Sunday Mailbag

September 2nd, 2007 | Posted in Mailbag

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!


  1. Mike Giblin says:

    I whole-heartedly agree with those comments Tom, I get asked this one a lot when I’m out & about. Everyone has things about their appearance which are unique to them, and I personally don’t feel I have any right to start ‘correcting’ folk based on what I think they might be sensitive about.

    As you’ve pointed out, sometimes tact & discretion is necessary, but unless instructed otherwise I feel it’s not my place to ignore or ‘play down’ characteristics which make a person unique.

  2. craig says:

    One of the best questions and answers ever!

  3. quikdraw4 says:

    Here in Boston THE MOST BEAUTIFUL site recently happened before a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. Little Jordan Leandry who was being treated for cancer as a small child would be wheeled out prior to the game with leg braces to sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”. This cute kid made everyone cry because he was so special. For years he sang,for years we cried with hope.
    A few weeks ago at a Jimmy Fund tribute prior to the game-Jordan Leandry
    still a child walked out on the field smiling in front of a packed house.
    He wasnot wearing his leg braces and he ran around the bases grinning like the happiest kid in the world! Players and fans -lost it. Tears of happiness flowed like waterfalls.
    My point?
    Imagine drawing this kid with leg braces in a wheelchair?
    No thanks. I prefer to draw the dream,the hope,the fantasy,the goal that can become reality these unique people have in their precious minds.
    As a caricaturist I have that power that says: Hey someday-somehow you will do this!

  4. Tom says:

    I prefer the realistic approach: You are who you are, and be proud of it. If a miracle happens, great… but you don’t need a miracle to be a happy person.

    I would have no hesitation to have drawn Jordan in leg braces if he had them at the time, unless I was told he’d be getting out of them soon. That’s who he was at the moment he was drawn. Should be be unhappy about that?


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

Workshops Ad

Dracula ad

Doctor Who Ad

Superman Ad

%d bloggers like this: