The exhibition “Prohibition of Handicap”: challenging public perceptions of disability in 1970s Sweden

By Anna Derksen

In the early 1970s an unconventional exhibition traveled Sweden: By inviting visitors to experience disability from the perspective of a wheelchair user, Prohibition of Handicap tested the boundaries between the individual limitations of a disability versus those created by society. The exhibition was a cooperation between the public exhibition agency Riksutställningar and students of interior design at Konstfack, the School of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm. With a thought-provoking title and a crossed-out wheelchair as its symbol, Prohibition of Handicap was shown between 1971 and 1973 in 23 different locations all over the country and confronted about 75.000 visitors with the radical message that disability was not the result of an individual deficit, but an inaccessible social environment full of barriers, ignorance and prejudices. However, not everyone thought a state-funded exhibition to be the right place for such messages, or even saw it as it a “single-minded and one-sided political propaganda campaign.”

How could an exhibition about disability spark a debate on propaganda? In this post I will look at how Prohibition of Handicap, and the discussions it created, influenced perceptions and notions about disability in Swedish society.

Poster and image from the exhibition Prohibition of Handicap. The text on the right reads: "People are different. Both in the body (physical) and the soul (psychical)."
Poster and image from the exhibition Prohibition of Handicap. The text on the right reads: "People are different. Both in the body (physical) and the soul (psychical)."

The main reason why Prohibition of Handicap caused such strong reactions was that the curators made use of the more critical ideas within the Swedish disability rights movement. Already in the 1960s disability in Sweden came to be seen more and more as a societal issue, caused by a mismatch between the individual and the social environment. The debate had been triggered by disability activist and wheelchair user Vilhelm Ekensteen and the group Anti-Handikapp with the book In the Backyard of the People’s Home (På folkhemmets bakgård, 1968) that critically analyzed the living situations of persons with physical and intellectual disabilities in the Swedish welfare state. Recognition of political responsibility, removal of social barriers and a change of common perceptions became the activists’ central demands.

With Prohibition of Handicap, this redefinition of disability was lifted out of its theoretical foundations and placed squarely in the center of societal debate. The title and poster were just the start. Even more direct were the texts displayed in the exhibtion rooms, adding social isolation, poverty, age or unemployment to the list of causes (and effects) of disability. That the message resonated with the public reflects in an article in Västerbottens-Kuriren after the exhibition was reopened in 1976: "Prohibition of handicap, someone wonders. That's impossible. Well, said Gunnar Olofsson in his welcoming address. By adapting society and the environment to the benefit and needs of all people, it is possible. We want to remove barriers that create disabilities." (1 April 1977).

Drawing from Riksutställningar’s exhibition How to make a rotten exhibition, in: Westerlund, Knuthammar (1981), p. 177.
Drawing from Riksutställningar’s exhibition How to make a rotten exhibition, in: Westerlund, Knuthammar (1981), p. 177.

Experiencing disability
How can a traveling exhibition engage the local public? This was a recurring question for Riksutställningar. Although media differed in their opinions on the critical understanding of disability, they agreed that Prohibition of Handicap offered a stimulating, for its time even trailblazing visiting experience. To enter the exhibition, visitors were placed in a wheelchair and navigated their way through different rooms: a sitting room, a street with impeding curbs, a job center and a grocery store. Critical texts, interviews and video clips gave further information about how persons with disabilities lived, their dreams and hopes, and what kinds of problems they encountered in society.

However, evaluations of the exhibition show that this 'disabling' of the visitors led to mixed results, and that the difficulty of using a wheelchair in the confined space of the exhibition also had its setbacks. Most importantly, the focus on mobility pushed back more subtle messages of social and economic exclusion. Point of departure was still the disabled, ‘wheelchair-bound’, individual, as a report on study visits to the exhibition testifies:
"The participants were completely focused on getting around with the wheelchairs and did not stay so long in the different rooms to read the many texts. Not even the TV with its moving pictures could stop many in their tracks." (SOU 1974:43).

Visitors moved through the exhibition in wheelchairs and could try out an accessible kitchen with movable and height-adjustable components.
Visitors moved through the exhibition in wheelchairs and could try out an accessible kitchen with movable and height-adjustable components.


