There are various forms of physical and mental health disabilities and people with disabilities cannot be defined as one homogeneous group. It is difficult even to define people with certain types of disability as one group. More people than ever are registered as disabled and disabled audiences are one of the key target groups identified by the government.


The Social Model of Disability recognises that poor design, inaccessible services and other people’s attitudes disable people more than their impairment. Work to this model when running programmes for people with disabilities and thinking about access.


There have been a great number of exhibitions to combat the invisibility of people with disabilities both in the collections of museums and galleries and within the audiences of museums and galleries themselves. This in part a response to work on ‘Rethinking Disability Representation’ carried out by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester in 2006-08. This work found that collections in galleries frequently do have representations of people with disabilities, often through portraits of named, unnamed or fictional people, and a number of projects were set up in collaboration between museums and groups of people with disabilities to reinterpret, display and produce learning materials around them.


Medical museums and collections are most likely to have portraits of people with disabilities, but there are important ethical questions about agency and context within these representations. Did the people depicted agree to be depicted? Why are they depicted? Do we even know who these people are? And etc. These and other questions can be dealt with in a number of ways: by involving people with disabilities in any work made around the images; through serious historical research on the context and background; and by acknowledging the difference between medical and social definitions of disability.


The case studies below offer different means of interpreting and producing learning materials around portraits of people with disabilities:



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