Disabled Artist Online Survey: Early Findings & Emerging Themes

Over the last six weeks we’ve been carrying out an online survey with physically impaired visual artists to help better understand their current practice and experience with assistive technology. We’ve had around 35 responses to date and we thought it would be interesting to provide an overview of the responses we’ve received thus far and to highlight some of the key themes that are emerging.

The survey has been completed by artists from a diverse range of disciplines including painters, illustrators, printmakers, clay and cardboard sculptors, eye tracking artists, and digital photographers. There’s also a mix of artists in terms of career stage ranging from early career through to more established artists (ages of respondents vary from 20-74).

The artists reported having physical conditions such as multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease, generalised dystonia, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, arthrogryposis, quadriplegia, and multiple joint arthritis.

These conditions have affected practice in a variety of ways – some have adapted their practice over time as a degenerative condition has restricted motor control or when a sudden and unexpected disability has forced complete changes in creative work. Others have limited options remaining due to the severity of their disability and can only be active with certain artforms (e.g. the use of eye tracking to control graphical software).

A common theme is that people can only work for short periods of time before experiencing fatigue and needing a break. Several artists also work on smaller scales when their movement restricts the ability to work on larger canvases (e.g. using a smaller screen for detail work alongside a larger screen for overall perspective). Assistance is another key theme – many artists are reliant on other people setting up tools, making any adjustments, and being on hand to move materials around.

Some artists have to sit/lay in uncomfortable positions to enable better use of their upper body (where motor issues are a problem) – unfortunately, whilst this can make the artistic process more accessible, for some it can also lead to further health complications.

An interesting finding is that a significant majority of respondents are not currently using any form of assistive technology to support their working practice. Those who do are using trackballs, eye tracking technology, wheelchair accessories (e.g. for holding cameras), and motorised easels.

It’s important here to clarify what is meant by the term “assistive technology” – there are lots of definitions around and arguably all technology is assistive (as it typically attempts to assist people in completing some task). However, in the context of this work, we define it as a physical or digital tool that supports physically impaired artists in their practice.

So, examples of physical and more traditional tools include head wands, mouth sticks, and specially designed grips for holding brushes. Digital assistive tools include technology such as eye tracking, mid-air gesturing, facial expression tracking, brain-computer interfaces, head tracking, and a range of other tools. We exclude standard software from this definition (e.g. Photoshop) unless it has been designed specifically with assistive interactions in mind.

We were expecting more artists – especially those with some form of severe physical impairment – to be using some of these tools (especially eye/head tracking), but surprisingly it seems that the majority of artists are unaware of the range of digital assistive tools that are available to them that could help support their practice.

These are just some of the themes beginning to emerge from an initial informal analysis of the responses collected. It’s worth noting, however, that we’re still looking for more respondents – in particular, we’re especially keen to hear from younger or early career artists, people who are currently using digital assistive tools, and artists using more traditional assistive equipment (e.g. specially designed grips for brushes – or anything else broadly relevant).

If you haven’t completed the survey yet, please take 10-15 minutes of your time to let us know more about how you currently work. Or, if you know someone else who might be interested, please forward this onto them.

The survey can be accessed at: http://goo.gl/forms/HVwz4Jklol

The next stage of the project will explore the current practice of some of the artists in more depth enabling us to delve into further detail about their work and to start testing out some new technologies (alongside collecting/analysing more survey responses). We’re currently arranging dates with artists for some time in August and will again report all early/key findings on the site.