Q: I read your blog post about drawing at a camp for mentally disabled people. I was wondering how do you handle drawing people with obvious physical and mental handicaps? Some subjects, like those with Downs syndrome or Multiple Sclerosis have very obvious physical traits. Do you ignore them? Gloss over them? Exaggerate them? What about people with disfigurements from accidents or such? How do you handle that?
A: Great question. It’s natural to be concerned about how to treat such matters when doing live caricatures. The artist is concerned about the sensitivity of the subject, what they are thinking (or their parents) and how they will react. Do you draw what you see? Back off on the things that signify the subject’s disability or disfigurement? Ignore it completely?
It’s been my experience that those people with disabilities or disfigurements get more offended if you ignore those traits than if you draw them. They take it as an insult that you might think that part of them is so ‘wrong’ that they’d rather you drew them ‘normal’. Most of these folks understand that their special circumstances are a part of who they are. They want their drawing to reflect them as they are, not as society wants them to be. They are often much more comfortable with themselves than many so-called normal people are about their self image.
That said, I don’t go out of my way to exaggerate the disability. I draw them as they look, no mistake, but I don’t make the disability the focus of the drawing. I’ll try and go with an expression for a focus, and exaggerate the features as I would any other face. In the case of someone in a wheelchair or missing limbs, I won’t draw them doing something they couldn’t do… I prefer to reinforce the positive of what they are able to accomplish. Often in these cases I ask they to give me something to add as a theme or environment… what they like to do or something that is their favorite thing. It’s a simple matter to incorporate that, and it takes the focus away from anything negative. Still, if a kid in a wheelchair wants to be a Jedi, I won’t draw him running around. I’ll put him in a wheelchair with X-Wings on it, and a Jedi outfit with the light saber, etc. I ordinarily charge extra for something like that, but not in these cases. In the case of a bad scar, burns or some other purely physical disfigurement, I’ll indicate it without exaggerating it. I never make it the focus or make a gag out of it unless they are joking about it themselves. I only ignore it if they specifically ask me to.
The one thing that might be a problem with this approach are parents. Some parents have a hard time coming to grips with their kid’s uniqueness, and sometimes they might get upset that any suggestion of that difference is shown. Generally you get a whispered warning ahead of time in that case, asking you to ignore whatever they feel is wrong with their child. Funny, their reason is always to spare the kid’s feelings, but most of the time it’s their problem, not the kid’s. I really hate to hear that kind of thing… but I always honor the wishes of the customer of course.
Don’t be afraid to draw disabled people. They laugh and enjoy it as much as the next person does. They sat down for a reason, and they generally dislike being treated differently.
Thanks to H.M. for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!
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