New Internationalist

I don’t have a problem - the problem is theirs’

Issue 426

Public and community art is being used in Bolivia to convey the priorities and aspirations of disabled people.

Image 1 - Santa Cruz mural

‘A disabled person finds themselves in a dark place where there is no sun. To reach the sun they have to spend days, weeks, months, years, they have to walk in whatever way they can, to pass mountains and rivers where they are not supposed to walk, and to communicate with other people. In this way they will reach a path where they find blind people, deaf people, non-disabled people and walk together, struggle together, build a country for the good of not just disabled people but also for non-disabled people, blind people, deaf people. For me, everyone is equal.’

Wheelchair user in Sucre, Bolivia

Internationally and throughout history, visual representations of disabled people have been rare, and positive representations even more so. When disabled people have been represented, it has usually been negatively, or in such a way as to hide their impairments. The Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial in the US, for example, which was unveiled in 1997, hides the ex-President’s wheelchair under a large cape.

Research into the priorities and aspirations of disabled people was carried out in Bolivia in 2006, using public and community art as a means of determining and conveying the main messages. The work includes the voices of disabled men, women and children living in a range of economic and social circumstances. These were not leaders or the conventionally articulate, but ordinary disabled people talking about their lives, their aspirations and what they would like to change and how. They also expressed their ideas in drawings that were combined into mural designs. Groups worked together to paint murals in prominent places to draw attention to their situation. Inauguration events were held at which local authorities, NGOs, media and the public came to listen to participants explain the messages of the murals.

Six different murals were created, each in prominent public locations. Some examples of this work:

Image 2 - detail from Santa Cruz mural

Image 1 & 2 – Santa Cruz mural On the right hand side (main picture top of page, and detail above) there is a tower with neither steps nor ramps. On top of this tower are people from NGOs and authorities. They are drinking fine wine, with bags of money beside them for disabled people and poor people. A lonely figure reaches out from the tower, but he is too distant and isolated to reach the people on the ground below. At the base of the tower, a blind man bumps into a pillar in his path. A disabled woman searches in the rubbish to find some way of surviving.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the picture, disabled people are organizing for a better world. They are cultivating the ground, building an inclusive school and campaigning to get work, justice, equal rights and recognition of sign language. In the sky above, there is a flock of geese. A member of an association of parents of disabled people described how, to him, the association provides support in a similar way to the solidarity of geese. If one goose has a problem it comes down to earth with two others. They support each other until all are fit to fly again. The sun represents the idea that no person should feel superior to another. The same sun rises and sets for everyone.

Image 3

Image 3 – mural by deaf people A wall divides deaf people from the justice they are working for. A girl looks into a mirror and sees herself as a teacher. The current education system rarely provides teaching in sign language, excluding most deaf people from the opportunity to gain the qualifications they need to become teachers themselves. The person looking into the mirror would teach deaf people about their identity if she could become a teacher. A boy, dressed ready to play, watches a football game from the other side of the wall. He would like to play professional football, but as they use a whistle he is excluded. If only they would use visual signs then he would be able to play.

Image 4

Image 4 – Mural in Tiahuanacu In this mural a bus leaves behind a wheelchair user. Using public transport is a major difficulty for disabled people both in rural and urban areas. Other passengers often abuse those disabled people who do get on buses and complain about the extra time it may take to get a wheelchair user on board.

Image 5

Images 5 and 6 - Tupiza Mural In the centre of this mural is a tower (above), made accessible with ramps. Disabled people have climbed to the top and are calling on others to join them in campaigning for a more just society. The walls of the tower are covered with their messages such as: ‘Come, friends with disabilities, come and join us’ and ‘Law 1678’ (The law to protect the rights of disabled people).

Image 6

The full report by Rebecca Yeo and Andrew Bolton, ‘I don’t have a problem, the problem is theirs’: The lives and aspirations of Bolivian disabled people in words and pictures is available from the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds. It was printed by the Disability Press. The analysis is that of the authors. More details of the work, including pictures can also be found at www.artofthematter.org.uk.

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