Picturing Impairment and Drawing Disability

I’ve always loved drawing – since childhood it’s been a key part of how I think and make sense of the world.

Having Tourettes hasn’t always made this easy. As a child my obsessive and impulsive tendencies meant that if I made even a tiny mistake I’d have to start again, or sometimes I’d impulsively destroy my work. It was hard to explain this to people around me at the time and they’d sometimes get annoyed by how much paper I was using. I thought this was my fault and felt upset that these thoughts were stopping me doing something I enjoyed.

As I got older, I found it easier to control these more obsessive behaviours and came to appreciate that imperfections could actually improve a drawing. The challenge now though, is that my tics make it hard to control my arms which means I’ll often move suddenly, and fundamentally change whatever I’ve been working on.

I’m a big believer in the social model of disability. This recognises that it’s normal for our bodies and minds to work in different ways and for some people to have particular impairments and for others not to. What disables people is a failure to consider this diversity of bodies and minds in the way we set things up.

So while the more traditional medical model of disability would try to change my tics so that I could draw, the social model encouraged me to look for more practical solutions, and one of these was the iPad I got last year. It’s enabled me to make drawings I could never make without it. If I tic and make a mark that I don’t want to be there I just press ‘undo’.

It’s often easy to explain how the social model applies when it comes to physical barriers, but it can be a bit trickier describing how it relates to systemic or attitudinal barriers.

Taking a social model approach doesn’t mean you’re saying that medicine is bad or unnecessary, or conversely that everything related to impairment can be solved by making societal changes. For example, I experience chronic pain and fatigue. This is a fact about my body that sometimes feels tough. But access to affordable pain relief or hydrotherapy are social model issues, as are assumptions about energy levels and what’s possible to achieve in a day. And when my ‘Siri’ refuses to follow a command, the problem isn’t my swearing tics but Siri’s programmers’ decisions to stop it working if it hears a swear word.

Often people confuse impairments (which are the facts about our bodies or minds) with disability which, through the social model, I understand to be the barriers I encounter in the world because bodies and brains like mine haven’t been thought about. To help explain the distinction between these two terms I’ve made a drawing which shows both impairment and disability as if they were breakfast cereal brands.

A hand drawn digital image of two imaginary cereal packets, the one on the left is red and titled Impairment. On the right is a blue one titled Disability. The Impairment box has an image of Touretteshero in her wheelchair and says facts about my body. The one on the right has nine small images in circles and says 'disabling barriers'. The images of barriers include a bed titled 'fatigue management' and a phone titled 'siri's settings' all of the nine small drawings show a different barrier from steps to scheduling and extra costs to pain medication. The semi circle at the bottom with a green tick shows these are all social model issues.

The social model isn’t perfect and it’s important to keep thinking and talking about the ways we understand disability, but for me, connecting with the social model transformed how I thought about myself and my experiences, and for that I will always be extremely thankful.

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