DSQ > Fall 2008, Volume 28, No.4

The student art presented here (including detailed verbal descriptions) grows out of a disability awareness poster contest held at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York in the spring semester of 2008. Including a reproduction of a poster by student Carmen Caraballo, this brief article provides a description of the project and discusses the ways in which it offered enrichment at many levels. Specifically, by involving students, faculty, and administration in its process, the contest successfully supported an expansive awareness mission in a community which does not outwardly embrace visible disability.

Instructor's Statement

Julia Miele Rodas

The student art presented here grows out of a disability awareness poster contest held at Bronx Community College (BCC) of the City University of New York (CUNY) in the spring semester of 2008. In its creativity, thoughtfulness, and quality of execution, this poster by Carmen Caraballo reflects both the complex thinking and the mature aesthetic that characterized many of the submissions for this highly successful contest. Due to copyright concerns, two other posters could not be published here, but descriptions of all three pieces are provided below.1

The contest was sponsored through a small CUNY grant devoted to promoting disability as a desirable form of diversity. Both the diversity program and the poster contest were directed by the writer of this article. Although the contest was advertised to the entire student population at BCC through a general e-mail broadcast, print posting in key areas on campus, announcements made in some classes, and in public postings made in chalk throughout the campus, all but one entry came from a single introductory graphic design course where the professor elected to make the contest a required assignment. Guided by the artistic and professional expertise of Professor Lisa Amowitz, students were encouraged to interact with the director of the "Disability as Diversity" program as a "client," creating a scenario in which students were expected to meet the needs and consider the cultural and aesthetic sensibility of a "real-life" consumer of commercial art. This approach both appealed to the professor and provided considerable motivation for the students who participated.

Process of Poster Development and Contest Judging

In my role as "client," I had an initial meeting with the class of 20-30 minutes, talking briefly about disability culture and identity and explaining the contest guidelines, which were also handed out in print format (see Appendix A for guidelines; Appendix B for introduction to disability culture and identity). Thereafter, I came into the class for brief weekly meetings, offering more information on disability culture and identity and using student work-in-progress to explain why some representations would be read as positive while others might be considered offensive. Professor Amowitz's outstanding guidance and commitment to the project — inspired in part by the presence of two visibly disabled students in the class — resulted in the submission of 12 student entries from this class.

The judging took place at the university level. This decision was a deliberate effort to widen the circle of influence and exchange produced by the contest. Judges were selected primarily for their knowledge and awareness of disability culture, as that factor had been established as the most significant judging criterion (see contest guidelines provided in Appendix A). The five judges included myself (as program director and contest sponsor); CUNY's University Director of Student Affairs (a sociologist and disability studies scholar); a top administrator from CUNY's nascent Master's Program in Disability Studies; a graduate student in disability studies from another university; and a professor of graphic design from CUNY's New York City Technical College, widely acknowledged for its superior program in commercial art. The range and depth of discussion provoked by the entries from Professor Amowitz's class speak to the genuine merit of all the student posters submitted, and demonstrate how the general inclusion of undergraduates in disability discourse enriches and complicates the work in the field. Although the art was produced by undergraduates, entries inspired some truly compelling dialogue and debate among the judges, most of whom have advanced backgrounds in disability studies. Issues that came under discussion included the role that fitness and athletics play in representing disability; the practical purpose of raising disability awareness; the representation of prosthetic and assistive devices; the co-representation of visibly disabled and apparently nondisabled bodies; and the importance of keying awareness messages to discrete age groups.

Descriptions of the Posters

Caraballo's poster depicts a single bold image of a partially opened wooden shipping crate against a white background. At the foot of the image, in a heavy irregular type, is the statement "Disability is Diversity." The size of the crate is indeterminate, but diagonal strips of reinforcing lumber on each side and across the top suggest a large and heavy container. The side of the box is marked with two stenciled arrows and heavy black type typical of such shipping crates, saying "THIS WAY UP." In similar stenciled black type, the top of the crate is posted with the words "NOT FRAGILE." The crate also appears to be stenciled with two graphic images: On top, there is a universal "wheelchair access" symbol, this one characterized by a stylized arm reaching back toward the wheel, offering a sense of motion, action, and agency; the image on the side shows a stylized human figure walking with what appears to be a long cane stretched out before it. As with the wheelchair icon, this image also gives the viewer a sense of motion and agency, the separation of the figure's legs reflective of its confident mobility and the jaunty angle of the free arm suggesting poise and independence. The irregular typeface used at the bottom is black, set against a pattern of black and brown lines and splotches that are in keeping with the "not fragile" message and the heavy industrial feeling of the box.

