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Frida Kahlo black and white headshot

Frida Kahlo, Role Model for Artists, People with Disabilities and Bisexual Women

Honoring Women with Disabilities During Women’s History Month

Frida Kahlo black and white headshot

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo, a Mexican woman who had multiple disabilities including polio as a child and spinal and pelvis damage from a car accident, became a world-renowned self-portrait painter. She has since served as a role model for generations of artists, people with disabilities and bisexual women.

At the age of six, Kahlo was bedridden with polio. The polio virus caused damage to her right leg and foot. She was left with a limp. Her father thought that playing soccer, wrestling and swimming would help her recover.

As a teenager, she was in a car accident. A steel handrail was impaled into her hip and came out the other side. Her spine and pelvis were damaged significantly. While in recovery, she began to paint.

Showcasing Disability Through Her Art

self-portrait showing metal hardware and a broken spine

The Broken Column

Some examples of her art that portray her disability includeThe Broken Column (1944). In this painting, she depicts herself standing on the beach. The beach is in the background while her body is shown in the foreground of the painting. Her body is open down the middle showing a rod and restrictive medical corsets, which she had to wear for most of her life. There are nails embedded into her skin – throughout her body.

In the Tree of Hope, Keep Firm,she painted two versions of herself. In the background, on the left side, is the sun; on the right side, is the moon. The ground on both sides is broken with deep crevices going across the canvas. Kahlo painted the back of her body with an open gash going down her back and across her hip. The left side of the painting shows her dressed in a red gown holding her restrictive medical corsets. She also is holding a sign that says, “Tree of hope stands firm.”

split self-portrait

Tree of Hope, Keep Firm

Throughout her life, Kahlo came face-to-face with her disabilities and turned them into art. She has many paintings depicting her disabilities. She never let her disability prevent her from pursuing her passion. As Kahlo said, “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.”

Just 34.6 Percent of Working-Age Women with Disabilities Are Employed

More than 20.9 million women live with a disability in the U.S., including more than 10.2 million of which are working-age (18-64).

Fully one-in-five Americans have a disability and studies show that most of them want to work. Yet 70 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities are outside of the workforce. Only 34.6 percent of working-age women with disabilities (3.5 million) are employed in the U.S. compared to 82.5 percent of working-age women without disabilities. This is in line with the rest of the country, with fully one-in-four American adults having a disability just 37 percent of those who are working-age being employed, despite polls showing that most of them want to work. This leads to approximately 22.6 percent of women with disabilities living in poverty compared to 14.7 percent of women without disabilities.

There are more than 5,193,522 Latinx/Hispanics living with a disability in the U.S. Out of more than 2,887,953 working-age Latinx/Hispanics with disabilities, barely 1,114,614 have jobs. Just 38.6 percent of Latinx/Hispanic Americans with disabilities ages 18-64 living in the community have a job, compared to 79.1 percent of Latinx/Hispanics without disabilities. Kahlo is proof that this does not have to be the norm.

Role Model to Bisexual Women

Kahlo was married to artist Diego Rivera; each of them had lovers as well. Kahlo had affairs with both men and women, including movie stars Dolores del Rio, Paulette Goddard and Maria Felix, among others. Her painting Two Nudes in a Forest clearly shows her attraction and love of women. One of her affairs was said to be with American painter Georgia O’Keeffe.

The LGBTQ community and the disability community intersect in many ways. Among lesbian, gay and bisexual adults, 30 percent of men and 36 percent of women have a disability.

Leading the Way

Our nation’s economy is strongest when it is inclusive of the value that diverse talent brings to the workplace. Harriet Tubman had epilepsy, performer Selena Gomez lives with lupus, business leader and Shark Tank superstar Barbara Corcoran is dyslexic and gymnast Simone Biles has ADHD. Each of them, like Kahlo, is a positive role model for success.

Studies show many people within the Latino and other communities hide their disability due to negative stigmas, but Kahlo illustrated hers in her art. It is because of this, that she is the perfect candidate for RespectAbility’s #RespectTheAbility campaign, which is highlighting individuals with disabilities who are extremely successful in their chosen career. The global economy is strongest when it is inclusive of the value that diverse talent brings to the workplace. People like Kahlo have made a difference – for people with disabilities, Latinx, women and those who identify as LGBTQ.

All throughout Women’s History Month, we will post pieces about female role models with disabilities. Read more today:

Research assistance from RespectAbility Fellow Katie Townes. 

Meet the Author

Lauren Appelbaum
Lauren Appelbaum

Lauren Appelbaum is the communications director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities, and managing editor of The RespectAbility Report, a publication at the intersection of disability and politics. Previously she was a digital researcher with the NBC News political unit. As an individual with an acquired invisible disability - Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy - she writes about the intersection of disability, employment, Hollywood and politics. Appelbaum currently oversees RespectAbility’s outreach to Hollywood to promote positive, accurate, diverse and inclusive media portrayals on TV and in film. To reach her, email LaurenA@RespectAbility.org.

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