The Media and the Imaginary Disabled Person

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I get it, as far as popular culture and the media are concerned disability doesn’t exist. Disability isn’t real, it’s just a metaphor. You know how I know this? The complete lack of actual disabled people in the media. Yet the media doesn’t ignore disability. They make movies about “disability”, they have “disabled” characters in TV shows. All without using actual disabled people. I mean there might be a couple behind the scenes consulting but we rarely if ever get to see them.

I disabled in quotation marks above because those stories are almost never (with some rare and debatable exceptions) accurate. Not only are they not accurate in representation (using actual disabled people), they are wrong in presentation (the stories don’t accurately portray the disabled experience. Disability is far to often reduced to a few recognizable physical identifiers (wheelchairs, white canes, etc.) and stereotypes (the charity case, the supercrip, the embittered cripple and the mad villain, etc.).

Neither the physical presentation or the stories told around them are in any way an accurate presentation of the diverse experience of disability. I mean there are over a billion people on the planet so they probably represent a few people but certainly not all or even close to most.

The biggest problem here is that people don’t understand that they’re being lied to. They don’t understand that disability is more diverse and more nuanced. These stereotypes are perceived to be true.

Just consider the recent pictures of reality TV star Kylie Jenner in Interview Magazine. Two of the images show Jenner in a wheelchair even though she is not disabled. One image (shown above) shows Jenner seated in a golden wheelchair in a corset and high heels. Her face is passive and her hands are on the wheels. One leg is lifted as though she is either about to get up or perhaps fall backward. The second below

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shows Jenner in the same outfit and wheelchair looking for all intents and purposes like a lifeless doll.

The thing that makes this situation so relevant is how Interview Magazine responded to the inevitable backlash saying

“At Interview, we are proud of our tradition of working with great artists and empowering them to realize their distinct and often bold visions. The Kylie Jenner cover by Steven Klein, which references the British artist Allen Jones, is a part of this tradition, placing Kylie in a variety of positions of power and control and exploring her image as an object of vast media scrutiny.”

The wheelchair was used as literal metaphor and a metaphor about limitation. If anything proves that as far as the media is concerned that disability is an imaginary construct to be used however they see fit it’s this.

The problem is that disability isn’t imaginary. This metaphor of limitation doesn’t work in the real world unless you’re talking about inaccessibility (at which point I promise you the chair isn’t the problem).

As people have been eloquently pointing out wheelchairs aren’t inherently limiting. As Ophelia Brown points out

My wheelchair is not a limitation — it is my wings. It lets me go to school, go out with friends and live life like a “normal person.”

She also addresses the problem that relying on and defending those media stereotypes causes

Do you know what that lack of representation means? It means that 9 year-old Ophelia is embarrassed about having to sit out from gym class. It means that 12 year-old Ophelia would rather die than go to school in a wheelchair. It means that 17 year-old Ophelia has been told too many damn times that her disability makes her ugly. I want you to know how much power that wheelchair gives you, and how, honestly, you don’t deserve that power.

An able-bodied media figure has more power to define the disabled experience than actual disabled people. It is a power they should absolutely not have because they are using it to harm (even if they can’t seem to understand that).

All aspects of the media need to realize that disability is real and that we deserve better than the lies they are telling. Lies they have told for so long and so often that they actually believe them.

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