Are we really listening?

Aaron Labbé
March 28, 2019
4 min read
Share this blog

As media creators, we have the unique ability to inspire considerable action and change. Our work reaches audiences through powerful extensions of ourselves that appeal to the emotions. Hence, it is our responsibility to use our powers for good; providing a voice to those unheard, spreading positive messages and promoting the growth of a diverse community.

In an ideal world, all media activism would be received as intended. Unfortunately however, audiences only tend to listen to certain bodies through certain channels; even when the unheard get the opportunity to utilize those channels, their voices often get modulated for an ulterior motive or seen through the lens of predisposed biases. These examples are endless, but for this article I will be examining one that doesn’t get a lot of attention: the Disability Arts & Culture movement, specifically the artists associated with the Mad Pride movement.

To begin, here’s a personal example: I am an artist that has been creating a variety of works exploring challenges to the dominant mental health discourse. I was Free is a multi-layered data visualization that tells the story of my experiences with the psychiatric system. As a new media artist, data visualizations are one of my most powerful tools in making an impactful statement. Data is not simply ones and zeroes. It can speak volumes. Through a process called databending, I transformed a series of “zine” style portraits I created prior to treatment. I utilized data points to encode a series of visual layers containing information alluding to the methods used to flatten and subdue me throughout the psychiatric process.

This piece is the first that I would consider purely a statement against the currently established psychiatric system. But it is not the first work in which I reflect about my experiences surrounding this dominant institution. The ongoing artistic project LUCID challenges the current understanding of mental health by providing an alternative, a non-invasive and positive approach to healing. It also fostered a community that is sparking a conversation we hope will lead to changes within the dominant mental health discourse.

I’ve presented our installation publicly on numerous occasions. During its inaugural exhibition, my artist statement included elements about my mental health identity, resulting in feedback along the lines of “it’s amazing how you used your traumatic experiences to make something so beautiful” and “this is such a positive use of your pain.” During the second and following exhibitions, I removed these passages from the statement and the feedback was no longer focused on the fact that I’m a psychiatric survivor. Instead people had a profound appreciation for the work in and of itself and commented on how it made them feel.

This experience revealed that the significance of this and any piece I create to explicitly reflect my psychiatric experiences will likely not be taken as seriously as I intend it to. In more cases than not, art produced by psychiatric survivors or survivors of any sort of trauma is heavily appraised for its therapeutic value to the survivor.

Despite the fact that in “I was Free” I am telling my audience about the fatal flaws of the psychiatric system, the dominant discourse is so powerful that the work will never be seen as a statement for social justice. When created by a survivor, any form of knowledge production that is normally associated with art is completely omitted, thereby removing the power the work can have in creating change.

Popularized mental health literacy is a huge culprit in the cause for these interpretations. It pushes a linear approach to mental health through a standardized diagnostic process that evades the social issues surrounding the psychiatric model. This CAMH ad is a perfect example of how this literature can both exploit people and actually create stigmas around members of the mental health community.

Mental health literacy is not the only culprit however. Disabled artists have been fighting for several decades to be considered with the same respect as their non-disabled counterparts. Still, the art world continues to fail them. A perfect example is the 2007 Abilities Festival which situated the disability arts as a display of competence — proof that disabled artists are as good as non-disabled ones — while at the same time obscuring the cultural and political origins of the disability arts movement. Audience members we’re completely focused on the fact that these artists were disabled and the true significance of the work was lost. Today, the art world has made strides towards true inclusivity but overall it still misses the mark.

It is my hope that by continuing to create works like I was Free, we can continue to challenge our audiences to look past any preconceived notions and really try to listen. There is still a long way to go and I feel that as an artist within this movement, it is my responsibility to demonstrate the need for reform, the need for action and the need for accountability.

Read More :

Gorman, R. (2007, 2011). Whose disability culture? Why we need an artist-led critical disability arts network. Fuse Magazine, 30(3) pp.15–21. Reprinted in archival issue 34(3) pp.46–51.

Morrigan, C. (2016). Making Space for Complexity. The Arts and Counter-Narratives for Trauma. Knots: An Undergraduate Journal of Disability Studies, 2. Retrieved from:

Reid, J. (2016). Cripping the Arts: It’s About Time. Canadian Art. Retrieved from:

White, K and Pike, R. (2013). Chapter 17: The Making and Marketing of Mental Health Literacy in Canada. In B. A. LeFrançois, R. Menzies, & G. Reaume(Eds.), Mad matters: A critical reader in Canadian mad studies (239–252). Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc.