Alison Lapper - the art of independence

„My life in my hands“– is the title of Alison Lapper’s autobiography. This ambiguous motto was however really not so easy for Alison to realise, as she was born without arms and shortened legs.

In 1965 somewhere in Staffordshire, England a little girl was born. Small also because as infant she was diagnosed with a rare condition called phocomelia. This meant that this little girl had no arms and only shortened legs. The baby was named Alison.

At that time it was still normal for disabled infants to be sent directly off to a “special” home. Alison’s parents had great difficulty accepting a disabled child, which is why she had no contact with them for many years. Life was difficult in the home for the little girl, because the children in the home lacked love, security and support. Even later when Alison lived with her family the relationship with her mother was never really normal.

Hindering prosthetics

Alison also had difficulty with her prosthesis. This was due to the fact that these mobility aids were far less technically advanced than they are nowadays. The device was too difficult to operate and the functionality was far too imprecise. For Alison the artificial limbs were more of a hindrance than anything else. In her eyes the prosthetics were only used as an attempt to make the appearance of the disabled people look less disturbing. This is why Alison stopped using these assistive devices.

A step towards independence

At 17 Alison moved into her own appartment in London which was equipped to suit her requirements. She had enough of care homes and the many restrictive regulations there. In order to really live a self determined life Alison had a car specially adapted and obtained a driving license. This gave her the opportunity to live her life without outside influence.

Venus de Milo

Even in her childhood days Alison was interested in painting. As a youth she won an art competition, which attracted to her the attention of the Association of Mouth – and Foot Painters. Through the association it was now possible for Alison to earn a fixed income from selling her paintings. Alison was also very interested in more modern abstracter art forms and modern techniques like photography and computer graphics. She attended various minor art courses, until she eventually registered for a degree in Art at the University of Brighton. During her time at university she discovered a picture of the Venus de Milo, the antique marble statue of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, which had both arms missing. Suddenly Alison saw herself in the statue and realised that people with disabilities could also be beautiful. From that moment on her body became an important and integral element in her work. Many of her photos are aesthetic self-portraits which thematise her disability.

Overcoming resistance

The year 1999 brought a completely new direction to Alison’s life: She became pregnant. It was clear for her that she would carry the child to term, even though many people in her environment including her partner were against it. She was supported in her decision by her doctor and the gynaecologist. The later also explained to her that the probability of her child being born with deformities was only about 5 per cent, which they also agreed was optimistic. So she decided to have the baby against the wishes of her partner. She gave birth by caesarean section to a healthy baby boy who became the name Parys.  

A mother with all her heart

Even if her task as a mother was not an easy one, Alison was always there whole heartedly for her son. The most difficult job was to find a child minder. As not only had she to see to Parys when mum was away but sometimes Alison also need a helping hand here and there when she was looking after her son. Even if Alison could not physically show him where the buck stopped, he accepted her as the authority in the household.  Their connection to one another became very strong; even though Alison feared that later it could be difficult for the young boy when interacting with other young boys. She remained optimistic and was convinced that a mother with a disability was no insurmountable obstacle.

Royal honour

In 2003 Alison Lapper at the request of Queen Elizabeth II was awarded “Member of the Order of the British Empire”. She received this accolade for her artistic creations. This event made Alison for the first time really aware of one fact: A better integration of people with disabilities in society is only possible when the difficulties of living with a disability are really appreciated. This is why people with a disability should speak often and openly about their handicap. Alison wanted to help in this cause by making her own contribution. In the same year Alison’s autobiography was released to the bookshops. 

Integration in Marble

Alison Lapper created quite a stir in September 2005 – however not as an artist, but rather as a model. For 18 months stood a marble sculpture of Alison on the fourth column of Trafalgar Square in London. The special thing about this piece of art from Marc Quinn was that it portrayed Alison naked and heavily pregnant. The sculpture was the cause of fierce debate. On one side it was seen as an important contribution to integration, as an honour to women, mothers and disabled people. On the other side the artistic value of the statue was challenged. The true meaning of the statue was as a monument for integration in society.

Author: hia - 08/2008- MyH
Translation: PmcC