This week, I resume my weekly posting in this blogging challenge. The challenge, created by blogger Rose B. Fischer, consists of fifty-two questions. To read my prior posts in this challenge, visit the Redefining Disability Challenge page on my blog. This is my response to the forty-second question in the Challenge. As usual, I am not looking ahead to future questions, so I may inadvertently address some topics which will come up later in the Challenge. Here is this week’s question:
Why do you think media representation for people with disabilities is important?
I think accurate media representation of people of all abilities is important. Disability does not exist in a binary of “nondisabled” and “disabled” extremes. I view it as a continuum. People can find themselves at different points of the continuum throughout their lives. If you live long enough, you will travel on the continuum. Shouldn’t we see this continuum reflected in the media as a fact of life? To me, it makes sense this should be the case.
Movies, television shows, podcasts, blogs, and novels all have the power to tell compelling stories. Humans are drawn to stories and relate to well-told narratives. One way to lessen stigmas surrounding disability is to use media to tell accurate and honest disability stories.
When you go to the movies, do you see yourself on the screen? I rarely see a character like me. When you watch television, do you see characters who live a life like yours? I don’t watch much television, but when I do I don’t see characters living like me. When you search for a book, is it easy to find novels or stories which feature characters you relate to? I can’t think of a fictional character living a life like mine. I may relate to them, but not because of disability.
How would you feel if the only time you saw a character who looked like you was when the character was a villain? What if the character was only there to be the butt of everyone’s jokes or an object of pity?
Think about the last time you saw a character with a disability in a television show or movie. The chances are, the actor playing that role was not disabled. However, if you are an actor and you want to win an Academy Award, your chances might improve if you play a character with a disability in a movie. Dustin Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne, Daniel Day Lewis, Tom Hanks (twice), Jamie Foxx, and Geoffrey Rush are just some examples of men who won after their portrayal of someone sick or disabled.
I share my stories on my blog because they are a way to help others who have not been exposed to disability. But my stories are just my stories. I would never expect my disability experiences to be exactly the same as another wheelchair user, or someone who is blind, or autistic. Although we may share similarities in our narratives, each will have a unique story to share. It is important that we all be permitted to tell our stories in our own voices, rather than having someone else (usually nondisabled) tell it for us.
Unfortunately, media outlets don’t always let people with disabilities tell their own stories. And when they do include disability stories, they do not always use empowering language or portray disability in a positive light. The “wheelchair-bound” headline always makes me scream each time I see it in print. Don’t even get me started on “special needs.” My needs aren’t special. They are basic human needs. As the book says, everyone poops. (Click the link to watch an animated version of the story.)
As a child and teenager, I rarely saw depictions of disability in the media. The few local news stories to feature disability often included me as an example of someone who “didn’t let her disability define her.” Sometimes the stories included a cute photo of me sporting uneven bangs and a gap-toothed smile, with my leg braces in view. Occasionally I was featured in fundraising photo-ops, television commercials and telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.**
Today, I view these types of stories as a type of inspiration porn. If you aren’t familiar with that word, I encourage you to watch the late Stella Young’s brilliant TED Talk. Oh, go watch her even if you’ve seen it before, because she is just that good and I still mourn the fact that I didn’t get to meet her on my trip to Australia last year.
Inspiration porn – images or stories objectifying disabled people by attempting to inspire and motivate those of you not fortunate enough to be disabled like me – is a form of media representation which needs to stop. I know you have seen those stories because they are regularly in my social media feeds and my local television news.
The photo of the runner wearing prosthetic limbs with the caption, “What’s your excuse?” The unspoken message is that if she can do it – a disabled person who must have it worse than you – your life can’t be all that bad. After all, someone else out there has it worse than you and is still managing so quitcherbitchin.
The senior class president makes a “special proposal” and invites the disabled girl to the prom. Of course, the local television channel is there to capture it all. At least my local station gave the girl in question a chance to talk in this clip. I’m sure the young man is very nice. And I am happy this story actually gave the young woman a chance to speak on camera. But I have to wonder how she felt as the object of the story. Did she think the only way she deserved to be asked to prom was to have the local news media make a hero out of the boy who asked her? How will she feel the next time someone asks her out? Will she suspect it is out of pity instead of someone having a genuine desire to spend time with her? I am not alleging this young woman was asked out of pity, but imagine how you would feel as the object of this story.
I went to the prom, two proms in fact. Both times, I asked my dates to go with me. They agreed with little fanfare. The local newspaper did not make them out as heroes for accompanying me to a dance, thank goodness. Both times, we were just friends who got dressed up for a night and had fun with our other friends. What is so inspirational about that?
The most insidious inspiration porn includes videos or photos of disabled people taken and posted without their consent. Maybe you remember the incident last year when a fast food employee in Kentucky assisted a disabled customer who was unable to independently eat her meal? Another customer captured the moment and shared the video which soon went viral. I wrote about my reaction to one such story in this post. A friend just shared a story which aired on ABC news of ‘a “hero” employee in a Georgia restaurant who helped a handless man eat.’ That’s their copy – I didn’t write that.
When these stories hit the mainstream media, the stories never include an interview with the disabled customer, and rarely disparage the lack of appropriate social supports which might have helped the subject eat in a dignified manner rather than rely on kindness from strangers to meet a basic human need. If society viewed disability rights as civil rights (radical idea, I know), the media would not have difficulty coming up with disability stories. Without much effort, I can think of several. My friend P. who is unable to legally marry his partner A. because he would no longer be eligible for the benefits which pay for his Personal Assistants. Or my friend C. who endured years of domestic partner abuse because she was unable to locate affordable accessible housing and escape her abuser. Or my friend N. who had to live for nine months with the man who was sexually abusing him because nobody believed his allegations. N. has a cognitive disability and people who should have been advocating for him thought he was making up stories.
What can you do to help the media tell better disability stories? Become better media consumers. Read blogs written by disabled people. Watch films made by and featuring actual disabled actors and actresses. Speak out against inspiration porn and for the love of all that is good – STOP SHARING INSPIRATION PORN ON SOCIAL MEDIA!!! Just because we can share or post something, does that mean we should?
If you would like ideas on blogs to read or sites to visit, here are some to start you in your discovery. This list is by no means inclusive, and you should feel free to add your favorites in the comments.
And, just in case you weren’t clear on my position – I guarantee I will NOT be kind to the stranger who takes a video of me in public without my consent and shares it thinking it might inspire others. I am counting on all of you to inform me if you ever see this. Thank you in advance.
**I do not have any negative feelings towards my parents for allowing me to be included in these stories. My parents always asked me if I wanted to be involved, and never made me participate in any media against my will. Their rationale for my involvement as a poster child/goodwill ambassador for the organization was simple. They viewed it as a means to give back to an organization that supported us with financial assistance for medical treatment, durable medical equipment and summer camp. I learned valuable life lessons from my early media opportunities.