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Visual Cultures of Disability


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor and tutor: Suzannah Biernoff
  • Assessment: a 5000-word essay (100%)

Module description

This module explores the ways in which disability has been imagined, represented and thought about in the modern period. It approaches 'visual culture' broadly, looking at photography, film, visual art, medical representations, fashion and performance, in order to trace ideas and images of disability across time and media. One of the claims we will reflect on in the module is that disability is, on the one hand, experienced individually and subjectively, and on the other culturally constructed. Although questions of cultural representation and stereotyping have been central to disability studies, we will also consider the ways in which disabled people themselves - artists, curators, and writers - have challenged and expanded these understandings.

As an academic discipline, disability studies has tended to have a North American bias and one of the module’s aims is to introduce you to key archives and collections in the UK. This will be done through field trips to the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive at Buckinghamshire New University and London’s Science Museum, as well as through online resources like the BFI’s Disabled Britain on Film Collection. We will also consider disabled artists’ interventions into the institutional and aesthetic spaces of the museum, such as actor and musician Mat Fraser’s project, Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability was Kept in a Box (2014). The module begins with the long shadow of the Victorian freak show, encountered through the recurring figure of Joseph Merrick, the so-called 'elephant man', and then through Diane Arbus’s controversial photographs of residents in New Jersey state institutions, a series she began working on in 1969. The final weeks engage with current thinking on the aesthetics of chronic illness and neurodivergence, and the course culminates in a workshop-based session in which you can share essay research-in-progress and get feedback.

Indicative module syllabus

  • Exploitation, agency and spectacle in the Victorian freak show
  • Shame and awe: Diane Arbus’s Untitled (1970-71)
  • The cinema of isolation: disability on film
  • Disability, impairment, debility, capacity, cure: the social model and beyond
  • Prosthetic embodiment and the posthuman
  • Disability in the museum: collections and interventions
  • Disability arts: NDACA field trip
  • The aesthetics of chronic illness
  • Visualising neurodivergence

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • demonstrate a suitable level of knowledge and understanding of the ways in which disability has been imagined, represented and thought about in the modern period
  • demonstrate an awareness of current approaches and debates in disability studies
  • demonstrate an understanding of the specific cultural contexts of selected case studies (e.g. works of art, films, exhibitions or institutions)
  • critically analyse visual sources related to disability.