Home > Images of Disability > Data Visualizations > Introduction



The main sources of data came from two different online archives: the UN Photo Library and WHO Photo Library. The data focused exclusively on the archives’ digitized photographs on disability ranging from 1945 to the present. The photo libraries have basic data on where archived photographs were taken, the names of photographers, and dates photographs were taken. Each photograph also includes a caption describing the photograph, with a wealth of language and terminology worth analyzing.

Credit: UN Photo/Sally Dimartini. Caption provided by UN: A blind boy (right) learning to record his voice on cassette tape with the help of a friend in New York City. [1979]01 January 1979New York, United StatesPhoto # 313793Permalink to UN Photo Library: https://www.unmultimedia.org/s/photo/detail/313/0313793.html
Depicting disabled children and social inclusion.
Photo presented as part of the 1981 International Year of Disabled Persons.
Permalink to UN Photo Library »
Throughout its 70+-year history, the UN has used different terminology to describe “the disabled,” each falling in and out of use based on changing sensibilities. 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,” terms and language long discarded as demeaning. The term “handicap” complements disability as descriptors for images. It’s not absolutely certain where these 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 Even so, the outdated terms persist in an archive that must have been transcribed or written anew for a website dating back only to 2008.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for digitized photographs are sometimes edited when published online to account for overly “poetic” descriptions, outdated language, and “politically incorrect” terminology, and tense changes for facts and figures.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. According to Reynald Erard at the WHO Library in Geneva, this is WHO archive policy. Given the rich cultural context reflected by different uses of terminology, the data underlying these visualizations include searches for each term, record instances/prevalence of each term, and account for overlapping search results in the dataset.

The goal of the digital project is to see how this data can further showcase the narrative of disability as presented and created by the United Nations. The visualizations in this section reflect data collected from the UN Photo Library on disability. The next step of this project will be to cross-reference the resulting dataset from the UN and WHO online archives with the UN/WHO’s PDF and Excel-based list of photographers, visual media fonds, and archival materials, obtained during my visit to Geneva.