Another poster, by Aleicia Cascoe, shows a photograph of two athletic men (prize-winning wheelchair rugby players Andy Barrow and Stuart Russell) on a court engaged in a competitive ball game. Both men are in wheelchairs and both are white; one wears a blue jersey marked with the number ten; the other wears a red jersey marked with a single-digit number that is unreadable. The athlete in the blue jersey is oriented toward the viewer, but his eyes are on a large white ball held aloft in his left hand while his wrapped right hand is poised to hit the ball. He looks focused and determined. The athlete in red is centered in the frame of the poster, behind the man in the blue jersey, his right hand held up, perhaps in an effort to block his opponent's shot. At the top of the poster, framed in red circles are the words "IN THE GAME." Along one of the yellow painted stripes of the playing court are the words "Disability is Diversity."

A third piece, by Carlos Rodriguez, is a brightly colored poster showing an animated female figure, dressed in a blue bodysuit and sitting in a yoga pose. Her golden hair is piled attractively on her head and her face is framed by a number of curls. The face of the figure has long, glamorous eyelashes and wide red lips, looking possibly like a young woman from a fashion or fitness magazine. The woman has five arms and each is engaged in its own task: One hand holds a phone to her ear; another grips a pencil; a third holds an open book; the thumb and forefinger of the fourth hand pinch an indistinguishable object; the fifth hand holds a red heart shape at her abdomen, facing the viewer. Speech balloons at the top corners of the poster read "A.D.H.D. Yoga?" and "Sign me up!!" The message at the foot of the poster is "Disability is Diversity."


Two prizes of $50 each were presented to contest winners Carlos Rodriguez and Aleicia Cascoe, whose posters were printed, distributed, and posted on campus. The winning posters were also distributed in a campus-wide e-mail broadcast and featured in an article in BCC's student newspaper, The Communicator. Caraballo's "Not Fragile" and an "I Vote" poster (not described here), were singled out for special consideration by the judges. The latter of these, by student Devardo Richards, was identified by the student affairs officer involved as being ideal for CUNY's annual voter drive, and the University Office of Student Affairs is currently negotiating with Richards to use his poster in the CUNY-wide get-out-the-vote campaign. Although Richards's representation was considered to be too subtle for the purposes of a disability awareness poster, the judge from student affairs was enthusiastic about the way the multiple missions of his office came together with this piece: He is excited at the prospect of using an inclusive message, created by a student, to stimulate interest in student voting. The judges felt that Caraballo's "Not Fragile" poster was unclear in its initial form, but that its underlying message demonstrated a remarkably mature disability consciousness; Caraballo was urged to revise her work, based on relayed advice from the committee of judges, to produce the stronger and more direct version of the poster that appears here.

This project offered an opportunity for enrichment at many levels. By bringing as many people as possible into the process, the contest supported an expansive awareness mission. The broadcasting and advertising of the contest brought many faculty into contact for the first time with the idea of a disability identity and disability culture, and brought the contest director into the slowly unfolding private narratives of disability that populate the BCC community, one which does not outwardly embrace visible disability. Within Professor Amowitz's class, many of the students experienced a shift in consciousness surrounding disability from the inside out; presenting the project as a consumer-driven activity and the fact that the students were required to produce disability-related work fostered an environment that obliged us all to engage in real dialogue about representing disability. The professor, too, who initially sought to create a more inclusive experience for her visibly disabled students, began to expand her own ideas of disability, coming to question the definition and boundaries of disabled identity. Finally, the process of judging served multiple purposes. It helped to generate greater visibility both for BCC and for issues of disability culture and identity within the larger university. But at the same time, this work by undergraduates also generated meaningful discussion and debate among the judges, most of whom are senior-level disability scholars, raising awareness at an unexpected level and in an unintended venue.


Carmen Caraballo

image of the poster; white background; at the top is a photo of a wooden cargo crate, marked with icons of a person in a wheelchair and a person walking with a cane and labeled 'this way up' and 'not fragile'; its lid is loosened but not removed; the bottom of the poster reads 'disability is diversity' in a jagged polyglot font


Julia Miele Rodas is an Assistant Professor of English at the City University of New York (CUNY). She teaches writing at CUNY's Bronx Community College and presents and writes frequently on the subject of disability. Her work has appeared in Victorian Literature & Culture, Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, Dickens Studies Annual, the Victorian Review, the Explicator, and other venues. Dr. Rodas also serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies and the Encyclopedia of American Disability History. She is currently working on a book about the Brontës and autism.

Carmen Caraballo is currently completing her Associates degree in Graphic Design at CUNY's Bronx Community College (BCC). She is a long-standing and outspoken advocate for accessibility and disability rights, especially for college students, and is lobbying to form a student club at BCC to address disability issues on campus.


