Frida Kahlo, looking impassive in a sepia photograph

“The contributions and achievements of disabled people are largely left out of the history books” – Disability History Month

We continue to mark Disability Month with a blog about artist Frida Kahlo, an early 20th century artist whose work explored her feelings towards being disabled and how it affected her body as well as celebrating the life and culture of her native Mexico.

Sam Pugh, who is part of the Scope for Change campaign group and president of the Oxford Students’ Disability Community, writes about why Kahlo is her hero and why she should be remembered during Disability History Month.  

“I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you.” – Frida Kahlo

There are few disabled people as loved and iconic as Frida Kahlo.

It is thought she was born with Spina Bifida, a congenital defect of the spinal cord, and as a child she contracted polio. She was severely injured as a teenager in a bus accident, with her injuries causing her lifelong pain and ill health.

Frida Kahlo's painting Tree Of Hope - An abstract self portrait with the sun and moon in the background
Frida Kahlo’s painting Tree Of Hope

Following her accident she was unable to leave her bed for several months – it was during this time that she became serious about her painting and marked the start of her life as an artist.

Frida is famous for her surreal and intimate self-portraits, many of which express her pain, frustration, and anger towards her disabled body, but also her acceptance and self love.

Frida the revolutionary

Frida was a revolutionary, not just in her political leanings and open bisexuality, but in the frank way she depicted her disability. At a time when disability was very much hidden and a taboo subject, Frida Kahlo exhibited to the world the impact of her own impairment in striking detail and was unabashed in her portrayals of disability. She was a beautiful, intelligent, and fiercely talented disabled woman.

Frida Kahlo's painting The Broken Column - Showing the artist topless with a column running through her torso
Frida Kahlo’s painting The Broken Column

Frida Kahlo’s image is instantly recognisable, but this isn’t the case for many of the disabled people of our past. The contributions and achievements of disabled people are largely left out of the history books, and it is vitally important that we educate ourselves and others.

Frida Kahlo's painting Without Hope - showing the artist in bed throwing up a mass of body parts
Frida Kahlo’s painting Without Hope

Society’s attitude towards disability has for hundreds of years been one of shame, distaste, and suppression. Disability has always been something that has been hidden and stigmatised, and this is why Frida Kahlo’s depictions of her own are so striking.

Self Portrait with the Portrait of Doctor Farill - Showing the artist sat in a wheelchair next to a portrait of an elderly man
Self Portrait with the Portrait of Doctor Farill

Celebrating disabled people

By celebrating disabled people who have contributed to society throughout history and recognising their achievements, we can challenge the negative attitudes and stigma related to disability and disabled people that are still so prevalent in society today.

Disability History Month gives us the chance to do this, but we cannot rewrite the history books in a month. Recognition of the existence and contributions of disabled people is something we should strive to do every day, both from history and in the present.

We are so often excluded and stigmatised, and face particular hardship in education and employment as a result of these attitudes, which add barriers to us reaching our potentials. There is still a long way to go until disabled people receive truly equal treatment, and this isn’t something we can achieve until we rid society of the prevailing belief that disabled people are incapable of making positive contributions to it.

Celebrating historical figures such as Frida Kahlo and remembering their great achievements will not just change our attitudes towards the past, but allow us to alter our attitudes towards disabled people today and encourage a society which will never hold us back from achieving.

Read the rest of our blogs for Disability History Month

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