativity and Disability – Will You Listen?

Pick your label:

Downs Syndrome.

Asperger’s Syndrome.


Cerebral palsy.







All of the above.

Any I may have missed?

When used in relation to people with a disability we use distinctions and nomenclature to quantify who someone is, something other than “normal.”

To pacify our guilt and discomfort at a person’s lack of physical or intellectual ability we offer art and music as a remedial activity. It is put forward as a pastime to keep someone occupied, a way of staving off boredom.

Why do we relegate arts and creativity as a remedial activity; as something to amuse or fill in time?

To do so is to mute the voice of those who have none and to disempower the individual. 

When a person with a physical, mental or intellectual disability is given the opportunity to speak in another voice, they are empowered.

Creativity (art, music, literature) is a voice for those who do not have one.

Don’t dis my ability. Not disabled.

Differently abled.

We disempower them because we refuse to listen to their voice; we believe they have nothing of value to say. We are sanctimonious and privileged in our opinion that a person with a disability cannot be creative.

I believe in the power of creativity to tell your story, using your own voice, your own expression, your own understanding and your own perception of the world.

When we relegate creativity to a remedial activity, a pastime to occupy and amuse, we diminish the role of the creative arts and silence the voice of the individual.

Creativity is a voice with which to speak. Voices with unique timbre and quality, even if the words are not easy to understand.

Hear my voice regardless of how I speak. Don’t view me as disabled or look at me through my disability; listen to what I have to say. 

Yet sometimes, art and creativity is the only voice with which someone has to speak.

We ostracise the artistic rather than balancing it against the academic and logical, the scientific and practical. Even in these areas there is great creativity.

Can we help tell their story? Give them the skills and techniques to create their own works of art? I believe in the dignity of the humanity of each person and it should be respected. 

Allow each person to find their voice. Give each person permission to speak.

We must move beyond treating people with a physical, intellectual or mental disability as incapable of having a voice.

The ad promoting the London Paralympics Games in 2012 gives me goose bumps every time because it is a powerful statement of voice. You can watch it here.

Art, like sport, is transcendent of language. The coded symbolism is independent of the alpha-numeric symbolism of codified spoken and written language. Culture and knowledge informs the construction of the work of art; we may not speak English or French or Spanish or Mandarin or Afrikaans but we understand the message coded in the art.

When we speak with and through art, we use a commonality of language that gives voice. When I look at and appreciate a piece of art, I do not need to know the background of the artist, their ability or disability. I hear their voice in their work. Knowledge of their background enhances and brings clarity of understanding to their message, but it is not essential.

There are many great organizations giving voice to people with disabilities. One of them is Studio ARTES  (They are also on Facebook) – a facility for people with a range of physical and intellectual disabilities, for life skills training, art training and socialization. It has been something I’ve encountered for many years because my mother was one of the founding members. She was working as an occupational therapist at a school for students with specific needs and her creative partner, Wendy, was the art teacher. Their vision was to extend the opportunities for people with specific needs post school.

I have seen the power of art when people are given a voice to express themselves. Lars was a young man with an intellectual disability who gained a remarkable voice through the nurturing of his artistic talent. His art was bought by members of parliament and hung in the foyers of well-known companies. He had a droll, dry wit and was a remarkable talent. 

On the occasion of his passing, Member of Parliament, Judy Hopwood, had this to say. Hansart Transcript 

You can see retrospective collection of some of his works on Facebook

Besides painting at Studio ARTES, many are involved in the practice of Saori weaving (‘sa’ = difference; ‘ori’ = weaving), a Japanese art form that has come to represent the ability of all to be creative without preconceived notions of correctness.

The beginnings of Saori start with Misao Jo who wove a cloth but because of a missing warp thread it was perceived as flawed. Undeterred, she wove more cloths with ‘flaws’ and ‘faults’ and produced beautiful cloths, praised by a high-end cloth merchant. Read about the philosophy of Saori here.

When teaching her students, Misao taught them the basics of weaving and left them to do as they pleased; an opportunity to discover their true self. My mother has had the pleasure of meeting Misao Jo on occasions when she has visited Japan.

Hence the application for people with disabilities is inexhaustible because there are no preconceived rules and boundaries; it is the individual who creates. Carmel, a client of Studio ARTES, is deaf and blind and spends hours at the loom using the texture of wools, twigs, feathers, ribbons etc to create beautiful works of art.

It removes the pretence of ‘correct’ and gives power to speak.

When will we let go of the idea that people with disabilities have no need to be creative? To let go of the notion that they cannot be creative? That art and music is only remedial and a pastime to stave off boredom? When will we allow them to speak with their own voice instead of presuming we know how to speak for them?

We must stop treating creative arts as a sidelined respite and return it to the centre of our cultural heritage alongside mathematics, science and the humanities. Creativity inhabits the spectrum of cognitive disciplines; it is not the domain of one and nor is it limited to those considered “normal.”