(This flyer was distributed by campus-wide e-mail, was posted prominently in high-traffic areas of the campus, was presented to the faculty in meetings of the English Department and the Art & Music Department, and was distributed by the contest sponsor in her own classes and in those of one colleague teaching graphic design.)

Contest rules

  • The contest.
    Students at Bronx Community College are invited to submit posters or poster ideas that help to raise disability awareness. Entries should use the words "disability" and "diversity" in a way that illustrates a bond between these ideas. Collaborative efforts are welcome.
  • Entries should also:
    Celebrate disability as an identity and a culture. (For more information, see the next page.); Depict disability in a positive light; Promote inclusion; Advocate for accessibility.
  • Medium
    Conventional posters/flat art: Entries may be printed digital art or traditional art (e.g., paper, paint, ink, collage). The entry may be of any dimensions as long as it can be effectively displayed or distributed without printing, reproduction, or manufacturing costs that exceed $100. Flat art entries should include a digital PDF file and an 8.5 X 11 printout. While flat art is acceptable, any feature that increases the accessibility of the poster — the inclusion of extra-visual components like sound or tactile elements — will be looked upon favorably by the judges.
  • Other media (including performance)
    The use of other media is welcome, especially if the proposed format will make the poster accessible to a greater variety of people. Students may wish to consider a "conceptual poster," using multimedia, street art, performance, fabric, or some other format to bring the awareness message to the widest possible audience. If the entry is a concept that can only be presented live, the competitor may use written narrative, mock-ups, prototypes, or story boards to present his or her idea to the judges, but the submission must be presented in a form that can be carried and judged without the presence of the student.
    for submissions is Monday, April 7 at 4pm. If the entry is ready before the deadline, contact julia.rodas@bcc.cuny.edu for delivery options. Entries delivered on the afternoon of the deadline may be brought to Colston 626. All entries must be clearly marked with the student's name(s) and contact information.
  • Judging.
    Entries will be judged based on two key factors: The impact the judges believe the poster will have for spreading awareness of disability as diversity; and the skill and quality reflected in the execution.
  • Prize(s).
    The judges expect to award two prizes of $50, but reserve the right to award up to four prizes of $25 or a single prize of $100 depending on the number and quality of the entries. Prizes will be announced no later than April 14.


(The following crash course in disability identity, politics, culture was included on the reverse side of the contest rules.)

Disability Culture & Disability Identity

When considering minority groups, mainstream culture often thinks in negative terms, stressing those aspects of difference that seem problematic or focusing on "issues" that need to be resolved. For this reason, public attention is often given to "problems" rather than positive contributions. Because each of us identifies in some way as a minority, we are all familiar with this experience, the feeling that an outsider doesn't "get" us, or the frustration of being thought of as "them" or "those people." The same is true for people with disabilities.

In fact, people with disabilities are a regular part of culture and history and make a tremendous contribution to our society. The American presidents John F. Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt had physical disabilities as did internationally renowned artists Henri Matisse and Frida Kahlo. The German composer Ludwig van Beethoven was deaf and Itzhak Perlman, a polio survivor, is widely recognized as the world's foremost contemporary violinist. The list of people with disabilities who are or have also been great artists, intellectuals, politicians, and humanitarians is enormous. These people are not identified by as being problematic or defective, but are justly celebrated for their contributions.

Increasingly, people with disabilities are recognizing that disability is an essential part of identity. While it may sometimes be inconvenient, a disability is not always a loss or a deficit, it can and should be valued as a part of our individuality, a feature that makes our perspective unique, a part of the individual experience we can share with others to help create a richer and more complex sense of what it means to be human.

With this idea, the use of disability in art, literature, and politics has flourished in recent years and in addition to individuals — like comedians Greg Walloch, Geri Jewell, and Josh Blue — many groups have come together to give more focused attention to the place of disability in culture and society. These include theater groups and dance companies, artists' collaboratives and programs of academic study, political think tanks and disability advocacy organizations. All agree that disability can offer a valuable perspective, one that stands to enrich the lives of everyone, including the nondisabled.

People with disabilities are the single largest minority group in the United States, making up an estimated 20% of the population. The size of this group may come as a surprise, in part because many disabilities are not visible and because most people with disabilities interact in the greater world without any evident accommodation or support.

A few websites for further research — there's a LOT more out there!


  1. For those considering the implementation of a similar contest or program, it may be worthwhile to consider some of the challenges we experienced as the contest progressed. One item of special concern was our failure to help students plan adequately for integrating and crediting their sources. In an effort to support the creative process in this introductory art course, students were offered great freedom and flexibility in their use of underlying images and graphics. While enabling students to generate ideas and compositions that helped to develop their growth as artists, this approach also meant that some submissions included components from undocumented source material. In the future, contest leaders will need to weigh more carefully the tension between freedom and openness in the classroom and protection of intellectual property.
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