Before getting sick, I didn’t think much about disability. I assumed that all disabled people are easy to spot. I also thought they didn’t want attention; they have been disabled all their lives (this is very embarrassing. Keep reading).
Oh, the embarrassment of seeing a seizure for the first time and just standing there helpless and confused. Also: yes, the irony of me getting a seizure disorder later on, that hasn’t escaped me.
I got sick. At first, I was angry because I thought I was too smart to get sick in the head. Depression, anxiety, and psychotic episodes all within 5 years into my twenties.
Even then, years later, I started understanding the complexities of disability and its representations in media and literature. I realized that not every disabled person knows what they need. And, even if they do, there’s a tremendous pressure to act “normal.”
For whatever reason, the media reduces people to simple “visible” disabilities. “Oh, look, he needs a wheelchair. He’s got a ramp. Problem solved!” There is zero representation of people with disabilities as central characters. One enraging example is Quinn in Glee, who was paralyzed momentarily for texting and driving. It’s like disability is the worst thing that could happen to a person.
Another example is in Me Before You, where Will wants to kill himself for being disabled. I just want to see movies about disabled people living and functioning on their own terms.
Flaws in the Representation
There are so many flaws in how the media approaches us as a group of people. For instance, why are we presented as these wholesome characters? Or, by the same token, we are vilified? Disability doesn’t make you inherently evil or wholesome. There’re shades of grey here, not just black or white.
It’s not a cause for personal development. We have other things in our lives besides our disabilities. There are disabled athletes, parents, speakers, entrepreneurs.
This reminds me of another point: not everyone has an accident that makes them disabled. It’s not a punishment from God for sinning or something. Sometimes, your body does weird things. It’s sometime genetics or circumstance.
Also: can we not assume that disabled people are infants? This goes back to the wholesome image idea. There are lots of high-functioning disabled people who can handle taking care of their own for the most part. Some disabled people can’t do that, but this doesn’t disqualify them as adults or humans overall. People act a certain way because there’s a logical explanation. I truly believe that. Don’t dismiss it as “craziness.”
Overall, we need more complexity in how disability is represented. Disabled folks aren’t disabled bodies only. Moreover, being disabled doesn’t make someone any less interesting or worthy of success, respect, or representation.
Why Representation Matters
Look, it matters. When I got sick initially, I thought I was going to get sent to a psych ward forever because that’s all the media had taught me. I thought of the mad woman in Jane Eyre. I thought of Lenny in Of Mice and Men. I thought of how much I’d stand out and how everyone would be ashamed of me for the rest of my life. I thought of how I could be like David Foster Wallace, Virginia Woolf, Ned Vizzini, who couldn’t live a long happy life because of their mental illnesses.
In other words, I grew up thinking that I’d have to die, because I wasn’t “normal.” Normal people get regular jobs, move out, get married, have children.
I thought of how there’d be no story to tell about me, no legacy, because no one writes stories, good, exciting, and worthwhile stories about anyone with a disability. If/when they do, it’s all about their disability, and how they “conquer” it.
The truth is, you don’t need to defeat the disability. That’s like fighting your own skin and trying to get new skin instead. No, man, no. Don’t do that. And don’t expect anyone to change themselves, fake their life to fit into a box of able-ism.