Exploring the creative side of disability

In the work of ‘neurodivergent’ artists, Vanier scholar Alexandra Duncan sees a distinctive way of communicating with the world.


Artists are commonly thought to see the world differently from the rest of us, translating their private perspective into a public expression that casts the world in a new light. But there is a category of creative people, known as “neurodivergent” artists, whose difference of perspective is categorically different from the standard view.

Alexandra Duncan, a graduate student in the University of Alberta’s Department of Art and Design, is studying how the kinds of cognitive differences often characterized as disabilities inform some artists’ creative practice, and how their processes give their unique viewpoints a platform and help them integrate into communities of support.

“I’m looking at art by neurodivergent artists, so it can mean developmentally disabled or mentally disabled, but it can also mean ADHD or anxiety—basically any difference in human cognitive wiring,” says Duncan, a recipient of this year’s Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, which supports individuals who demonstrate both leadership skills and a high standard of scholarly achievement in graduate studies in social sciences and humanities, natural sciences and engineering, and health.

Duncan says art has long been a vehicle for marginalized groups to raise their profile and put their experiences on society’s radar, and that so-called disability arts are part of this tradition.

“We’re all temporarily able-bodied”


“It’s really interesting to think how there are all these people examining these axes of difference [such as race and gender], but disability studies has gotten much less attention than other identity aspects, even though disability affects everyone regardless of race or age or gender or sexuality,” Duncan says. “Many disability scholars and activists talk about how we’re all temporarily able-bodied, because if we live long enough we’re all going to experience disability at some point in our lives.”

Prior to coming to the U of A to work on her PhD, Duncan studied at the University of Toronto and York University, focusing her research on graffiti and street art. She says a desire for fresh subject matter shifted her focus to disability arts, but that there are links to her previous research.

“[Street art and disability arts] come back to a lot of the same things—the role of art in community-building, identity formation on a broader scale,” Duncan says. “With graffiti it was a lot of minority identity and masculine identity, and what it means for women to be involved in graffiti. So with neurodivergent art, I’m still looking at community-based art making, collaboration and the formation of identities.”

For her research, Duncan has reached out to neurodivergent artists through Edmonton’s Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts and the Creative Spirit Art Centre in Toronto. She says the artists she’s met locally deal in their work with issues ranging from transportation and mobility to institutionalization and “the paradox of being stared at when no one can see who you are.”

“They explore issues of citizenship and ability, shared experiences, or dealing with disabled identity while dealing with another identity difference,” she says.

Bringing “outsiders” back into the artistic community

Duncan notes that disability arts are sometimes incorrectly conflated with “outsider art,” a term coined by art critic Roger Cardinal to describe work by untrained artists working in isolation from a wider cultural community, usually without regard to a prospective audience. The fact that outsider art is sometimes associated with mental illness or disability further confuses matters. The notion of disability arts emerged in the 1980s as a corrective.

“People who write about outsider art use really othering language; they talk about about how you should savour the artwork to experience the extreme feeling of otherness and exoticism—it’s not the greatest framework,” she says. “Disability arts creates a better framework for looking at the work critically, and acknowledges the activism and scholarship that go along with the work.”

Duncan adds that artistic production and exhibition can serve as a form of self-advocacy for neurodivergent artists and those with other disabilities, just as the creative process can bring neurodivergent and “neurotypical” artists together for collaboration. She hopes bringing a scholarly acumen to surveying the history and current state of disability arts will facilitate that.

“I’d like to see a positive outcome for support workers and family members to have a better understanding of how they can be supportive through art-making processes, how things can be made more collaborative, how this work can spark dialogue and can stand in as communications for people with limited communicative abilities.”