Tracing Disability Representation After the1981UN International Year of Disabled Persons
Topical Art: Disability Post 1981
by Scott Rains, firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the most fascinating parts of my career as a researcher and consultant has been
developing new methodologies that build upon the best practices of experts. Most recently I am
learning from artists, historians, stamp collectors and Silicon Valley engineers.
For several weeks now I have applied various techniques to prove my hunch that the most
comprehensive international collection commissioned images of people with disabilities (PwD)
resulted from the UN’s 1981 International Year of Disabled Persons (the IYDP.) I find it ironic
that the methodology most helpful to me this weekend comes not from a scintillating whiteboard
session but from another of our Silicon Valley Geek Culture obsessions lowtech cardbased
games. A simple deck of flash cards turned out to be the bestpracticeoftheweek.
First it was necessary to determine which countries participated in the IYDP call to represent
disability and persons with disabilities as full and active participants in society (* approximately
115 stamp issuing entities.) Next the project involved comparing UN, philatelic and disability
studies sources to establish a trustworthy list of IYDP participants and their artifacts, creating
spreadsheets to disseminate and factcheck results, acquiring dozens of the original artifacts,
posting images online, and organizing the stamps into various iterations of albums or exhibits. In
the end, the most flexible technique for identifying the patterns of disability representation
emerging from this global corpus was a home made deck of cards with images of the stamps
that could be endlessly grouped and regrouped.
Below are some preliminary categories based on this semisystematic approach. In several
cases I include questions that I hope will inspire indepth study of thematic and iconographic
depiction of disability resulting from the IYDP.
Broken Flower Stem / Tree of Life
New Caledonia, Czechoslovakia, Brazil, San Marino and Tunisia are examples of the countries
that chose to participate by issuing stamps bearing the IYDP logo and the image of broken
flower stems, broken tree branches of the like. Would further research find this abstract
representation of disability or PwD to have been common before 1981? Will it prove to have
influenced future stamp or other governmentsponsored art in the following decades? Was it
commented upon in these nations’ presses during the years when these stamps were still in
Realism PwD as Employed
France, Laos, Niger, Singapore represented officebased employment.
Mozambique, Tanzania and other countries show PwD employed in agriculture, traditional
crafts, and other nonurban employment.
Australia, AntiguaBarbuda, Bophuthatswan, Burma and many other states emphasize the
popularity of sports.
Tourism and PwD
The Cayman Island’s SCUBA and beach stamps for IYDP, Barbuda, and Fiji appear to have
consciously attempted to appeal to PwD as tourists. Would a survey of islandstates with
prominent tourism income reveal this Inclusive Tourism strategy as more common than
Graphically Emphasizing Visible Disabilities
Brunei and Zimbabwe use similar graphic strategies to draw the eye to parts of the body
indicating functional differences between models in the stamp series each state produced.
Representing Differering Disabilities
Jamaica, Uganda and Great Britain sought to represent the breadth of differing disabilities and
activities. The use of a series of stamps with different images and denominations offered
multiple opportunities for reaching the postal audience.
Representing Invisible Disabilities
Ethiopia, Rwanda and Zaire each released IYDP stamp series in which the graphically
challenging task of representing invisible disabilities was attempted. Did they introduce any new