If you are without a voice, borrow someone else’s until you find your own.

I want to spend some more time amongst the people of Studio ARTES, to hear their stories, to be their hands to write when they cannot and project their story when and where I can. There is a beautiful lack of inhibition in many of the people who attend the studio, and a great deal of candor; they will tell you how they feel, direct and to the point. It’s a voice I want to hear more of.

I know that we won’t truly learn to love our neighbour as ourselves if we do not hear their story. Not for the sake of pity or sympathy, but for the dignity of the individual.

I have written before that everyone needs a creative manifesto, a reason why they create. I have also spoken about creating from a place of pain (and it has relevance to people with mental illness like depression or anxiety or bipolar) and I believe it is appropriate for a person with a physical or intellectual disability to have the same belief in their creativity.

I had a couple of responses when I put the idea of creativity and disability out there on Facebook one day.

Writer Marc Nash (@21stCscribe), put forward this point, “The people who can’t speak for themselves or can’t be heard, are unlikely to be able to read the words of those who want to help amplify them. That is an inherently political act of writing, which is how I regard my own approach, but it still is one based on certain privileges: – literacy, education, technology (e-readers) and the free time to write. These I find are paradoxes as much as inspirations.”

It is a paradox and a dichotomy but I want to stand for those who are marginalised and to help speak for them.

Two others commented:

“I had never given it a thought until a heard an interview on Radio National a fortnight ago with a burlesque teacher who was given the privilege of teaching a young woman with Down syndrome. At first I thought it sounded exploitative, but it gave the young woman so much joy and made her feel like a regular woman.” 

“A friend of ours has a son with Down Syndrome who has been a regular at our local Uniting Care. They have really done wonderful things with him (and others apparently), introducing him to art (painting, sculpture etc) and music. He has since taken to painting like a duck to water (even selling some of them through his parents business) and has recently taken up music lessons. Uniting Care need to be commended for both developing a sense of worth for this boy but also for their commitment to more than just paint-by-numbers in their approach.”

Tangential Question: what other avenues do the disempowered and marginalised have for speaking? Rap? Hip hop? Graffiti? Heavy metal? Poetry? Painting? Sculpture? Photography?

Are we listening to the marginalised and disempowered?


Let me hear your voice without words.

Let me hear your voice through the images you paint.

Let me hear your voice through the music you play.

Let me hear your voice through your hands, your heart, your mind.

Speak, and I will listen.




5 responses to “Creativity and Disability – Will You Listen?

  1. Absolute outstanding post Adam, and I couldn’t agree more.

    My oldest son, who is 16, has autism and communicating what he means to say (as opposed to the words coming out of his mouth) was the most challenging aspect of helping him to express himself, as well as helping people to understand him. Thankfully we discovered early on that he was terrific at sketching and we took advantage of that and encouraged him to use his drawings to explain what he was trying to say. (The biggest barrier with the communication was the fact that he took everything so literally he could not understand simile and metaphor.) Not only did the drawing work well, in helping others to understand him, it also helped him gain confidence in his ability to communicate with “normal” people. Of course it helped tremendously that he worked with people who were willing to work with him. Thanks to that confidence he was soon drawing for the pure pleasure it brought him and, (with his dad and I cheering him to further develop his talent), he has continued to create superb art, even as he learned to communicate with others through speech alone.

    I believe, as you do, that if we, as a society, would only acknowledge the power of art in life not only would we be helping those who have difficulty expressing themselves, we’d also be helping ourselves to better understand each other.

    • This is something I firmly believe in, and it becomes a more consuming passion each day. As an English teacher (perceived as a strong academic subject) and as a Music teacher (perceived as a weak academic subject) I see parents differentiating between them, believing the arts have no ‘real world’ significance or value.
      To that I say, “Shenanigans.” The language of art and music is a complex one and should not be discounted. It opens you up to a whole new world of experiences. And there is such creativity in business, mathematics, history, science. It’s all about understanding creative principles and applying them to your own aptitudes and talents.
      Ultimately, I am driven by the principle to ‘love thy neighbour.’ In this I hope to succeed.

  2. I absolutely LOVE this. I have Cerebral Palsy, and I have been writing since I was 8 years old. However, it wasn’t until I started writing about my CP experiences in January of last year that I began to truly find my voice as a writer. Thank you so much for this post. 🙂

    • Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. How does your CP affect your writing, or do you find people don’t see your CP and only see your words?
      I have ideas I want to pursue to help give people a voice; I hope they come to fruition and I hope your writing finds a wide audience.

      • Through blogging, my words are at the forefront. Out in the world, my CP is noticeable because of the fact that I walk differently due to my muscles being tight and not having good balance. I only hope that one day even out in the world my writing can be recognized more than my CP.

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