Ableism in
the teaching machine

By Josefien Cornette

People with disabilities have a lot of problems in art education. One of the problems is the school buildings not being built to help and support people with disabilities. Another problem is all the paperwork people with disabilities have to fill in in order to get help. Sometimes help is offered, but it only makes the problem bigger and separates people with disabilities even more. Art schools don’t teach about artists with disabilities and how to make art about disability. These are problems caused by the wrong ideas we have about people with disabilities. We need to change these ideas if we want to have better art schools for everybody, but also for people with disabilities.

A disability has a fundamental influence on the life of the person affected by it, and that is also true in the arts and in art education. The artist and author Josefien Cornette sheds light on ableism in art education by means of personal testimonials.

People with a disability are still too often ‘discussed’ rather than ‘talked to’, although their voices and experiences can provide important insights. In this article,1 Cornette gives art students with a disability their say, so that they can expose the problems and discrimination they experience.2 The ableism that art students face is unravelled through their personal stories.

All the testimonials in this text have been anonymised to protect the people interviewed.

The myth of the perfect body

We shape our identity by comparing ourselves to others and by using a certain discourse. Disability, just like gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, is a category that helps to shape our identity.

Wherever our body is located on the spectrum between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ greatly determines what we can do. We have an ideal image of what our body and mind should be able to do, and the ability to function is classified in a very binary manner: able-bodied and dis-abled. It becomes inevitable for one of the two options to be seen as ‘negative’, and thus the focus is shifted to what people cannot do.

In reality, however, nobody’s body conforms to the ideal of perfection or standard, and the idea that identity is a permanent state is mistaken. Bodies change from day to day and undergo metamorphoses or treatments.

Likewise, an artistic practice is more of a negotiation and conversation with one’s own body than an unalterable fact. However, questions about the state of the body and productivity are often only asked in art education when they have to do with a ‘person with a disability’. After all, it affects every art student and school for the arts.

‘democratic space’

Although art education often boasts of its universal, inclusive values, it is actually very elitist and exclusive in its policy and organisation. Discrimination against people with a disability is indeed condemned, but the education itself mainly emphasises abilities, production and competition.

This makes art education inherently guilty of perpetuating repressive dynamics of power under which art students with a disability suffer. Practically every student with a disability has been told at some point in their education: ‘if you can’t participate like the others, you shouldn’t have signed up for the course.’ Thus the supposedly ‘democratic space’ of the classroom or studio turns out not to be a space that many people can enter on an equal footing.

Ideas about productivity, attending classes and participating in projects are still largely based on the normativity of ‘how a creative process is supposed to progress’. Tutors do not actively think along with students enough about what works best for that student. For instance, a slower, more chaotic or indeed more pragmatic approach is often criticised because ‘that’s not the way you’re supposed to do it’. Hence it is often the social construction around a person with a disability that determines the inaccessibility of a (symbolic) space, not the identity or ability of the person in question.

I soon learned from my professors and other people in my life that not everyone views it [my gender identity] in a positive way and that some people even see it as a provocation.

non-binary student

I was told: acting is an Olympic sport, so if you can’t hack it, you shouldn’t be here.

male (former) student – theatre

fighting inaccessibility

The resources that art education provides for students with a disability are very limited. That makes it difficult to develop an artistic practice. Many students have the feeling that they constantly have to fight with an institution that does not want to acknowledge its own inaccessibility.

Simple requests – such as physical access to the studios and classrooms – would seem to be an absolute minimum, but many schools do not even manage that much. Often there is no adapted or accessible studio space to work in, and there is no stockroom for assistive devices.

A lift might be a symbol of accessibility, but often students need permission to use it, or it is broken, locked or full of junk. Neither is it unusual for the toilets for people with a disability to be used as a stockroom for the cleaning team’s vacuum cleaners and mops.

Thus the symbolic lifts and ramps turn out to be nothing more than an empty gesture. They are weak promises to reassure students when they begin their course that their needs will be supposedly taken in to account. In fact, though, disability justice – rights and justice for people with a disability – is often ignored.

In the specialist vocabulary of disability studies, this type of half-hearted provision of special facilities is called inclusionism: actions that seem inclusive at first but are actually a form of exclusion because they place even more emphasis on the differences between people. Thus a framework emerges in which the mental health and creative output of art students with a disability is stigmatised and obstructed.

