The success of putting disability on display

Pope Frnacis made headlines this year when he embraced a boy with cerebral palsy (CNS)

A friend has sent me a most moving Youtube clip on the theme “Because who is perfect?” Pro Infirmis, a Swiss charity founded in 1920 to be a voice for disabled people and to combat social and work-based discrimination against them, made the short film as its own creative response to the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This is celebrated annually on 3 December. Pro Infirmis has produced a series of models for public display in a fashionable shop window on Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse, which are based on real people who have physical disabilities. In the film clip you see a man with one leg, a girl with a curved spine and a man in a wheelchair inside the modelling workshop. They all watch with pleasure and amazement as skilled craftsmen take plaster casts of their bodies, make models from them, dress them and put them on public display.

There is a difficult line between showing respect for those who look different from the “norm” and exploiting them for voyeuristic purposes. One thinks of the old circus freak shows and the film of the “Elephant Man”. Pro Infirmis has managed to avoid this danger, simply by treating the models as they are: ordinary human beings who retain their essential humanity and dignity despite their obvious deformities. The mannequins look like archetypes of the human race in all its vulnerability.

The public response to this imaginative initiative is mixed. The film clip shows passers-by stopping and staring at the display window, then hurrying on; some look uncomfortable, others thoughtful. Considering that this is taking place in Switzerland, a place unfortunately associated in the public mind in the UK with the “clinic” Dignitas, where people go for assisted suicide, it reminds one how confused society is: in one drab suburb of Zurich people are helped to kill themselves with a poisonous concoction, while on a main thoroughfare in the same city people with physical disabilities (of the sort that could lead a depressed person to want to end his life) are being celebrated.

Interestingly, the UN which has promoted this day since 1992, used to call it the “International Day of Disabled Persons.” This was later changed to the “International Day of Persons with Disabilities.” It is a small but subtle alteration, from focusing on the label to focusing on the human being. I am sometimes rather cynical about all the “Days” promoted by the UN but in this case, along with its theme, “Break Barriers, Open Doors: for an inclusive society and development for all”, I applaud it. I wrote a blog in August about a brave midwife in the US who brought about a similar change of description in medical textbooks, when she insisted that babies born without the top part of their brain and skull should be described as “babies with anencephaly” rather than as “anencephalic babies, looking like a monster.”

This film clip has been publicised by the Telegraph online on “Good to Share”. Joe Shute, who provides the commentary, writes, “I was touched when one young woman with a curved spine says with revealing candour, ‘It is special to see yourself like this when you usually can’t look at yourself in the mirror.'” He adds that the video is not just about challenging the views of the able-bodied but that it also “challenges disabled people, too, to think of themselves differently.” When you see the same young woman embrace the model depicting her own body with a large smile on her face, you know that Pro Infirmis’ creative response has been successful.