Writing about People with Disabilities: Teaching or Displaying?

By Sarah Keck

In freak shows, people with physical differences–such as conjoined twins, those with fewer limbs than the norm, and those who can perform unusual actions–are displayed for the public to gawk and stare at. Because their differences from the “normal” concept of the human are emphasized, they are made to seem inhuman to spectators. Displaying human difference in this way is clearly a problem. However, can this sort of dehumanizing display be done in writing, even though the only things writing presents to be stared at are literally written words on a piece of paper? Sure. Here’s why:

A few definitions of the verb “display,” according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, are “to put or spread before the view,” “to make evident,” and “to exhibit ostentatiously.” When writing about people with disabilities, writers are not literally displaying them for people to view (although people are capable of envisioning what’s written down in detail), but it is still a form of exhibit. Julia Twigg describes this in her article “Social Policy and the Body” in the book Rethinking Social Policy: “An emphasis on the bodily potentially demeans disabled people, presenting them as the rejected ‘other’ of the freak show, subject to…pitying gaze of the dominant society” (135). This emphasis on a person’s bodily “abnormality” can occur physically or in writing.

Twigg presents an example from her own research, in which she decided that a description would amount to a demeaning display. She was writing about a disabled woman whose caretakers did not arrive at her house at the right time. In the midst of writing that the woman wouldn’t just “eat, sleep and live but also excrete in the bed,” she stopped herself because that last detail would “expose and lessen” that woman (135). Readers should learn about disabilities, but their focus shouldn’t be solely on the disabled body to the point that they forget the disabled person’s humanity. Focusing on the woman’s body, in this case, could present her as animalistic because hygiene practices are one of things that we see as separating humans from animals, and, without a caretaker, this woman was denied access to these practices. Also, although excretion is normal and natural, it is considered private, and this privacy is central to human dignity.

In the play The Elephant Man, Bernard Pomerance challenges the dehumanization of disabled people in writing. Although the play is meant to be performed, the challenge comes through to a reader as well. In Scene 3, the main character, John Merrick, is put on display due to his body being disabled. Dr. Frederick Treves, the surgeon who takes in Merrick, describes Merrick’s body in his medical display:

…From the upper jaw there projected another mass of bone. It protruded from the mouth like a pink stump, turning the upper lip inside out, and making the mouth a wide, slobbering aperture…The deformities rendered the face utterly incapable of the expression of any emotion whatsoever…developed hip disease which left him permanently lame, so that he could only walk with a stick. (Pomerance 5-6)

Though this written display of Merrick focuses dominantly on his body, dehumanizing him, it is only a brief scene, and it is later criticized within the play. The majority of the play doesn’t center only on Merrick’s body. There are many scenes in which Merrick’s personhood is noted so that his body is not the focal point. A few examples would be when he cried at how Madge Kendal, a visitor, was the first woman to shake his hand (35), when he explained his purpose in building a model of St. Phillip’s church (38), and when he questions the standards Treves has regarding the display of women’s bodies in Scene 16 (55-58). Readers can learn in The Elephant Man that Merrick is more than his stage name. From being in a freak show to living in Treves’ care, Merrick goes from “freak” to “normal” in the reader’s mind. He is presented in writing as a human being, displaying qualities and actions of any human, as every person with a disability does.

In performance, the play takes this focus on his humanity further. Pomerance made it clear to focus on Merrick as a person in the play’s introduction: “Any attempt to reproduce his [Merrick’s] appearance and his speech naturalistically – if it were possible – would seem to me not only counterproductive, but, the more remarkably successful, the more distracting from the play” (V-VI). If an actor took the appearance of Merrick, the audience would only be drawn to the character’s abnormality, not to the humanity. Thus, it wouldn’t be different from a live freak show with Merrick on display. Pomerance doesn’t focus only on Merrick’s body in the script, so he doesn’t advise actors to take on the role literally in the production. But he does not ignore Merrick’s body either. He suggested using “projected slides” (VI) to give people an understanding of how Merrick appeared. Thus, once they’d gotten past their initial prejudices, the reader and viewer can come to an understanding of Merrick as a person with a disability, rather than a person in spite of his disability.

It’s not entirely possible to write about people without indirectly displaying them. The thing is, if what’s written about disabled people is meant to teach people about the feelings and experiences of those put up on display, then it’s not meant to be negative. They can be displayed in writing in ways that do not other them but instead educate readers.


Works Cited

“Display.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2015. Web.

Pomerance, Bernard. The Elephant Man. New York: Grove, 1979. V-VI, 5-6, 35, 38, 55-58. Print.

Twigg, Julia. “Social Policy and the Body.” Rethinking Social Policy. Ed. Gail Lewis, Sharon Gewirtz, and John Clarke. London: Open U in Association with SAGE Publications, 2000. 135. Print.