There was a lift, but we weren’t allowed to use it. Sometimes I did anyway, but then the security team or a teacher always told me I wasn’t supposed to.

male (former) student – painting

Refuge in invisibility

When your identity is vulnerable and the social implications and discrimination you face are not recognised, art students with a disability are likely to take refuge in invisibility. Some deliberately decline to mention their disability to the student administration service for fear of stigmatisation, often based on previous incidences of discrimination or a lack of understanding.

The sense of being treated by other students and teaching staff as ‘sick’ or ‘a freak’ is not unfamiliar to art students with a disability. They soon learn to expect trouble, and often conclude that it is better to keep their disability a secret than to be ‘seen’. Assimilating and presenting themselves as students without disabilities for reasons of self-protection is a common strategy in art education.

Others don’t have the papers they need to ‘prove’ that they have the right to ‘special’ facilities (or, let’s say, facilities that place them in a certain category). In fact, the assistance that art schools offer depends on the social and bureaucratic acknowledgement that students with a disability have to fight for. The complexity of requesting and obtaining that paperwork is a serious obstacle.

The result is a system that makes a broad spectrum of art students with physical disabilities, chronic illnesses and/or psychological vulnerabilities disappear into a black hole. Many of them slip through the net and do not get the support they need.

Thus it is not a question of institutions asking whether there are people with a disability among their students, but rather why they are not visible.

Accessibility for all

Wouldn’t it be better to distribute resources based on abilities rather than identities and labelling? Or maybe we should dare to think in a revolutionary way and ‘just believe what students say and help them’?

After all, the question shouldn’t be how the distribution of assistive resources is organised, but whether or not they are available to everyone, as they choose and decide for themselves. That may seem impossible, but is it so strange to expect humanist, progressive art education to think beyond the pigeonholes?

Take the pandemic, for example: In times of catastrophe and chaos, it was suddenly possible to organise lessons online without a grumble. All at once, there was comprehension for the reality of a painful body and/or a resistant mind, and the lack of social contacts and peer learning that they entail. So why couldn’t online lessons be arranged in the past for the few students who would have been able to do their art courses more safely and fairly that way?

Now that every school is familiar with organising online lessons, it seems to be child’s play to organise a live stream and/or recording as well as the lessons on campus. Unfortunately, though, as time passes, we will go back to ‘normal’ as soon as possible… and there’s that ‘norm’ again.

After all, if a school’s accessibility policy is organised without input from people with first-hand experience, possible forms of discrimination are easily overlooked. Inaccessible architecture and curriculums are visible barriers, but there is often a deep, invisible, aesthetic fear and social ambivalence towards people with a disability.

That euphemistic half-heartedness – one might as well say flagrant discrimination – towards people with a disability is largely due to a lack of emancipation and understanding of the subject, which is perhaps the most serious sticking point in art education.

Do away with stereotypes

Having a disability – or any form of ‘different’ identity – attracts prejudices that lead to cultural isolation. This is why the voices of minority groups, such as people with disabilities, often go unheard. That invisibility is not only expressed in architectural barriers, censorship, a lack of visual culture and language, but also in what we might call a ‘non-curriculum’: everything that is not taught or does not happen in education is as exposed as the things that are emphasised. Many subjects are entirely absent from the curriculum, or at best present in a severely stigmatised form: representation, the possibility to identify with historic examples and contemporary artists with a disability, disability methodology, artistic research around disability, trauma, pain and so on.

Furthermore, art students with a disability often get suggestions to make work ‘about’ their disability as coercive or obligatory. In a neutral context, that is no problem, but in a context of marks and grades within an institution which has little understanding and experience of the subject, a context that may even be inimical to your identity, it is likely that the work will serve more as an exploitation of trauma or reduce the disability to something ‘to be overcome’. The necessary conversations, collaborations and coordination to keep such a sensitive process on the right track are entirely lacking. Anyone who refuses is seen as rebellious and ‘unwilling to cooperate’.

