Disabled People Don’t Exist to Make You Look Good

I have already discussed the issue of inspiration porn on this blog before. What I was discussing last time was the use of images or videos of disabled people doing everything from the mundane to highlighting actual achievement. The major issue in these images is that they either celebrate disabled people for simply existing or fail to contextualize what it really takes for us to succeed at a level of merit. Both are dehumanizing and need to be critiqued and hopefully stopped. There is however a third form which is actually much more insidious.

Images or videos of nondisabled people doing everything from simply deigning to be in close proximity to a disabled person or being helpful. In these instances, regardless of how small the act on the part of the nondisabled person, they are treated as heroes. These stories (and they are often just fabrications based on stereotypes) often go viral online as people applaud the perceived kindness.

This kind of narrative completely objectifies disabled people and places them in the default role of victim. These stories also frequently occur without the disabled person knowing that they are being photographed or filmed much less that the resulting media will find its way online or in a news report.

A couple years ago a picture started making the rounds on the internet. It was an entirely innocuous image of three young men eating lunch in a university cafeteria. Two of them were athletes and the third used a wheelchair. The image was framed as this grand act of kindness. The Huffington Post covered it with the headline “North Carolina Football Players Join Student Eating Lunch Alone“. The picture showed up in feel good lists with titles like “35 Pictures that will Restore Your Faith in Humanity” in the list the picture is still framed around the assumption that the athletes were performing an act of charity by eating lunch with the man in the wheelchair. It also assumes that the man in the wheelchair has no social circle and requires an act of charity for social interaction. It turns out these assumptions were false.

It turns out that one of the athletes had been friends with the wheelchair user for years. They ate lunch together often. This kind of image is dangerous because it normalizes the idea that social interaction with disabled people take an extraordinary act. It rejects the idea that disabled people can and do create and maintain normal and fulfilling social relationships. /by disregarding this reality it further normalizes the idea that it is ok to feel uncomfortable around disabled people. Look they treat other people like heroes just for sitting with them at lunch.

Even before knowing the truth behind the photo it not only did not restore my faith in humanity it actually killed it. How bad must the social view of disabled people be that nondisabled people could be celebrated just for being willing to associate with us. The bar couldn’t be set any lower.

More recently another story has emerged, this time in the form of a feel good news piece. The piece includes amateur video and captures a fast food worker helping a woman in a wheelchair eat her meal.

This story has some very troubling elements beyond the fact that anyone thought that this was newsworthy much less something that should go viral.

I first encountered it in my Facebook, at the time, I intentionally avoided watching it. I knew what it would be and I knew it would be bad. I eventually watched it when it came up again on Twitter during a weekly chat on disability in the media (You can follow or participate Saturday nights 9:00PM ET with the #FilmDis).

While watching it not only were my worst fears confirmed but the video is actually worse than I expected.

In it there is not only the over celebration of a nondisabled person assisting someone who is disabled. We also learn that the restaurant is inaccessible, the woman has to wait in the parking lot until someone notices her and lets her inside. Predictably the reporter is to busy congratulating everyone willing to help her inside to consider the implications of the inaccessible building.

The video shown in the report was filmed by another patron without the woman’s knowledge or consent. In fact the reporter even makes a point of clearly saying

We don’t know her name or her story

She had no idea she was being filmed or that she was going to end up on the news, so had no say in how she was presented or talked about.

This is the norm for this kind of media. It depends on the passivity of the disabled person, so that stories can be woven around them for the benefit of others. These stories don’t educate the public about disability. They just reinforce the idea that disabled people are passive and their only positive impact on the world is by giving nondisabled people the opportunity to look good by helping them. No active recognition of the humanity and individuality of the disabled person is necessary.

I am not suggesting that nondisabled people shouldn’t help disabled people. They absolutely should but they should not do so in search of accolades. They should also avoid those accolades unless they come from the person they are helping. Otherwise it is just nondisabled people patting other nondisabled people on the back for helping disabled people and then dehumanizing them by publicizing their life without their input.

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Hey DC Comics and The Flash, Diversity Covers Disability Too!

The following post contains spoilers for the CW show The Flash

Television shows based on DC Comics generally do pretty well in representing women and people of colour. In fact cast members and the creative team of The Flash recently patted themselves on the back for this. But the Flash has a problem with disability and it’s not because they’re ignoring it. In the show there are two kinds of disabled people. Those who have mental illnesses and those who are faking it. Both cases leaves much to be desired in terms of accurate portrayal.

