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The Frida Effect: In Praise of Disabled Women

On International Women’s Day, Penny Pepper celebrates how other disabled women came to be her pillars of strength, wisdom and joy

Frida Kahlo painting in bed in Mexico City in 1952. Photo: GRANGER NYC Historical Picture Archive/Alamy

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How many of you know that Frida Kahlo, the famous Mexican artist and revolutionary, was disabled – someone who experienced chronic pain throughout her magnificent life? 

Having been disabled by polio as a child, Frida was injured in an accident as a teenager, resulting in lifelong medical challenges.

The 2002 Hollywood film Frida, starring Salma Hayek, tries hard – but as a disabled woman I feel it sold us, and perhaps Frida, short. 

I’ve read Frida biographies that have left me dissatisfied in their exploration of the artist in the context of her disability. 

Liz Crow’s short film, Frida Kahlo’s Corset, bucks the non-disabled trend to position her in terms of a tragic life. Compelling and beautiful, it is an experimental drama following Frida’s “journey of transformation” through a series of orthopaedic corsets she wore “because of impairments”. 

One reason I’ve always loved Frida is her refusal to surrender to the expected. Her work speaks for itself, and to each of us, as powerfully today as it did when she created it.

The disabled women’s collective, Sisters of Frida, still celebrates her pride and energy, “bringing disabled women together, mobilising and sharing through lived experience”.

Disabled women are my pillars of strength, wisdom and joy. But, in my earlier years, things were very different. 

In the 1980s I would avoid the disabled – particularly disabled women – because I never saw anyone like me. 

I was a freshly-baked baby punk indie kid yelling about anarcho-socialist politics, writing poems about the Brixton riots, stuck in my bedroom, barriers beginning with the steps at the front door of my family home. 

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Isolated in a poor rural backwater, I never went anywhere and my only connection to the outside world was by telephone – always on financial rations – or by handwritten letters. The few friendships I had (always girls) were those formed during stays in hospital or special school, which were never located within the neighbourhood I was growing up in. 

And disabled people were an amorphous blob, very rarely seen on any platform. Only on occasion were they wheeled out for horrifically grotesque shows like Jim’ll Fix It – yes, prolific sex offender Jimmy Savile’s BBC ‘family’ show. 

Disabled women were best ‘not seen and not heard’. Those I did occasionally encounter were simply not my tribe. Even feminism let me down. 

I remember reading feminist library books – Andrea Dworkin, Kate Millet, and others – to find that the only references to people like me was as the handicapped, cared for, disabled women’s existence obliterated into nothing but the condemned role of being the burden on other ‘real’ women who already carried a disproportionate weight through discrimination and misogyny.

I was young, desperately curious, haphazardly educated, and enraged with the typical arrogance of youth. Disabled women of that time were mostly elderly, with no fashion sense and awful haircuts. Sometimes they smelled terribly, while I begged an aunt to buy me Charlie perfume for my birthday. I rejected any association with these women. 

The awakening came, as these things often do, through art and friendship. 

The few friends I had, back then mostly on a snail-mail basis, would send me postcards. I remember one I received depicting Frida with a flower in her hair. The postcard gave no indication she was disabled – that information was provided by the dear disabled woman who sent it to me. I would ask these friends to source me other postcards of punk artists such as Siouxsie Sioux. I decided I wanted to be in a rebel tribe with these women. 

Well-meaning social workers would send me newspaper clippings – mostly in connection to dreary, overwhelmingly male-driven disability charities. Occasionally in all this, a light would shine. 

My snail-mail friend Janet sent me clippings about Shape Arts, a charity for disabled people wanting to work in culture and the arts. My aunt sent me another about Artsline, a disabled-led charity promoting access to arts and entertainment venues for disabled people.

So I knew there was hope. But not living in a city made progress slow in connecting with like-minded disabled women. I had no means of transport and no personal assistants, and so endured scarce interaction.

Then an epiphany came while I was on a hospital ward for young disabled women. Doctors – mostly men – liked to belittle me when I claimed that I was a poet, and on the ward round my soon-to-be sister-soulmate overheard one such exchange. She changed my life and we became a team. We were transforming ourselves, and soon others. 


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We signed up to the revolutionary Disability Arts in London magazine published in the 80s, with two powerhouse disabled women as figureheads: Editor Elspeth Morrison, and the much-missed late Sian Vasey who was instrumental to its establishment. It certainly exploded those old presumptions of mine.

But my story of my sister-soulmate isn’t unique. The collective strength of women working together is unparalleled – and with disabled women it is no different. From disabled suffragette Rosa May Billinghurst to more recent ‘sheroes’, our reach has grown – and globally. 

A select few include the late momentous American Judith Hueman, often seen as the ‘mother of the disability rights movement’. Witty speaker and campaigner Stella Young, who came up with the term ‘inspiration porn’ (a favourite of mine). Alice Wong, whose groundbreaking memoir Year of the Tiger was a recent game-changing joy of a book. Journalist Francis Ryan at the Guardian. Reporter Rachel Charlton Dailey, who commissioned my centrepiece for the Mirror newspaper’s ‘Disabled Britain: Doing it for Ourselves’ series. Suzanne Bull MBE at Attitude is Everything, which enables many more disabled people to go to gigs than ever before. Crossbench House of Lords peers Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and Dame Jane Campbell. Award-winning actor and activist Liz Carr, who has an unshakeable integrity and knows the absolute hard graft of pushing one’s artistry and creativity in a commonly hostile non-disabled world.

The list is long and glorious. Many have passed but will not be forgotten. 

Let us end with Frida, Queen of the Cripples. 

At her first solo exhibition at the Galería Arte Contemporaneo in Mexico in 1953, it was arranged for her to attend in her four-poster bed. “All the cripples of Mexico are coming to kiss me. But only one mountain can know the core of another mountain.”

Viva la vida. Viva us all, disabled women everywhere. We have much to give to the world.

Penny Pepper is an award-winning author, poet and disabled activist

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