They [teachers] made me feel on several occasions that I was irritating and resistant because I didn’t want to share everything, because I didn’t want to talk about my trauma. And by my trauma, they meant my disability (…)

female (former) student – mixed media

In the art world it sometimes seems as though I should feel lucky to have psychological problems. (…) People believe in the fable that an artist has to have mental health issues to be a real artist.

non-binary student – illustration

Art by people with disabilities is often put into problematic categories such as outsider art. The work is discussed with a veneer of paternalistic and stereotypical ‘compensation myths’ such as the ‘mad artist’ or ‘blind musician’. Often practices of vulnerable students are pushed into exoticism and objectification. But a disability must not be seen as a synonym for a ‘talent’ or a ‘gift’. Hardly any artists with a disability receives a genuine platform. And if they do ­– Frida Kahlo is one example ­– it is thanks to many years of feminist struggle in history. A path to individual emancipation in artistic practice is lacking, even in today’s curriculum. The resilience one has to display in daily interaction with education is a kind of ‘survival of the fittest’, and mainly about limiting discrimination.



There is a need for more – and better – representation of the topic of ‘disability’ in the curriculum. Besides creating a better understanding of life with a disability, it gives students insight into the dominant perspective of an ableist and normative art world, artistic practice and art school.

When it’s about racism or decolonisation I have things to share too, but I am interrupted or people don’t listen. But, if I just walk away, I’m the arrogant one! It’s really strange. I have to speak up really often, because if I don’t, nothing happens at all.

non-binary (former) student – performing arts

A step in the right direction might be to integrate everything that art education refers to as a ‘disability aesthetic’, which calls into question the ambivalence of physical and mental ‘normality’ in art, biographies of artists and artistic practices. It is important for a school’s accessibility policy to be based on the students’ needs, not on their paperwork. Recruiting teaching staff with a personal experience of disability can also make a significant difference.

Moreover, accessibility means more than ‘solving’ the specific needs of students with a disability, because in reality their bodies and minds are not necessarily what worry them. Sometimes it is important to take a step back and consider the cultural framing and the cognitive and social injustice confronting people with disabilities.

Rethinking ‘productivity’

Rethinking ‘productivity’ in the arts is something everyone benefits from. Cultivating the attitude that an artist should always be working on their practice, results in toxic ideas of ‘it’s never enough, what you do’. There is no space for rest, and every ‘wasted’ moment is counted against you. The result is a generation of artists who graduate with a stubborn sense of imposter syndrome and an attitude to work that paves the way toward psychological vulnerability and mental health problems; an attitude that is impossible to sustain. An art school that has the courage to produce a ‘different’ generation will guarantee a safer and more accessible art world and practice for everyone.

Socio-political and
economic awareness

The political dimension of education and pedagogy is complex. The multidisciplinarity of teaching staff in terms of media and practice is well integrated, but not when it comes to identity and vision. When students and teachers with a disability are given a place in the curriculum, this promotes a critical form of thinking that can only be of benefit to art education. Critically questioning the concept of ‘disability’ – in the contemporary art canon and within institutions – complements and reinforces insights derived from feminism, postmodernism, decolonisation and queer studies. This gives disabilities a more prominent place in the socio-political and cultural construction of schools and on the diversity card they are often all too eager to flaunt.

When teaching commits to socio-cultural and political awareness, this works to counter exclusive practices. In this way, art education – which is often seen in society as non-essential education – can occupy meaningful positions and even become ‘essential’ in its recognition and acknowledgement of the human condition.

Questioning ‘the norm’ is no more than a beginning. It remains a mere drop in the ocean if there is no further consideration of the place that disability occupies in education and its relevance to subjects such as ‘the body’, ‘normality’, ‘health’, ‘wholeness’, ‘intelligence’, ‘control’ and… ‘art’.

resilience and emancipation

To be an art student is a courageous choice – certainly in this age. Being an art student with a disability is a challenge that is only rarely given the acknowledgement it deserves. We hope that this article offers that acknowledgement, making these students visible in a way that is safe.

They succeed – in spite of all the discrimination and invisibility they face – in developing themselves as artistic individuals with valuable ideas and a sense of social criticism. The mere fact that they are ‘present’ in art education is an act of resilience and emancipation.

This text would not have been possible without the help and knowledge of Engagement Arts, Petra Van Brabandt, Claire Penketh, Mira Kallio-Tavin, John Derby, Elizabete Cristina Costa-Renders, E.J. Hutcheon, Petra Kuppers and all the individuals who had the courage to talk to the author.

  1. The title Cornette has chosen for this article is a reference to the essay “Marginality in The Teaching Machine” by Gayatri Spivak. 

  2. This research method is called ‘Subjective Mapping’. Cornette collaborated with Engagement Arts for this research, with a methodological contribution from Prof. Petra Van Brabandt.