In the case of mental illness, the problem is that all those characters are villains and their madness contributes to their crimes. In the episode Tricksters, the two criminals are a father son team, who blow things up and poison masses of people. They do the first simply to sow fear and the second to extort money. Greed however is not their driving motive. The motive really boils down to “they’re crazy”. This plot device requires that people accept mental illness as a source of danger to others. It also requires mental illness to exist in a vacuum where actions are driven only by illness and no other social forces. In reality people with mental illnesses are far more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators of it. When they do commit crimes, it is rarely for so simple a reason as their illness. The Flash is far from the only show on television that does this.

The CW’s other DC comics inspired Arrow has done it too. Carrie Cutter AKA Cupid, has an unhealthy obsession with the Arrow and begins killing people to get his attention. Even after she is caught, no one seems to think treatment is necessary. She is instead placed in a covert group of villains turned weapons of the state, her obsession continues unchecked. It is not just super hero franchises that exploit these fallacies. Lazy police procedurals often throw in a mentally ill perpetrator when they need a convenient motive.

I know that film and television based on comic books are supposed to be fantastical and are not meant to mimic reality. I know that madness creates a convenient excuse for elaborate logic defying situations which add tension and are visually interesting. That does not excuse how problematic it is to equate mental illness with danger. The other issue of the Flash is the complete lack of disabled characters with the exception of Eobard Thawne who is impersonating the deceased Harrison Wells and faking his need to use a wheelchair. First off gotta give the creators ability to think outside the box by using a white dude in a wheelchair. That’s very unique.

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Artie  link

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The idea that disability is diverse both in physical presentation, race and gender is often lost on creators of television. All those actors are also able-bodied. Disabled people tend to have their stories told. They don’t get to tell their own stories.

Yes, yes, I know Eobard Thawne isn’t really paralyzed and could not actually be played by a wheelchair user. The fakeness of the disability is its own problem. Disability in film and television is rarely complicated. The characters usually embody very specific stereotypes that fit into the following general descriptions; victim, saint or villain. Disability is often the driving factor in these characterizations. In media, fictitious portrayals of disability rarely get more complicated. Put another way, if you removed the disability, the character would cease to have a point in the story. These stereotypes are rarely indicators of real life experiences of disability and usually are used as metaphors. For the purpose of critiquing the Flash, it is important to understand the idea of disability as villainous. Disability and evil are closely connected in film. Villains in the James Bond franchise are so frequently disabled or disfigured that the producers unapologeticly refer to it as a plot device. If a disabled person shows up, you know they’re bad.

This trend predates Bond. It was used extensively in the Frankenstein film franchise. In the first film in 1931, the character Fritz is introduced. He is an obviously disabled man (described as a dwarf in Bride of Frankenstein). Though in reality is played by an able-bodied man walking around bent at the waist. He is the monster’s first victim. He is killed in retaliation for his unnecessary and gleeful abuse of the creature. In the next two films he is replaced by Igor who has a visibly broken neck, having survived a hanging attempt after being sentenced for grave robbery. He is as inexplicably evil as Fritz was. In more recent films, consider Elijah Price/ Mr. Glass in Unbreakable. His disability is literally the inspiration for his crimes. The fact that there is such a clear and continued history of disability=evil in film is problematic at best. It tells people that it is ok or even rational to be scared of physical and mental difference.

By having Eobard Thawne’s paralysis be fake, the Flash is taking it one step further. Disability isn’t real it’s a metaphor for hidden evil. Thawne also capitalizes on the stereotype of disability as victimhood to achieve his nefarious goals. He counts on people underestimating him or accepting that his paralysis is a just punishment for the explosion at Star Labs that killed many people. For a show that so publicly prides itself on nuanced portrayals of people of colour, sexuality and gender, they are more than willing to throw disabled people under the bus.

The thing is, they don’t even need to change the existing framework of the show to improve. They just have to add nuance. They could add characters with real disabilities  (preferably played by actual disabled people) who just exist. Iris could have a coworker or coworkers at the paper with disability. There could be disabled extras in the background at Jitters just to show that disabled people exist outside the dichotomy of victim or villain. By just adding non fake or non stereotyped characters with disabilities they would not only challenge the stereotypes so common to the media, they could also use it to highlight just how awful Eobard Thawne really is.