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The UN’s public online archive of photos on disability and its accompanying captions make clear their origins from a linguistic world of the past. Captions frequently describe subjects as “mentally retarded” and “crippled.” These are terms and language long discarded as demeaning. It’s not absolutely certain where the captions come from - whether they were transcribed onto the digital platform from original analog records. Even so, the outdated terms persist in an archive that must have been transcribed or written anew for a website dating back only to 2008. No readily available note accompanies the caption to denote whether the original language was kept to preserve historical context. My conversation with the World Health Organization Library in Geneva seems to suggest though that there is an informal policy in place to remove and edit language when transcribing original captions – at least at some of the UN’s specialized agencies. Historical captions for digitized photographs are sometimes edited when published online to account for overly “poetic” descriptions, outdated language and “politically incorrect” terminology, and tense changes for facts and figures. Edits include deleting what is deemed superfluous language.

These photos also demonstrate a tendency of world organizations to keep the subjects of the photos unnamed. Captions often read “a mother” or “a disabled child,” without an indication of an individual identity. Is this to convey a sense of universality in the global issues depicted? Or are these people meant to simply be collective manifestations of an abstract global problem – poster children for a cause?

The following two images were taken by UN photographers in preparation for the 1981 International Year of Disabled Persons. Photographs from this time period are characterized by a depiction of children and others in various different settings. Under the IYDP’s theme of “full participation” for all, there is a greater effort to showcase the disabled living “ordinary lives”, from weaving to reading and playing sports. However, disability is still often depicted within the medical, health, and clinical setting - the context of these photos is always about fixing something wrong. An entire series of photographs depicts “the disabled” lying in bed as a caretaker oversees them.

Pictures of “disability” also do not necessarily depict the disabled community. There are also pictures of preventative measures, from prenatal care to polio vaccinations, in which disability represents an abstract concept like stunting or malnutrition rather than a group with an identity.