Through a glass, darkly: The photographic image of people with a disability

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Doug Biklen


The Other

Subject Categories

Special Education and Teaching


Clinical fields have traditionally focused on remediating the functional limitations of people with disabilities. This is not the only way to look at the problems confronting these people. A perspective which views disability within a social context also has validity and can provide a powerful critique of the social restrictions faced by people with a disability. This research seeks to apply this social perspective on disability to a circumscribed area of our culture which can influence how a member of our society views people with a disability: the way these people have been portrayed photographically since 1960.

A preliminary study revealed that disability was a major unexamined theme in the work of a number of major contemporary photographers.

Since most of these photographers are regarded as artists, a major issue in this research was how to analyze art work. A review of the social science literature revealed an absence of effective methodologies for approaching symbolic visual material. Based on other work in the areas of phenomenological or qualitative research, hermeneutic, and studies in visual communication a four step approach for interpreting symbolic material is offered and implemented in this study.

As necessary parts of this interpretative process: (a) the history of the image of people with a disability in photography is traced; (b) the major influences on contemporary photographers are examined; (c) the techniques available to professional photographers to control their images and the major ways they are used in pictures of people with disabilities are outlined; (d) the types of social roles, groupings, and relationships which are visually associated with people with a disability are described; and (e) the principle ways in which symbolism is created in these pictures are cataloged. Using this information as a basis, an analysis of the images collected for this research is presented which (a) describes the particular patterns of meaning found associated with the images of specific disabilities and (b) outlines seven major recurring themes. A global critique, focusing on the theme of people with a disability as The Other, connects negative elements in this image with forces in our society and in the world of art.


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