Politicizing disability
That a state agency like Riksutställningar decided to endorse a critical conceptualization of disability, one that also laid bare the state’s own failures and omissions in creating a welfare society for all, is in itself quite remarkable. But even before Prohibition of Handicap was officially opened in 1971, Riksutställningar made a sudden announcement: "We had to make the sad and unpopular decision not to continue the production of the exhibition. We had hoped to give people an exhibition where there was the opportunity to interpret the problem in different ways. WE have not requested any opinions. WE have commissioned an 'informative' factual inquiry into the physical situation of the disabled." (Lennart Holm, Dagens Nyheter, 2 July 1971).

How political should a state-funded exhibition be? Where to draw the line between education and propaganda? These questions eventually entered more general debates on the aims and limitations of cultural policy in the Swedish parliament. "The most serious objection was that the preliminary exhibition material with its clear ideological reference tried to put an ideological hallmark even on the efforts to increase accessibility in society for the disabled. The management of Riksutställningar could under no circumstances accept such a turn of the purpose and message of the exhibition." (debate in the Swedish parliament, spring 1972).

Outraged media discussions and pressure from disability organizations to revoke this ‘censorship’, as they called it, eventually caused Riksutställningar to back down and open the exhibition in late 1971 after some of the more controversial texts were revised. Prohibition of Handicap then traveled Sweden for about two years, sparking lively debates about disability in its wake. But the incident also had significance for the relationship between the disability rights movement and public authorities, as the latter were urged to recognize persons with disabilities as a group with serious political demands.

Left: Still from the YouTube film Riksutställningar 1965-2017, "Why do I have to be isolated?"  Right: Image from the exhibition, “The high rents furthermore force many people to live in old, rundown, unhygienic homes. They also become socially handicapped."
Left: Still from the YouTube filmRiksutställningar 1965-2017, "Why do I have to be isolated?" | Right: Image from the exhibition, The high rents furthermore force many people to live in old, rundown, unhygienic homes. They also become socially handicapped."


Reveal, challenge – and change?
Prohibition of Handicap had been a political forum from the start. That a state agency like Riksutställningar decided to broadcast a critical view on disability in a public exhibition anno 1971 is noteworthy, both regarding the topic and the early date. But its influences on public opinion were mixed. The social causes of disability were a powerful message that contrasted with prevailing images of persons with disabilities as pitiful, causing a rethinking of disability also outside the small group of activists like Anti-Handikapp. However, it quickly became overshadowed by the political debate on propaganda and censorship, and the ‘wheelchair experience’ caused the focus to remain on accessibility. In Lund, some older houses were made wheelchair-accessible. In Kalmar, participants of a study circle remonstrated in front of the post office after trying and failing to enter it in wheelchairs, and sent a protest note with a sketch for reconstruction. Finally, the exhibition brought different fractions of the disability rights movement together. Its reopening in 1976 happened on demand of the disability organizations:
"Bring along your family, friends and acquaintances to the exhibition when it comes to your area! Prohibition of Handicap is an important exhibition, and a united disability movement stands behind it." (Svensk handikapptidskrift 4, 1976)

Sources and further readings:
All photo credits belong to Riksutställningar and the respective photographers.
  • Broms, Helene; Göransson, Anders: Kultur i rörelse. En historia om Riksutställningar och kulturpolitiken. Stockholm: Atlas 2012
  • From travelling exhibitions to an information centre, in: UNESCO: Museum, XXXVIII, 4 (1986), temporary exhibitions, 205-206.
  • Riksutställningar: Omtänkt. Ett magasin från riksutställningar om tillgänglighet i museivärlden, 2017.
  • SOU 1974:43: Utställningar. Betänkande av 1965 års musei- och utställningssakkunniga.
  • Swedish National Archives: Riksutställningar/Projektarkivet/Projekt nummer 1 073/F1A
  • Swedish National Archives: Handikappförbundens Centralkommitté, SE/RA/730108/F /F 6/F 6e/7.
  • Westerlund, Stella; Knuthammar, Thomas: Handicaps prohibited. Travelling exhibitions in Sweden, in: UNESCO: Museum, XXXIII, 3 (1981),Museums and disabled persons, 176-179.

_______________________________
Recommended citation:
Anna Derksen (2019): The exhibition “Prohibition of Handicap”: challenging public perceptions of disability in 1970s Sweden. In: Public Disability History 4 (2019) 9.