Disempowerment: Hannah Gadsby’s Takedown of the ‘Before His Time’ Narrative about Van Gogh, the Social Model of Disability, and Persistent Disabled Unemployment

“…disabled people are often imagined as unable to be productive, direct their own lives, participate in the community, or establish meaningful personal relations — regardless of their actual capabilities or achievement.” – Extraordinary Bodies, Rosemarie Garland Thomson

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In her hit Netflix special, Hannah Gadsby — a comedian that has also recently revealed that she is Autistic — takes on the romanticized myth of Van Gogh’s lack of an artistic career despite his clear ability. The myth is that Van Gogh was “ahead of his time.” Gadsby responds that this is a ridiculous proposition:

People believe that Van Gogh was just this misunderstood genius, born ahead of his time. What a load of shit. Nobody is born ahead of their time! It’s impossible. Maybe premie babies, but they catch up. Artists don’t invent zeitgeists, they respond to it….

[Van Gogh] was not ahead of his time. He was a post-Impressionist painter painting at the peak of post-Impressionism.

He had unstable energy, people crossed the street to avoid him. That’s why he didn’t sell any more than one painting in his lifetime.

Gadsby’s analysis is not only correct, but important. No matter how talented a disabled person is, the most disabling aspect of a person’s life, according to the social model of disability, is the environment around them: the access they have to the world, both physically and socially. While Van Gogh was obviously talented, and his work was well-suited from his time and environment, how his disability was perceived was the actual stumbling block. And Van Gogh is still not alone.

According to a recent study by the Brookings Institute, disability employment is at 40%. That means that even when overall unemployment is currently less than 4%, disabled unemployment is 60%. And the news is even worse for some people with certain disabilities — the unemployment rate for blind and Autistic people is nearly 80%-90% historically!

Hannah Gadsby’s analysis is consistent with the social model of disability. The most disabling part of Van Gogh’s bipolar condition was the perception of his presence, which affected all his interactions with others… including negatively affecting his ability to network as an artist. The narrative that he wasn’t recognized because his style or talent was yet to be recognized obscures the real obstacle of normative constructions of acceptable social interactions, perceptions, and understandings of the world. This disabling worldview is still at work today in the disabled community, from Autistic people unable to obtain opportunities to showcase their skills because of our “awkward” social interactions, to people with emotional disabilities perceived as “unstable,” to people with sensory disabilities (blind and d/Deaf people) whose disabilities are still (falsely) linked to “ignorance.”

As I have written elsewhere, these ableist attitudes and narratives originate in the completely incorrect belief that disability is synomous with inability. One need only search YouTube for standard questions asked of people with different disabilities to locate this pattern of ignorance — most of these annoying inquiries revolve around the inquiring party’s inability to imagine the disabled figure being able to do anything… to have a satisfying relationship not based on pity, to participate in the community, or to be productive in any environment without regard to the disabled person’s actual abilities.

Van Gogh’s example is, as Gadsby suggests, an excellent case study of an immensely talent disabled artist who had to deal with an ableist and unempathetic world. The myth that Van Gogh’s work was simply misunderstood tragically obscures the real issue of disability discrimination and its adverse effects on the disabled person’s productivity during their own lifetime — this is even more tragic given Van Gogh’s enormous talent.

Many disabled people are incredibly talented in numerous ways; however, the perceptions of our disabilities still stymies our search for careers that fully utilize our abilities, offer us opportunities for personal and professional opportunities for advancement, pays us as well as our non-disabled peers, and lends us a feeling of belonging and productivity. As Carol Glazer, President of the National Organization on Disability opines, “People with disabilities are more than capable, they’re just not companies’ first, second, or even third choice. But when employers need talent, they give new people a chance. And when given the chance, people with disabilities succeed.”

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