digital-disability

Archiving images of disability

Outside Centre: Disability Perspectives
"Disability everywhere in everything at all times"

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Elizabeth Crow
Elizabeth Crow
A disabled filmmaker
I have a soft spot for The Miracle Worker, partly because I've since learned about the 'real' Helen Keller (in adulthood, a radical, controversial political activist). In the film, triumph had to prevail over tragedy, but for its time it broke barriers and shocked the audiences by showing that a disabled child could rage.

Archiving Images of Disability

The bfi has one of the largest collections of disability imagery in relation to the moving image in the world. The collection spans more than a century and includes imagery of every possible 'disability' and in every genre, format and style. The true extent of its holdings on the subject is yet to be fully revealed as previous archive policies - not just in Britain but throughout the world - have not identified 'disability' as a specific category.

However, the ground is shifting, especially at the bfi. 

Much of the material reflects the way in which disability has been, and still is, seen by the broader culture in which the images were made. Thus, much of the new material acquired by any archive will not be that different from the existing old material, even if it is a modern production.

The great and the good still like to be shown doing their charity work - opening schools for  the  blind,  the  deaf and the crippled. It is the similarity of the old and new representations which makes them so fascinating to watch (particularly alongside each other). Policies are beginning to change with the increasing acquisition of moving image material made by disabled people themselves. The Arts Council of England's National Disability Film and Video Project (1994-2000) provided an opportunity for disabled people and more material will undoubtedly be made and distributed which will expand the  moving  image archives of disability. The next step is to ensure that disabled people themselves are aware that the bfi is looking for material that can then be both preserved and distributed.

Within the National Film and Television Archive at the bfi one can find a wealth of films which highlight the role disabled people themselves have played in society. An early example is the turn of the century film of Little Tich.

A number of impairments are covered in a collection of fascinating public information films and, with the recent acquisition of the Mitchell and Kenyon _films, new early twentieth century moving images of disability are being revealed every day as restoration proceeds.